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“A brilliant and detailed account of the growing pains of the weapons system of the future. Whittle fully captures the political struggle that almost downed the nascent Predator program.”

—Richard A. Clarke

former National Security Council counter-terrorism director and author of Against All Enemies

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The untold story of the birth of the Predator drone, a wonder weapon that transformed the American military, reshaped modern warfare, and sparked a revolution in aviation

The creation of the first weapon in history whose operators can stalk and kill an enemy on the other side of the globe was far more than clever engineering. As Richard Whittle shows in Predator, it was one of the most profound developments in the history of military and aerospace technology.

Once considered fragile toys, drones were long thought to be of limited utility. The Predator itself was resisted at nearly every turn by the military establishment, but a few iconoclasts refused to see this new technology smothered at birth. The remarkable cast of characters responsible for developing the Predator includes a former Israeli inventor who turned his Los Angeles garage into a drone laboratory, two billionaire brothers marketing a futuristic weapon to help combat Communism, a pair of fighter pilots willing to buck their white-scarf fraternity, a cunning Pentagon operator nicknamed “Snake,” and a secretive Air Force organization known as Big Safari. When an Air Force team unleashed the first lethal drone strikes in 2001 for the CIA, the military’s view of drones changed nearly overnight.

Based on five years of research and hundreds of interviews, Predator reveals the dramatic inside story of the creation of a revolutionary weapon that forever changed the way we wage war and opened the door to a new age in aviation.

This Air Force demonstration video includes a variety of views of Predators taking off and landing, a glimpse inside a ground control station, and scenes from actual combat Hellfire shots, though where they were taken is unidentified.




The following photos are a selection from the insert in Predator. Click on thumbnail to view a larger version, and a description of the photo.


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Late in the afternoon of Wednesday, July 12, 2000, a bus carrying about a dozen “high political rollers,” as thirty-six-year-old Air Force Captain Scott Swanson viewed them, pulled up at Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, a broiling desert outpost northwest of Las Vegas. The visitors included the National Security Council’s deputy counterterrorism chief, a senior official from the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, officials from other intelligence and military agencies, and the director of a shadowy Air Force technology shop known as Big Safari. Indian Springs was home to the 11th and 15th Reconnaissance Squadrons, units assigned to fly a relatively new unmanned, remote-control aircraft. Though the drone was equipped with nothing deadlier than daylight and infrared video cameras, it bore a menacing name: Predator.

Swanson, a former special operations helicopter pilot, had flown Predators for the past two years, mostly in regular intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions over the Balkans. But soon he was to join Big Safari as that outfit’s sole Predator pilot, which was why he had received a phone call from the Pentagon a few days earlier asking him to organize a show-and-tell session for those on the bus.

“There’s going to be a bunch of people in suits,” Swanson was told. “Can you do a briefing on Predator and show them some capabilities in flight, but keep it quiet?”

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“Fascinating... [Whittle] has combed every available document and talked to almost every American participant in drone research and development. The result is a soup-to-nuts—or ground-to-air—history of the world's most potent unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV.”

The Wall Street Journal

“Fresh and authoritative … [Whittle] delivers action-packed details about how the CIA and the Pentagon used armed Predators to hunt for al-Qaeda leaders immediately after 9/11.”

The Washington Post

Predator... tells a dramatic story while impressively detailing the long and often-threatened creation of the armed drone that would revolutionize modern warfare.”

Daily News (New York)

“Richard Whittle has delivered what will surely be the definitive history of how the United States came to arm its drones. Both deeply reported and very well written, Predator joins a very short list of books about the future of warfare that will engage any audience, from the specialist to the general reader.”

—Peter Bergen

author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad

Predator is a must-read. Love it or hate it, the armed drone represented a transformation in military technology. Like every revolution, this one had a colorful cast of characters, and Whittle tells their story with the insight and authority of a veteran military journalist, drawing on inside sources in the Air Force, the CIA and defense industry. This book should be on the shelf of anyone who wants to understand military power in the 21st century.”

