Why a DIY Drone Program was a Bad Idea

The Cipher Brief is committed to a free exchange of ideas. Our book reviewers are drawn from the ranks of our readers — and they are encouraged to “call ’em as they see ’em.” Not all of the reviews we publish are positive, particularly when the subject matter is highly controversial to begin with — as today’s review clearly demonstrates.  We note that other readers — including some Cipher Brief experts had a different take on this book. We encourage a broad range of views and respectful debate.

BOOK REVIEW: Never Mind, We’ll Do It Ourselves: The Inside Story of How a CIA Officer and an Air Force Officer Joined Forces to Develop America’s Most Powerful Tool in the War on Terror

by Alec Bierbauer and Col. Mark Cooter, (USAF, Ret.) / Skyhorse

Reviewed by Lt. Col. Dan Ward (USAF, Ret.)

THE REVIEWER — Lt Col Dan Ward (USAF, retired) served for more than 20 years as an officer in the US Air Force, where he specialized in leading rapid innovation programs. He is the author of three books and is a Senior Principal Engineer at the MITRE Corporation.

THE REVIEW — Never Mind, We’ll Do It Ourselves is a long-awaited first-hand account of one of the most significant military technologies in the modern era – the armed Predator drone. Transforming passive surveillance systems into hunter-killer platforms created a whole new type of warfare and changed military technology, policy, and operations in profound ways. Military forces are now able to fly further and loiter longer, with less risk to operators, less cost to operate, and more focused lethality than ever before. It’s no exaggeration to say this development changes everything on the modern battlefield.

The story of how the Predator program came together is fascinating and important, particularly for anyone interested in how military innovation actually works. It is a perfect case study in rapid experimentation, low-cost innovation, and the perils of bureaucracy. Unfortunately, while the story is worth telling, this particular book is undermined by some glaring flaws.

The book opens with the military operation to find Mullah Mohammed Omar in Afghanistan in 2001. The first few pages provide dramatic descriptions of the scenario, the technology, and the team, as one would expect from a mission like this or from a Hollywood thriller. But before the military operators can fire their first shot, one of them observes that their target is near a mosque. This is where this book crosses a terrible boundary for me. On page 14, the authors write:

“Terrorists were fond of hiding in places like mosques and hospitals, counting on our own paralytic fear of bad press to stay our hand. That bullshit may carry weight with the political side of the house, but to a military guy, a building is just another stack of bricks when the bad guys use it for refuge, or worse yet when they shoot at you from inside.”

If this were a novel, the previous paragraph would be a line of dialogue given to the antagonist in a dramatic scene where they tempt the hero to join the dark side. Unfortunately, this is a non-fiction book, and it’s a line the authors gave to themselves.

As a retired Air Force officer who spent some time carrying a weapon in Afghanistan, I deeply understand that when enemy combatants are actively shooting from protected places, including mosques, the Rules of Engagement generally permit us to return fire in self-defense. However, this is a tightly limited scenario of last resort, with a number of important restrictions and caveats. Viewing a mosque or hospital as “just another stack of bricks” to be attacked without consequence is inexcusably monstrous in my opinion. Anyone who does not understand this should not be allowed within 100 miles of a weapon’s trigger… or an author’s pen.

Throughout the book, the authors consistently express an indiscriminate posture towards target selection and heap disdain on anyone “afraid to give the order” to attack a dubious target. They repeatedly bemoan the targeting restrictions placed on them, using phrases like “we couldn’t find anybody with the balls to [let us] shoot the son of a bitch.” With all due respect to my fellow officer, declining to bomb a mosque or hospital is a question of ethics, not “balls.” I might expect that level of uninformed jingoism from a cosplaying warrior-wannabe who has never reflected on what it means to represent your country in a combat zone. I cannot tolerate it from an actual member of the profession of arms. We are supposed to be better than that.

This book fails to demonstrate even a modest respect for the strict limits, boundaries, and constraints that are appropriately placed upon military actions. It dismisses the foundational obligation for service members to distinguish between lawful combatants and unlawful targets. It gives no sign of understanding that military personnel must seek to minimize collateral damage, to protect civilians as much as possible, and to employ a proportional response when applying lethal force. Further, it accuses those who do hold such principles of a “paralytic fear of bad press,” rather than a principled commitment to the ethical standards of our profession and a desire to prevent unnecessary suffering, to say nothing of an unwillingness to commit war crimes.

To be clear, this book does not contain any scenes in which the authors actually bomb hospitals, mosques, or orphanages, although such tragedies are well documented elsewhere. The story shows them following orders and begrudgingly holding fire every single time they were told to do so. Unfortunately, they also express a persistent wish to be allowed to hit protected places without consequence. They repeatedly explain the only reason they refrained was a fear of personal legal penalties.

At one point, the authors describe a hypothetical scenario of hitting hospitals or orphanages as “career-ending” events, painting the shooter as the victim. At no point do they acknowledge the “life-ending” effect such an attack would have on patients or orphans. And lest there be any ambiguity as to their position, they baldly assert that any legal consequences they might receive for their actions would be unjust because “Concepts like right and wrong have little impact in the modern courtroom.” They offer no proof to support that statement, apparently taking it as self-evident.

Interestingly, there is one crime they do express concern about. In 2001, outgoing staffers from the Clinton administration removed some ‘W’ keys from keyboards as they left the White House. The authors gratuitously referred to this event as “a sophomoric, if not outright criminal, parting gift for George W Bush.” It is difficult to understand why they decided to express more umbrage over keyboard vandalism than bombing mosques. For that matter, it is difficult to understand why they felt the need to bring it up in the first place.

Any reader who can look past the authors’ callous disregard for human life and their repeated objections to the constraints drawn from the Law of Armed Conflict will learn a lot from this first-hand account of the Predator program. The book is full of juicy details about drone technology as well as the bureaucracy that produced this military revolution. Unfortunately, it is also full of lines like “…the rat maze of cities, villages, goat-herder camps, and caves known as Afghanistan.” To dehumanize an entire country by calling it a rat maze diminishes the person who wrote it, and perhaps explains why they were so willing to bomb protected places, since the targets were only rats after all.

In my opinion, this perspective fully disqualifies the book from a spot on a professional reading list. Any reader who wants to learn about the Predator program should look elsewhere.

This book earns a disappointing one out of four trench coats.


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