Recent developments (exploits? gaffs?) concerning American unmanned aerial vehicles read like something out of a bad Tom Clancy novel: Drones are dropping Hellfire missiles on Americans abroad. Drone fleets – and more particularly, their off-site operational systems – are being infected with a strange key-logging virus. Drones are falling.
It’s enough to give anyone who doesn’t spend their nights milling over the truly nightmarish prospect of lethally autonomous drones that memorize faces the idea that these are still bumbling, nascent technologies subject to all the hiccups and snags of developmental or early-adopter phases.
Far from it. The U.S. Department of Defense has had remotely piloted aircraft on its radar for at least the past half century.
The godfather of American drones was a small helicopter designed to launch long-range anti-submarine weapons off vessels not large enough to house full-sized choppers. The Gyrodyne QH-50 DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter) was thus a cornerstone of the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization plan in the late 1950s. Powered by turbine, the QH-50 was modeled off Gyrodyne’s earlier Rotorcycle, a vehicle equipped to carry one marine and his equipment. In 1960, that design “was modified to be flown remotely” (PDF). By June 1963, mass DASH production was greenlit by President John F. Kennedy.
And so began the robot wars.
The DASH had a roughly 35-mile range and was “piloted” during takeoffs and landings by officers at consoles abutting ship flight decks. During missions, officers stationed at ships’ combat information centers would guide the drones to designated targets and payload the enemy to oblivion. DASH units bore no sensors, and had endurance of about two hours. They could each carry two Mk 44 anti-submarine acoustic homing torpedoes and a single Mk 46 torpedo. Oh, and they could also accommodate B57 nuclear depth bombs.
And yet it was a brief jaunt. The program was active for less than a decade (November 1962 – January 1971). By some estimates over 400 DASH’s were lost during this period. As Norman Polmar and Robert S. Norris explain in The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons and Delivery Systems Since 1945:
To conserve the aircraft, destroyers that operated with aircraft carriers would not fly their helicopters en route to overseas areas. And because of problems with electronic interference, they could not fly their drones while the carriers were operating in forward areas.
Thus, during a typical six-month deployment, the ships rarely operated the drones, and this led to operators lacking flight experience. Furthermore, there was a desire not to risk the drones but to retain them in a high state of combat readiness.
The entire QH-50 fleet was eventually mothballed, though as of 2006 a few DASH’s still operated at the White Sands test range in southern New Mexico. There they were serving as tow targets and being used in calibrating radars and other electronic surveillance systems.
Which is to say the DASH hit its mark, however short-lived. The godfather of American drones allowed the Navy to broaden its vessel’s guarded boundaries from an expanding fleet (some 300 by the mid-1950s) of stealth, fast-attacking Soviet subs by countering submersed threats before they could enter striking distance of U.S. ships or convoys. And later, during the Vietnam conflict, “real-time television cameras, transmitters and transponders,” according to Polmar and Norris, were slung to DASH’s, otherwise “replacing Marine recon and spotter teams that were normally sent ashore.” This saved the lives of countless Marines.
What’s more, DASH constitutes the largest ever American UAV fleet: 758 aircraft on 165 ships. This was the world’s first reusable unmanned aerial vehicle, and is still the only drone ever equipped to drop nukes if its operator told it so.
Think about that. Nowadays drones are sick and falling while engaging in ethically questionable killings (possibly extra-judicial assassinations), but at least we’re not strapping nukes to the damn things. Yet.
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Top image: U.S. Naval Aviation Museum archives