The First Predator Drones Practiced Hunting Ballistic Missiles
It was very different from hunting terrorists
Originally published on May 6, 2015.
In April 1995, hundreds of American soldiers arrived at Fort Bliss on the Texas-New Mexico border to practice finding and blowing up missile launchers.
A key element of the exercise—nicknamed Roving Sands 95—was a small number of then-experimental Predator drones. Before the threat of terrorism took center stage and provoked a rapid expansion of America’s drone fleet, the Pentagon had a very different vision for its unmanned planes.
This was the pre-9/11 years, and the military was trying to adapt to lessons learned from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. During that conflict, the U.S. struggled to find and destroy Saddam Hussein’s Scud launchers before they fired their ballistic missiles.
In a future war, Predators might just do the trick.
At the time, Army troops made up the bulk of the Predator test unit’s personnel at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, a declassified Army history notes. Other Army intelligence specialists worked out of the exercise’s main command post at Fort Bliss.
The Army Intelligence and Security Command recently released four years of these histories in response to a mandatory declassification review. They are all available at GovernmentAttic.org.
The Army’s drone crews came from the secretive Military Intelligence Battalion in Orlando, Florida, according to the heavily redacted annual summary. The unit had only started working with the Predators the year before.
Previously, the battalion focused on chasing drug traffickers around Latin America. Hunting for missile launchers in the desert with robots was definitely a change.
But there was a solid reason for it. The Pentagon’s headquarters for the Middle East — which had paired its own practice session up with Roving Sands 95 — was worried about ballistic missiles.
Five years earlier, Iraq had invaded its neighbor Kuwait. Washington and its allies eventually drove out Baghdad’s troops and liberated the emirate.
The coalition decimated Saddam’s forces, but not before the Iraqi dictator managed to lob nearly 100 Soviet-era Scud missiles into Saudi Arabia and Israel. While destroying the Scuds had been a top priority, the Pentagon’s attempts were a resounding failure.
“There is no technical evidence that a single TEL was actually destroyed during the war,” Air Force Col. Mark Kipphut wrote in a research paper that became an official monograph in 2003. A TEL—or “transporter, erector, launcher”—is a vehicle that can carry and launch a ballistic missile.
Iraqi forces used Soviet-made mobile launchers, fake vehicles and camouflage to dodge American air strikes. During the brief war, spy planes and commandos on the ground had serious problems trying to find the rockets.
“Iraqi launch operations never stopped,” Kipphut added. “At best, it can be said that counter-Scud efforts only maintained ‘pressure’ on Iraqi missile operations.”
Saddam aimed his missiles at Israel in hope of provoked the country into retaliating. If that had happened, the U.S.-led coalition — which included several Muslim-majority states — could unravel.
The Scuds also posed a serious threat to American troops. On Feb. 25, 1991, an Iraqi Scud missile slammed into a barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Twenty-eight Army National Guardsmen died in the worst single loss of American life in the war.
If another conflict erupted in the Middle East or with Iraq specifically, U.S. Central Command wanted to be able to find any deadly missiles fast and take them out quick. There was also no guarantee the next war wouldn’t include Scuds loaded with chemical or biological weapons.
Enter the Predators.
During Roving Sands 95, “numerous TELs were detected by U-2s and UAVs before missile launches,” Air Force chief of staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman noted in Joint Forces Quarterly four months after the drill wrapped up.
The “unmanned aerial vehicles” Fogleman referred to were the prototype Predators and the Army’s smaller Hunter drones. Unlike the manned U-2s, these pilotless planes could deliver vital information in near-real time.
The drones spotted targets for Apache gunships and fighter bombers. Army Patriot surface-to-air missiles, along with others manned by German and Dutch crews, guarded the skies against any rockets that escaped the bombardments.
In at least one instance, “if the Predator had not been available to rapidly confirm the presence of the targets, the opportunity would have passed,” Army Lt. Gen. Joy M. Garner, in charge of Army troops during the war game, pointed out in the November-December 1995 issue of Air Defense Artillery.
In the end, Pentagon analysts declared that friendly forces had successfully destroyed 85 percent of all the mock launchers in exercise. For at least another decade, air-defense troops traveled to Texas for annual Roving Sands drills to keep practicing their trade.
But any plans the Army might’ve had to use the Predators for missile defense quickly came to a halt. Two months after Roving Sands 95, the Pentagon dispatched the drones and their crews to the Balkans as the former Yugoslavia disintegrated and exploded into a civil war.
A little more than year later, the service’s future with the Predators ended altogether. In September 1996, the Air Force took control of the drones completely.
“Up to this point, the Air Force had no significant involvement in the … process other than sending one pilot to fly the air vehicle,” Thomas Ehrhard, a special assistant to the flying branch’s chief of staff, wrote in Air Force UAVs — The Secret History.
But Air Force leaders had worried the Army was encroaching on its turf. Destroying missile launchers from the skies should be a job for the Air Force, not a bunch of ground-pounders, the leaders believed. The Army also had trouble keeping its less-advanced Hunter drones operational.
Fogleman — the Air Force chief — was determined to take the Predator away from the Army.
“If the Army took Predator, they would just screw it up and the program would go down the tubes,” Fogleman said according to Erhard’s history. “If anyone was going to make it work, we were.”
The rest is history.
During the past decade, the Pentagon’s demand for the Air Force’s Predators—and newer, larger Reaper drones—has skyrocketed.
But today, these drones carry out a very different set of missions. The unmanned planes—which can now carry missiles themselves—spend so much time hunting and killing terrorists that they probably wouldn’t have any time to snoop for rockets.
The Air Force’s drone force has struggled to keep up with the demand and morale. With the aircraft and crews often strained to the breaking point, the flying branch’s pilotless planes have suffered a number of crashes.
The Army eventually got its own Predator-like drone, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle. But like their Air Force counterparts, these unmanned attackers will probably find themselves scouring the battlefield for militants rather than enemy missile launchers for the foreseeable future.