Watch the U.S. Air Force’s First Armed Drone Drop Bombs and Fire Missiles
1970s tests anticipated surge in unmanned attacks
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Recent debates notwithstanding, the Pentagon has been looking to expand the role of unmanned vehicles in warfare since at least the 1970s.
While pilotless attackers are now common over the world’s battlefields, the U.S. Air Force first tested an armed drone more than four decades ago. Between 1971 and 1974, Teledyne Ryan’s BGM-34 unmanned jet dropped bombs and fired missiles in various tests.
“The Air Force was enthralled with the idea of an RPV that could strike critical targets early in a conflict,” Dr. Thomas Ehrhard wrote in the official monograph Air Force UAVs: The Secret History, using the acronym for “remotely piloted vehicle.” The service ultimately “spent almost $50 million pursuing strike drone technology in the mid-1970s.”
In the 1990s, the company donated films of the tests to the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Last year, archivists digitized many of the clips and put the rare, silent footage online. You can see the videos throughout this article. Just be careful with your volume. Some of the clips unfortunately contain loud and grating audio “noise” due to the conversion process.
Even by 1970, remote-control aircraft were hardly new. During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy had both tried to turn regular aircraft into pilotless flying bombs.
But these drones were more akin to crude cruise missiles. Their designers never intended for the planes to fly more than one mission.
Though drones steadily improved, the Pentagon continued to see them as expendable tools. In 1948, Ryan got a contract to build the first Firebee drones.
Eventually designated BQM-34s, these pilotless aircraft were merely targets for fighter pilots and anti-aircraft gunners. The San Diego-based plane maker eventually expanded the Firebee family to include unmanned spies, attackers and other types.
During the Vietnam War, the Air Force’s interest in drones spiked — for obvious reasons. North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns and missiles menaced American planes and their crews. The Air Force figured it could just remove the crews for some missions.
“During 1965, one of the most worrisome aspects of the war was the growing sophistication of [North Vietnamese] air defenses,” one contemporary Air Force history explained. “The heavy, sustained enemy defensive fire lessened the accuracy of U.S. attacks — even in good weather — frequently forcing the fighter-bombers to release their ordnance at high altitudes.”
Worried about Soviet and Communist Chinese advisers at many of the gun and missile sites, the Pentagon severely restricted when and how American fliers could attack. Regardless, flying right at the defenders was no easy task.
The flying branch turned to Ryan, which built new flying spies from the original Firebee design. Without a pilot at risk, American commanders could send these new AQM-34s to snoop around areas of North Vietnam that might otherwise be too dangerous.
Additional versions of the drones could record data on enemy radars or drop propaganda leaflets. The aerial spooks quickly became a critical part of the flying branch’s spying efforts.
“The effectiveness of the North Vietnamese air defenses has demonstrated the need in modern aerial warfare for ‘stand-off’ delivery systems — for remotely piloted vehicles — of all types,” the Air Force analysts declared in a review of the pilotless missions in 1973. “The drone has flown hundreds of missions over hostile areas and … never lost a crew member.”
So the Air Force was curious to see if the Firebee could find targets and blow them up. In 1971, the service sent a number of spy versions of the drone to Ryan for conversion into the BGM-34 “multi-mission” model.
The aviation firm had originally cooked up this type for the Navy as a potential anti-ship cruise missile. Sailors would guide the modified Firebee, loaded with explosives, into its target using a T.V. camera in the drone’s nose.
Air Force fliers could use the same gear to aim early, optically-guided bombs and missiles. An improved attack type featured equipment to direct laser-guided weapons and see in the dark.
Still focused on blasting enemy air defenses, the flying branch eventually added radar-homing missiles to the pilotless plane’s arsenal. The San Diego Air and Space Museum’s archive includes footage of BGM-34s launching a special version of the GBU-8/B T.V.-guided bomb, what appears to be a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb, an AGM-65 T.V.-directed missile and an AGM-45 radar-seeking missile.
Despite the drone successfully destroying various mock enemies on the ground, the Air Force lost interest in the project. For one, after the Vietnam War formally ended in 1973, Washington slashed defense spending across the board.
On top of that, the drones were complicated and expensive to use. Unlike the iconic Predators and Reapers, the Firebees couldn’t take off and land from regular runways.
Instead, specially-modified C-130 transports carried the small planes into the air and launched them like they were missiles. At the end of the mission, the pilotless aircrafts’ engines cut out and parachutes carried them down to Earth. CH-3 cargo helicopters then picked up the drones or literally snatched them out of the air.
By the late 1970s, the Air Force found that it could take up to 24 hours before an unmanned aircraft was ready to go again, Ehrhard noted. “An A-10 had a three-hour turnaround time.”
Requiring a fleet of C-130s and CH-3s to keep the whole operation going, the flying branch had to pay for three planes every time it sent out a single drone. In 1973, Tactical Air Command estimated it would take eight launcher planes and 25 choppers to successfully fly 18 complete drone missions a day.
In a year, the Air Force would need to spend more than $35 million — around $190 million in today’s dollars — to sustain the drone ops. By comparison, the service only needed $25 million to fund a full wing of 72 F-4E Phantom II fighter-bombers. The same number of A-10s cost even less.
Concerns about the drones being included in arms-control deals with the Soviet — and the Air Force’s inherent predisposition toward manned aircraft — only compounded these issues.
While tests of various unmanned aircraft continued through 1979, the Air Force had started breaking up its operational drone units three years earlier. More than a decade later, newer drones such as the Predator reinvigorated interest at the Pentagon.
In 1999, Northrop Grumman bought Teledyne Ryan and the rights to the Firebee family. Today, the Virginia-headquartered defense giant still offers the most recent versions as targets and for “other special tactical” jobs.