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Ghost Recon: Future Soldier

The Curious Ascent of General Atomics

How drones won the West.

by Michael Arria
May 31 2012, 11:30am

William Anders was a Catholic before he was shot into space. After seeing Earth from the Apollo 8 capsule, and snapping what’s arguably the definitive photograph of our planet, Anders returned home a changed man. The grounding precepts of his faith were undermined from the perspective of a different orbit. 

The material world provided Anders ample opportunities. His career ran the engineering gamut, from serving as executive secretary for the National Aeronautics and Space Council, to an appointment on the Atomic Energy Commission, and even a stint with General Electric. But it was landing a gig as vice chairman, and then chairman and CEO, of aerospace and defense company General Dynamics in 1991 that would set the drone games in motion.

General Dynamics was founded in 1952 to build the U.S. Navy’s first submarines. The firm carved out a definitive spot in the San Diego area, where it carried out most of its research and manufacturing. By 1961, 15 percent of San Diego County’s workforce was employed by General Dynamics. And no matter that Anders stepped in as the Cold War winded down – the company was still employing nearly 20,000 workers in San Diego through its Convair division. In his magisterial history of California, Kevin Starr wrote that General Dynamics had “ceased to be something private. It had become, rather, a bedrock of public identity.”

But in 1994, things started changing. Federal defense spending cuts had Anders reassessing the industry, electing to shift operations to Tucson and Denver. It was a move comparable to “General Motors [announcing] it was leaving Detroit," Starr said. As Anders explained in a rare interview with Fortune Magazine: “What I’m trying to do is get the whole industry to think. I’m very concerned that as we consolidate, we do it in a sensible way.”

Only the majority of San Diego’s residents really didn’t view Anders’ move as being sensible. In mid-November 1995, Starr wrote: "San Diego was treated to a most melancholy spectacle: the auctioning off of all machinery in the harbor side Convair factory. As the equipment was sold, crated, and shipped-the milling and turning machines, the grinders, borers, drillers, rooters, brakes, lathes, shears, fabricators, arc welders, hydraulic-feed reciprocating surface grinders, all of it, some it used since 1935-one era of San Diego came dramatically to a close."

The only remaining local reminder of General Dynamics’ former presence? A waning company called General Atomics. General Dynamics hatched the group in 1955 “for the purpose of harnessing the power of nuclear technologies for the benefit of mankind,” but it was failing to live up to its lofty purpose. It was sold off fifteen years later, changing hands between oil companies, before two brothers, Neal and Linden Blue, bought it in 1986 for $50 million.

With General Dynamics gone and the Berlin Wall smashed, the meager General Atomics operation seemed to represent a bygone era, destined for a bumpy road while navigating the End of History. Anders had sensed a seachange in the business, and he put his company in a position to survive. And the Blue brothers made a leap of faith.

THE BLUE PERIOD

Neil and Linden Blue grew up in Colorado. The sons of a real estate investor and the state’s first female treasurer, the brothers were attracted to aviation from early ages. As teenagers they flew a small plane over the Andes, a feat that earned them the cover of Life

The Blues’ inevitable ascent within the aviation industry dovetailed with a developing hatred for communism. Eventually the brothers set up shop in Nicaragua, running a cocoa and banana plantation with the family of former President Anastasio Somoza, the notorious dictator who was overthrown by the Sandinista Liberation Front, the socialist party that prompted the Reagan administration to illegally funnel weapons to the Contras.

So it was an urge to help their friends fend off freedom fighters in Central America that had the Blues first warming up to drones. “You could launch them from behind the line of sight,” said Niel, figuring that light aircraft could be used to destroy Sandinistan oil pipelines. “You would have total deniability.”

Their interest was further piqued when pairing up with Leading Systems Inc., then a dithering drone manufacturer. Leading Systems wasn’t suffering because it lacked insight or creativity, but because government funding had washed up. Abraham Karem, leader of the company’s small team, had designed weaponry for Israel and was now constructing a device in his Hacienda Heights garage that, after some alterations and updates, would become the Predator drone.

Initially, General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator drone was regarded as something of a joke. The unmanned craft faltered in the skies over the Balkans, shot down handily by antiaircraft fire. According to a senior defense department official, “A good number of them were lost [due to] operator error. It’s hard to land this thing…so we have a lot of losses just from hitting the ground.” Of the 68 Predator drones first sent to the Air Force, 19 were lost.

Drones, and by extension the Predator, had a public relations problem. In an attempt to scrub away the devices’ negative image, the Blue brothers hired Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., a former Navy admiral, to convince his old colleagues that drones were the wave of the future. On September 6, 2001, Cassidy gave a presentation detailing the potential attributes of the Predator to an assembly of firefighting officials and scientists. No offers were made. Five days later, with the World Trade Center towers still smoldering, General Atomics’ trajectory was radically altered. “That’s when the phone started ringing off the hook,” Cassidy told the Los Angeles Times.

Originally, the Predator was primarily a surveillance aircraft, but it was beginning to morph into a weaponized attacker. U.S Air Force Chief of Staff John Jumper ordered the flying service to begin arming all Predators. But the Predator wasn’t designed to be armed – it had difficulty lugging around a lot of additional weight. The Air Force’s solution? Strap 100 pound (a relatively small load for the Predator, a so-called MALE, or medium-altitude long-endurance, drone) laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles to the craft. In Jumper’s words, the military was dealing with, “fleeting, perishable targets that don’t require a big warhead that we can just go ahead and take care of.”

Armed Predators were becoming critical components of the Operation Enduring Freedom campaign. Army General Tommy Franks ordered a number of Predator squads to accompany the first U.S. troops entering Afghanistan. The CIA also began flying drones, launching the spy- and kill-craft from bases in Uzbekistan. On November 16, 2001, a Predator drone killed Muhammad Atef, an al-Qaeda commander who had been involved in the American embassy bombings of 1998 in Africa.

“Before the war, the Predator had skeptics because it did not fit the old ways”, observed then-President George W. Bush. “Now it is clear the military does not have enough unmanned vehicles.”

This is Part I of a three-part report. Head over to Motherboard for the rest of the story.

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