The U.S. Army’s First Drone Bases Were Simple
For many pilotless planes, things haven’t changed much since
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
A popular image of American drone bases abroad is of small, dusty airstrips and clam-shell hangars, often attached to foreign airports. In early stages of the Cold War, the U.S. Army’s first pilotless spies relied on even simpler sites.
In 1959, the ground combat branch bought its first unmanned spooks. The planes were relatively crude, with limited range and only basic cameras.
The Army actually considered the whole drone “package,” including 12 radio-controlled aircraft, three launchers, two ground stations, along with other associated equipment, spare parts and tools as a single piece of kit, according to a 1961 training manual. But all it took was one individual to control the drone during its mission.
War Is Boring obtained this document through the Freedom of Information Act.
With all this gear loaded in an array of jeeps and trucks, units of anywhere from a dozen to 40 soldiers could set up in any relatively small open field. But after a half century, things actually haven’t changed much for U.S. troops flying similarly-sized and even smaller drones.
While the the Pentagon made the U.S. Air Force an independent service in 1947, the Army never gave up its aviation branch. Even before World War I, the service saw great potential in flying machines for snooping on enemy troops and spotting targets for artillery units.
During World War II, both the U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy began testing remote-controlled planes. Many of these early experiments resulting in what were essentially early cruise missiles.
But any pilotless aircraft that could carry a bomb could just as easily carry a camera or other equipment. So, in 1955, drone-maker Radioplane built a flying spy for the Army.
The firm based the design on an earlier target drone. These relatively cheap and expendable unmanned planes let anti-aircraft gunners practice their skills against a moving opponent.
Two years later, the Army hired Rheem Manufacturing Company to start work on an improved reconnaissance drone. The service ultimately dubbed Radioplane’s offering the SD-1, while Rheem’s aircraft became the SD-2, with SD standing for “surveillance drone.”
The SD-1 weighed 430 pounds, while the SD-2 was more than twice as big. Strap-on rocket motors blasted both types into the sky from simple launch platforms.
On the ground, a soldier would monitor the progress along a pre-programmed route or actually fly the planes manually. When the mission was over, the drones would deploy a parachute and float down to the ground.
As such, the launch area only required trucks and dollies to move the drones around, tanks to hold fuel, trailers for generators, spare rockets and other equipment and a jeep to tow the radio control system. There was no need for a runway or other special facilities.
A separate maintenance area consisted of more trucks carrying replacement parts and repair equipment, along with a large tent to shelter crews from the elements. According to the training handbook, an officer overseeing a dozen other troops was all that was necessary to staff both sites.
Of course, in the Army’s mind, it was important for soldiers to be able to pack up everything and move everything quickly. The drone teams — along with conventional aircraft — had to keep with fast moving armored and cavalry columns.
On top of that, the pilotless spies had very limited range and needed to be close to the front lines to be effective. The SD-1 only had enough fuel to stay in the air for 30 to 40 minutes at most.
The radio signals could only communicate with the drone at short distances anyways. A 80-mile round trip was the “realistic” extent of the pilotless spies’ flying capabilities, according to the Army guide.
Regardless, the process of gathering the actual intelligence would have been slow. When using film cameras in both the SD-1 and SD-2, troops had to transport the exposed reels to other units with mobile darkrooms.
Later, the Army looked at installing early television cameras and powerful radars in both drones, as well as gear to transmit the data back to base in real time.
Unfortunately, the service had retired both the SD-1 and SD-2 — eventually renamed the MQM-57 and MQM-58, respectively — before those technologies were ever ready.
But fast forward five decades and American troops are flying the exact sort of drones the Army first imagined during the Cold War. The U.S. Marine Corps and Army both operate the RQ-7 Shadow, which is roughly similar in size and weight to the old Radioplane aircraft.
However, the Shadow is significantly more advanced, with day- and night-vision video cameras and long-range, wireless data links to beam the information back to command centers or troops on the ground.
Defense contractor AAI Corporation has been working with the Pentagon to add radars, signal-snooping gear and other sensors, too.
The Marines and Navy even have much smaller RQ-21 Blackjacks, derived from the earlier ScanEagle. These drones weigh less than 200 pounds, but still have the ability to film full-motion video footage and can stay aloft for more than 12 hours.
These newer tactical drones have relatively short ranges like the SD-1, but similarly need only a short, towed launcher to get airborne.
The Shadows generally land on traditional runways like regular planes, while a special tether catches the Blackjacks right out of the air at the end of their flights.
Unlike the Air Force’s larger MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, troops still don’t need much space to operate either of these pilotless planes. And military drones are only getting smaller.