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Lethal Drones

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
December 10, 2012
Canadian International Council

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In December 1903, the Wright brothers were the first to achieve power-driven, heavier-than-air flight. Within 14 months, they attempted to sell versions of their aircraft to the British and American militaries. Indeed, even these nascent airplanes provided tremendous theoretical and tactical advantages for any military, especially for hand-delivering communications from headquarters to the battlefield, transporting troops, conducting surveillance of terrain and troop movements, and, eventually, dropping bombs. On Nov. 1, 1911, while flying over Libya, an Italian pilot and lieutenant named Giulio Gavotti pulled the security pins off four five-pound Cipelli grenades with his teeth, and tossed the grenades out the window at enemy encampments. Most of them fell harmlessly into the open desert, but others hit non-combatants. And with that crude attack, airpower was born.

Soon after airplanes were used to facilitate the killing of human beings, militaries undertook efforts to protect pilots in the cockpit by removing them altogether. In 1918, the Kettering Aerial Torpedo – nicknamed the "Bug" – became the first unmanned aerial system to be successfully developed and tested. The Kettering was made of wood and canvas, radio-controlled, and weighed 530 lbs. when fully loaded with explosives. However, the Kettering was never successfully deployed in a combat setting, nor were comparable American efforts. Other than the United States, and perhaps Israel, there were few known instances of states using unmanned aircraft to drop weapons in the 20th century.

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