Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story (2010) by Matt Martin and Charles Sasser is a book that relates the experience of being a Predator drone pilot and officer during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Martin was a college ROTC Air Force Officer who wanted to become a fighter pilot but who then wanted to fly for the Air Force. He took the opportunity as soon as he could to pilot Predator drones and became one of the first group of pilots to fly the plane. One of the remarkable things about the predator is that it is flown in Iraq and Afghanistan from US soil except for landing and takeoff that are done by crews on base. Martin relates how strange it is to drive to work in a US city, work flying an aircraft observing and striking at the Taliban and then return home for dinner.
The book provides more detail about the Predator than the interesting but flawed Wired For War. The weaknesses in the system are discussed. The Ku band data link used by the vehicle sometimes goes down and the plane flies itself autonomously. However during these times any target being tracked is lost. Predators have also had fairly high loss rates due to accidents while few, if any, have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan due to hostile fire.
The Predator carries Hellfire missiles that allow targets to be struck very accurately. Initially the command loop for using these missiles was very time-consuming and insurgents were often able to escape before an order to fire was received but the way in which the drones are controlled has been changed.
The book is also interspersed with descriptions that Martin uses to describe himself that feel a little contrived. His description of his relationship with his wife is better done. There is also a bit of the usual office gossip in a military setting of these books. Martin also gives his view of the war which is the very standard US military view of how righteous the US military is and how he is ‘saving lives’ which is a bit strange. His inability to see that perhaps the US killing people on the other side of the planet in their country may be a little morally ambiguous, to say the least, is probably what you need to be a successful soldier in an imperial army though.
Martin’s descriptions of hitting civilians when attacking insurgents are heartfelt and he conveys his own sense of sorrow well. He also legitimately rationalises the actions of the Predator as being far more precise that most airborne weapons. Given this Martin makes an interesting point that he has to get more authorisation to fire a Hellfire than a fighter has to get to drop thousands of kilograms of bombs. Martin also gives figures and relates how he believes that the Predators are, contrary to some accounts, efficient in terms of the numbers of insurgents they kill compared to the numbers of civilians killed. He also points out that insurgents deliberately hide in friendly civilian dwellings in order to make it so that civilian casualties will occur if they are attacked.
The book is an interesting insight into what is likely to become a far more common way of fighting in the twenty-first century. Martin’s account is an account of a pioneer flying a new kind of aircraft in conflict. It’s well worth reading for anyone interested in robotics or in the conflicts that the US is now fighting in.