Initially, the English word "drone" meant both an insect and a sound. It was not until the outbreak of World War II that it began to take on another meaning. At that time, American artillery apprentices used the expression "target drones" to designate the small remotely controlled planes at which they aimed in training. The metaphor did not refer solely to the size of those machines or the brm-brm of their motors. Drones are male bees, without stingers, and eventually the other bees kill them. Classical tradition regarded them as emblems of all that is nongenuine and dispensable. That was precisely what a target drone was: just a dummy, made to be shot down.
However, it was a long time before drones were to be seen cruising above battlefields. To be sure, the idea dates back quite a while: there were the Curtiss-Sperry aerial torpedo and the Kettering Bug at the end of World War I, and then the Nazi V-1s and V-2s unleashed on London in 1944. But those old flying torpedoes may be considered more as the ancestors of cruise missiles than as those of present-day drones. The essential difference lies in the fact that while the former can be used only once, the latter are reusable. The drone is not a projectile, but a projectile-carrying machine.
It was during the Vietnam War that the U.S. Air Force, to counteract the Soviet surface-to-air missiles that had inflicted heavy casualties on it, invested in reconnaissance drones nicknamed "Lightning Bugs," produced by Ryan Aeronautical. An American official explained that "these RPVs [remotely piloted vehicles] could help prevent aircrews from becoming casualties or prisoners... With RPVs, survival is not the driving factor."
Once the war was over, those machines were scrapped. By the late 1970s, the development of military drones had been practically abandoned in the United States. However, it continued elsewhere. Israel, which had inherited a few of these machines, recognized their potential tactical advantages.
In 1973, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), facing off against Egypt, ran up against the tactical problem of surface-to-air missiles. After losing around 30 planes in the first hours of the Yom Kippur War, Israeli aviation changed its tactics. They decided to send out a wave of drones in order to mislead enemy defenses: "After the Egyptians fired their initial salvo at the drones, the manned strikes were able to attack while the Egyptians were reloading." This ruse enabled Israel to assume mastery of the skies. In 1982, similar tactics were employed against the Syrians in the Bekaa Valley. Having first deployed their fleet of Mastiff and Scout drones, the Israelis then sent out decoy planes that were picked up by enemy radar. The Syrians activated their surface-to-air missiles, to no effect whatsoever. The drones, which had been observing the scene from the sky, easily detected the positions of the antiaircraft batteries and relayed them to the Israeli fighter planes, which then proceeded to annihilate them.
The drones were used for other purposes as well:
"Two days after a terrorist bomb destroyed the [U.S.] Marine Barracks in Beirut in October 1983, Marine Commandant Gen. P.X. Kelley secretly flew to the scene. No word of his arrival was leaked. Yet, across the border, Israeli intelligence officers watched live television images of Kelley arriving and inspecting the barracks. They even zoomed the picture in tight, placing cross hairs directly on his head. Hours later, in Tel Aviv, the Israelis played back the tape for the shocked Marine general. The scene, they explained, was transmitted by a Mastiff RPV circling out of sight above the barracks."
This was just one of a series of minor events that combined to encourage the relaunch of American drone production in the 1980s. "All I did," confessed Al Ellis, the father of the Israeli drones, "was take a model airplane, put a camera in it, and take the pictures... But that started an industry."
At this point, however, the drones were simply machines for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. They were just eyes, not weapons. The metamorphosis came about almost by chance, between Kosovo and Afghanistan, as the new millennium began. As early as 1995, General Atomics had invented a new remote-controlled spy plane prototype, the Predator. Despite its disquieting name, the beast was not yet equipped with claws or teeth. In Kosovo, where it was deployed in 1999, the drone limited itself to filming targets and illuminating them by means of lasers, allowing the F-16 planes to strike.