—David Ignatius

columnist for The Washington Post and author of The Director

“All future attempts to understand the how and why of the drone era's beginnings, and the crucial personalities, disagreements, and decisions that shaped this technology, will be built on Richard Whittle's authoritative and original account. Predator tells the story of the real people whose insights, biases, and experience changed the realities of modern warfare.”

—James Fallows

national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of National Defense

“Whittle's account comes to a pointed conclusion: Drone technology has already changed how we die, but what remains to be seen is how it ‘may change the way people live.’ For students of technological history and political wrangling alike, the book is endlessly interesting and full of implication.”

Kirkus (Starred Review)

“Fascinating both as military history and as a look inside a hot contemporary social issue.”


“Engrossing. An impressively researched, thought-provoking history.”

Publishers Weekly

“The Whittle history is an impressive tale of aeronautical innovation...rendered more lively and interesting by the author than might have been expected.”

Federation of American Scientists

Richard Whittle interviewed on The Mimi Geerges Show

Richard Whittle interviewed on SiriusXM's Morning Briefing

Richard Whittle interviewed on Bloomberg TV

Richard Whittle discusses Predator on C-SPAN's BookTV

Richard Whittle interviewed on Book Talk Radio

Richard Whittle and Richard Clarke, former National Security Council counter-
terrorism senior adviser, discuss Predator at the Wilson Center.

Richard Whittle interviewed on GigWise

Photo by Faye Ross

Richard Whittle, author of Predator: The Secret Origins of The Drone Revolution and The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey, is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and 2013-14 Alfred V. Verville Fellow at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. A contributor to Air & Space Smithsonian, the web site Breaking Defense, and other publications, Whittle covered the Pentagon and other Washington beats for The Dallas Morning News for 22 years. Earlier in his career, he covered defense and foreign policy for Congressional Quarterly magazine and was an editor at National Public Radio. He has been an interview guest on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," C-SPAN, National Public Radio and a variety of other U.S. television and radio broadcasts. Fluent in German, Rick has also been an occasional guest commentator for German and Swiss public radio. Check out his commentaries on the Osprey and the drone revolution at

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Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle  Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle  Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle  Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle
Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle
Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle  Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle  Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle  Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle


This video shows the first Hellfire launch from a Predator, a test conducted on Jan. 23, 2001. Predator 3034 was chained by its landing gear struts to a concrete pad atop a hilltop overlooking a valley on a test range at China Lake Naval Weapons Station in California. The “static ground launch” of a Hellfire was meant to see what a missile rocketing off the drone’s wing would do to the aircraft before trying it in the air. This 5:55 video shows that first Hellfire Predator launch ever from various angles and various camera speeds. At 4:26, the view switches to the target tank hit by the test missile, which carried no explosives.


This 24-second video shows an early Hellfire test shot from the air. The first airborne launch of a Hellfire from a Predator, described in Chapter 9 of Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution, was conducted by a regular Air Force test crew on February 16, 2001, on a test range at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.


This 7:21 video shows, from various angles and at various speeds, one of the first in a series of shots launched on the China Lake test range between May 22 and May 31, 2001. At about 3:13, through the lens of a special camera, the laser “sparkle” the Hellfire missile homes in on can be seen on the target tank. The Hellfire Predator team was conducting these tests as preparation for what Richard Clarke of the National Security Council and others hoped would be a mission to kill Osama bin Laden.


This video, which originally used pop star Blondie’s hit song “One Way Or Another” as background music, was put together by Big Safari as a demo for higher-ups. Both a test shot shown and, at 1:16 into the video, what appears to be an actual combat launch of a Hellfire, display the date Sept. 19, 2002, but that may not be accurate for both. The video was created on Oct. 24, 2002.


This 48-second video shows a test shot taken against a mock building at China Lake on Sept. 6, 2001 – two days after the Bush administration National Security Council decided to defer a decision on whether to attempt to kill Osama bin Laden with the new Hellfire Predator. Neither the CIA nor the military were willing to take responsibility for “pulling the trigger” and neither wanted to pay for such a mission.