With over two decades of experience, Mark Cooter and Alec Bierbauer have been called the “Wright Brothers” of the U.S. drone warfare program. They were the ones – in January 2000 – who were tasked with finding terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. They had nine months to carry out their mission.

This week’s episode of Borne the Battle explores the history of drone warfare, which dates back to the 1990s, when drones were used as relatively simple, short-range surveillance tools.

Here, Cooter and Bierbauer discuss how their team located bin Laden a full year before the events of 9/11 (and why they couldn’t take action against him), how weapons were first added to drones, and the ways in which drone technology has evolved over the last 20 years. They also talk about the psychological stress endured by today’s drone operators and caution against minimizing the combat trauma faced by pilots and support crews.

“It could very easily be perceived as a video game,” said Bierbauer in the podcast, “and it’s not.”

An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Lt. Col. Scott Miller on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force Photo / Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt)

U.S. rules of engagement hold that military forces could only attack an enemy target if they had “eyes on” – that is, if the target was under direct observation. Political considerations also meant that American troops could not be stationed in a friendly “host” country. Further complicating matters, manned spy planes could not be deployed unless they were also supported by search and rescue personnel, in case the aircraft was shot down. Using unmanned drones provided a solution to all of these problems: They didn’t require the presence of troops on the ground and could monitor targets from a distance without any risk to a pilot or crew.


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By Stephen Hill is a writing intern for VA’s Digital Media Engagement team. He is a graduate student at West Virginia University studying Professional Writing and Editing.

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Published on Jan. 24, 2022

Estimated reading time is 2 min.

Views to date: 896

6 Comments

  1. JY February 7, 2022 at 9:38 pm

    JEM, sorry for your condition. Isn’t what you are experiencing PTSD? Are you saying you cannot get help/therapy from the VA for that? If that is the case, write your Congressperson or Senator.

    JY

  2. JEM January 26, 2022 at 7:33 pm

    I was a drone analyst from 2005 to 2010. We did OIF and OEF and other various missions. We mostly did direct combat support. I’ve seen humans do the worst possible things to each other when they don’t think anyone is watching.
    My crew worked hellish hours and we were excluded from combat pay and support. After the military we are falling between the cracks of the VA system because our role in warfare is so misunderstood by both the DOD and civilians.
    I still dream in black hot sometimes. I just wish I could tell people what is was like for us. Security clearances.

    • SES February 8, 2022 at 9:15 am

      To JEM (and other military veterans)
      Your comment is heard and well understood by submariners everywhere JEM. Those on the outside, mostly see what we do (or have done – that we cannot speak of – for security purposes) as somewhat glamourous jobs. I can attest that there are few jobs on planet earth that compare to that of qualified submariner. Myself and many other cold war warriors have claimed “I would do that job for free”. but here, now 30 years later, know only too well what a toll the job took on us both physically and mentally. Many of us are haunted still by dreams related to the constant knowledge while serving, that some mishap or component failure could suddenly create a mass grave. As we learned in November 2017 the Argentine Submarine ARA San Juan S-42, more than simply sinking (as many imagine), and taking is crew with it beyond the reach of possible rescue, it imploded and it’s wreckage was strewn over an area of 8,000 square meters (86,000 sq ft)

      Every past and present U.S. submariner serving today knows the story of ARA San Juan… and a submariner’s memory is long indeed.

  3. Chiquita January 24, 2022 at 12:15 pm

    Omg really

  4. Kenneth tuttle January 24, 2022 at 11:59 am

    I was involved bedding down the predator at then Indian springs aaf and when I was supervising the first ready pad I ask the military if they wanted grounding points and they said the aircraft didn’t need them and I said what happens when they arm the aircraft and they laughed and stated it would never be armed anyway I had the contractor install grounding points and later on I watched the first hellfire firing at a tank at Indian springs(Creech afb) lots of interesting things I watched and was involved in during my time as a gs10 with civil engineers

  5. Vitale, Vincent Stephen January 24, 2022 at 11:09 am

    How do I unsubcribe from “Borne the Battle”?
    I like it though every time I charge my phone battery in my car it comes on and I have no options to turn it off in my car or phone. It’s annoying when I need maps, music, phone, or internet.

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