On March 6, 1918, a simple biplane flew 1,000 yards without a pilot. It was the longest recorded flight for the Sperry-Curtiss Flying Bomb. The pilotless Kettering Bug demonstrated greater range, with at least one test flight landing 25 miles from its launch site. These prototype weapons can rightfully be seen as the predecessors of cruise missiles and modern uncrewed aerial vehicles, or drones.
Designed as a way to strike targets in the stalled and muddy battlegrounds of the late Western Front, neither the Kettering Bug nor the Flying Bomb ever saw combat, with the Nov. 11 armistice ending fighting before the spiritual grandfathers of the Tomahawk and the Reaper could ever be used in anger. That there were two concurrent pilotless weapon programs speaks to the persistence of service rivalries, the Army-built Bug a counterpart to the Navy’s Flying Bomb. That both programs shared a designer in Elmore Sperry speaks to the newness of the field.
While 21st century warfare is rich in drones, primordial aircraft like the Kettering Bug are good reminders that the history of drones runs through 20th century warfare, adapting the technology of the age to meet the same fundamental challenge: can we make explosions happen where we want, without having people nearby?
I'm Kelsey D. Atherton reporting from Gardner, MA, and welcome to the second installment of Tomorrow Wars.
This week, I’m looking at a future of war can be traced back through to the Kettering Bug’s first flights. The controls, terrain, and naming conventions may have changed, but there’s a deep continuity here, too.
Designated an aerial torpedo, the Kettering Bug’s goal was more fully realized in the body of cruise missiles than it was in drones. At least until recently. The simple autonomous programming of the Bug mostly pointed it in one direction and tracked time until it was close to estimated distance of the target.
Between the development paths of reusable drone and single-mission cruise missile sits the broad and expanding category of “loitering munition,” perhaps the craft that most closely lives up to the legacy of the Bug. Loitering munitions, known variously as “suicide drones,” “kamikaze drones,” or even “attritable aerial assets,” vary in form but not in function. They are flying machines with sensors paired to explosives, an ISR platform that converts to its own lethal payload when the right criteria are met or the correct order given.
Loitering munitions, be they briefly-loitering or long-flying machines, sit on the edge of debates about autonomous target, target identification, and human-in-the-loop controls. They will occupy an increasingly large slice of the future of drone tasks, especially when the explosive payloads are optional and a kinetic ending is optional.
“The time has come, in the opinion of the writer, when this fundamental question should be pressed with all possible vigor, with a view to taking to Europe something new in war rather than contenting ourselves as in the past with following the innovations that have been offered from time to time since the beginning of the war by the enemy,” wrote Major General George O . Squier, after watching a demonstration of a Sperry-built pilotless plane in 1917. “Wars are won largely by new instrumentalities, and this Board should be a leader and not follower in the development of aircraft for war.”
Let’s not loiter in reflection any longer. Onto the news!