Drones: Mankind’s Always Had Them



 On Thursday of this week President Obama addressed issue of the U.S. drone program.  He stated that the use of drones is necessary in cases in which terrorists have taken refuge in remote areas beyond the reach of the local government.  Sending in troops to do the job may be too difficult or risky.

Mankind has always used mechanical means of killing at a distance.

There has always been hand-to-hand, rock-to-rock, sword-to-sword, and cleaver-to-whatever-is-handy fighting, but long-distance methods have always been preferred.

The first and best example is the spear.  It was the most commonly used weapon in almost every conflict up until the modern era.  It was the preferred military weapon of the Stone Age, and remained so until we came up with firearms.  The pole could be sharpened at one end, as in bamboo spears, or include a pointed head of metal such as flint, obsidian, iron, steel or bronze.  The butt could be adorned with feathers in a process of gluing called “fletching.” There are arrow heads dating from about 64,000 years ago in the South Africa.

Short spears with socketed metal heads were used along with shields by the earliest Bronze Age cultures. They were wielded in either single combat or in large troop formations.  The Mesopotamian cultures, Egyptian dynasties and Greek city states utilized them.  The spear is the main weapon of the warriors depicted in Homer‘s Iliad.

And spears are not only employed by human beings. Chimpanzees near Kédougou, Senegal have been observed making spears by breaking off straight limbs from trees, stripping them of their bark and side branches, and sharpening one end with their teeth. Orangutans also have adopted spears for fishing, after observing humans do so.

Along with the axe, the spear was the most common ancient weapon found in Vietnam.  13th century soldier figures on vases indicate them use of short, slender spears used together with shields.

Muslim warriors used a spear that was called az-zaġāyah or Assegai. It was a pole weapon used for throwing or hurling, in the form of a javelin of hard wood and a forged iron tip. The az-zaġāyah played a significant role during the Islamic conquest of the 7th through the 10th centuries, and even into the 20th century.

The spear was the prototype for the lance, the pilum, the pike, the halberd (a combination of battle ax and pike) and the bill (a shaft with a hook-shaped blade, inflicting the kind of pain we now experience from a monthly list of charges).  The spear can still be discerned today in the form of a rifle-mounted bayonet.

The next long-distance weapon was the sling, utilized by the atlatl of the Americas and the woomera of Australia.  We all know that David used a slingshot to bring down the Big Guy.  Some cultures relied on slings because they didn’t know how to make bows and arrows.

The oldest bows are dated from 9,000 BCE.  The bow and arrow is still relied upon in tribal warfare in Africa to this day. An example was documented in 2009 in Kenya in 2009, when the Kisii and Kalenjin tribes used them in battle. 

One of the greatest advancements of bows and arrows was the English longbow, used by the British and Welsh against the French during the Hundred Years War in the 13th to 14th centuries.  It changed the way warfare was conducted thereafter, because a longbow could travel farther and strike at enemies embedded in fortresses.  Crossbows also played a significant role in war in medieval East Asia, Europe and the Mediterranean, due to the force in which they were propelled.  However, they had a shorter range and were clumsier and less efficient than bows and arrows.

Before the cannon was invented, there were projectile weapons using compressed air and steam. We are all aware by now that gunpowder was invented by the Chinese, but before gunpowder was used in cannons, it was used in the fire-lance, a gunpowder-filled tube employed as a flamethrower.  Shrapnel was also placed in the barrel, so that it would fly out with the flames. The invention of the cannon, driven by gunpowder, was first developed in China.

The earliest known depiction of a firearm is a sculpture found in a cave in Sichuan, dating to the 12th century.  A figure carries a vase-shaped bombard, firing flames and cannonballs.  The first documented use of gunpowder artillery took place in 1132, in the capture of a city in Fujiian.  The cannon was featured in the 1341 poem, The Iron Cannon Affair by Xian Zhang.

The cannon was the main firepower of the British Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Handheld firearms were first made in China, and called “hand cannons.” They showed up as “pistols” in 14th century, and as revolvers in the in the 19th century.

Rifles evolved from flintlock muskets in the Revolutionary War to single-shot cartridge-fed rifles and repeating firearms in the Civil War to M-16s in Vietnam.  Submachine guns showed up originally as the form of Gatling guns in the Civil and were refined during WWI and WWII.

Long-distance weaponry in the form of bombs dropped from planes due to the perfection of airpower during WWII, and helicopters in Vietnam.

But the real innovation came from military robots that date back to World War II.  The Goliath tracked mine was a remote controlled German-engineered demolition vehicle, also known as the beetle tank or “Doodlebug.” Teletanks were wireless remotely controlled unmanned tanks produced in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and early 1940s. They were controlled by radio from a control tank from a distance.

Before that there had been attempts at developing powered unmanned aerial vehicles in 1916.   Advancements in remote-controlled airplanes followed during WWI and WWII.  Nazi Germany produced and used various UAV aircraft during WWII. But these were little more than remote-controlled airplanes of limited effectiveness until the Vietnam Era.

Prompted by the clash in the Tonkin Gulf between naval units of the U.S. and North Vietnamese Navy in 1964, America initiated the use of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in their first combat missions of the Vietnam War. A UAV is what is commonly known as a drone.  It is basically an aircraft without a human pilot on board.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in response to the heavy damage to its fighter jets caused by Soviet-supplied surface to air missile batteries in Egypt and Syria, Israel pioneered the first modern use of UAVs for real-time surveillance, electronic warfare and decoys.

According to a May 1991 Department of the Navy report, at least one UAV was airborne at all times during Desert Storm.   This was a result of the joint development of UAVs by the U.S. Navy and the Israeli Mazlat, The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was prompted in large part by closed-session reports to the Senate that Iraq had the means of delivering biological and chemical weapons by UAV drones that could be launched from ships off the US Atlantic coast.  In fact, Iraq had no capability of putting UAVs and possessed a handful of outdated Czech training drones.

As of 2008, the United States Air Force has employed 5,331 drones, twice the number of manned planes. Out of these, the Predator, is armed with Hellfire missiles so that it could terminate the target that it locates.  Predators sighted Osama Bin Laden multiple times but could only send back images. The Predator is capable of being armed with lasers.

And we have evolved to the well-developed drone program of the present day. Remotely controlled weaponry is not only safer and more efficient for the aggressor, but allows for a detachment from the full consequences of taking lives.

This is not to suggest, by any means, that warfare in any form does not have catastrophic effects on the soldiers doing the fighting.   Besides the tragic loss of life, even among the survivors  there are the devastations of PTSDs to consider, and the bad dreams that veterans can suffer for the rest of their lives.

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