ICYMI: The Drone that Almost Killed Bin Laden

WIB airWIB front December 31, 2016 Matthew Gault 0

A Predator drone on the prowl. U.S. Air Force photo Scott Swanson fired the Predator’s first Hellfire missile by MATTHEW GAULT Months before 9/11, U.S. Air Force...
A Predator drone on the prowl. U.S. Air Force photo

Scott Swanson fired the Predator’s first Hellfire missile

by MATTHEW GAULT

Months before 9/11, U.S. Air Force captain Scott Swanson patrolled the skies over Afghanistan with a Predator drone. Swanson and his team were hunting Osama Bin Laden — and they found him.

But this was months before the new drones could fire missiles and the pilots could only watch as the terrorist leader walked away. On Jan. 23, 2001 — just three days into George W. Bush’s presidency — a Predator drone test fired a Hellfire missile for the first time.

A new age of war had begun.

Swanson has the distinction of being the first human to use a Predator-fired Hellfire missile to take a life. It was Oct. 7, 2001 and the Air Force pilot was nestled uncomfortably in a chair originally designed for an recreational vehicle. He was in a trailer truck in a garage behind CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

With the push of a button, Swanson loosed a missile from a drone 6,900 miles away in Kandahar. The missile struck its target — a pickup truck outside a building that intelligence analysts said was hiding Taliban leader Mohammad Omar.

The missile hit and killed two of Omar’s bodyguards. A drone had drawn blood for the first time.

This week on War College, we replay our conversation with Swanson. He walks us through the early years of the drone program, how it changed him and how it changed the world.

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