The battleship, the drone, and the chocolate chip cookies
Two weeks ago, I made a pilgrimage to the Port of Los Angeles to visit the ship that played a central part in setting me on the path that put me where I am today—the battleship USS Iowa. And as I walked toward the Big Stick at its new home in San Pedro, a ship’s boat sitting on the pier alongside her triggered a recollection of one of the most memorable episodes in my tour aboard Iowa: a night in late September of 1987 when I left my somewhat minor mark on the history of drone warfare with a box of chocolate chip cookies.
I was an ensign aboard the USS Iowa, which was taking part in a joint military exercise with the Turkish military called Display Determination ’87, a rehearsal for a reinforcement of Turkish forces by US Army, Navy, and Marine units in the event of a Soviet invasion. From off the Turkish coast in Saros Bay, the Iowa was to provide shore bombardment in advance of a Marine amphibious landing. But the helicopter we had used to put our Marine forward observer in the air the day before was “tits-up,” as they say, and we needed eyes in the sky for the final bombardment.
As a division officer in the ship’s Deck Department, I was ostensibly in charge of the Iowa’s small boats. On the second evening of gunnery exercises, I was summoned to the bridge of the USS Iowa by the captain to undertake a mission of the utmost urgency: I was to deliver a box of the mess deck’s somewhat famous “battlechip” cookies to a nearby Turkish patrol boat and keep them distracted while a flight crew on Iowa launched an RQ-2 Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicle.
Iowa was conducting early testing of the use of the Pioneer, which we referred to at the time as an “RPV” (Remotely Piloted Vehicle) or gunnery spotting. The Turks gave the US permission to fly, but apparently there was some concern about us actually launching the thing from within their airspace. By keeping the Turkish patrol boat’s crew from witnessing the launch, the captain reasoned, I would be helping the ship to complete its mission while avoiding any sort of diplomatic incident.
The Pioneer did launch, though it was not really any of my doing; in the 26-foot motor whaleboat I was dispatched in (with a top speed of 7 knots), plotting an intercept course was problematic. (It was that very motor whaleboat, or its twin, sitting alongside Iowa in San Pedro that reminded me of this episode.) The patrol boat turned and passed briefly behind an island—and then I heard the whoosh of the Pioneer’s rocket-assisted launch from behind me. For the next few hours, my boat crew and I bobbed a safe distance behind Iowa as her 16-inch guns fired over and over at targets spotted by the Pioneer’s infrared camera.
Four years later, during the 1991 Gulf War, the experience the Navy gained with the Pioneer at Saros Bay and other tests we conducted on Iowa would be used for full effect on the Iraqi army. On February 23, the USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin flew Pioneer drones to spot for shore bombardment of Failaka Island as part of a feint at an amphibious landing in Kuwait. While the Wisconsin’s Pioneer was doing damage assessment after a bombardment by the Missouri, Iraqi troops spotted the drone and signaled their surrender to it.
The Pioneer wasn’t the first drone used by the Navy as an airborne spotter. During the Vietnam War, US destroyers used the Gyrodyne QH-50 Drone Antisubmarine Helicopter (DASH) to direct bombardment of shore targets via the drones’ television camera (called SNOOPY). The DASH could be flown up to 22 miles from its mothership. But that program was cancelled in 1969—at least partially due to a lack of reliability. There was no way for the DASH operator to know which direction the helicopter was flying in or its location if it dropped off radar—and because of its size, it did that fairly often.
The Pioneer had a much greater range than the DASH—it could be flown up to 110 miles from the Iowa and stay in the air for up to 8 hours. But it also had some of the same shortcomings experienced with the DASH—including the difficulty of keeping track of where the damn thing was. One of the reasons the Turks were concerned about testing of the Pioneer aboard Iowa was its extremely low radar profile, despite radar reflectors that were applied to it to boost its return. It also lacked the sophisticated avionics of more recent drones, other than its 75-pound electro-optic and infrared sensor package. The first versions we tested only had a compass, a basic altimeter and a pitot-tube airspeed sensor to guide them.
We lost several during tests aboard Iowa—in one case, while operating in the North Sea during bad weather, the RPV’s pitot-tube froze over and the operator had no idea what its airspeed was, so it became impossible to navigate it back to the ship. During many flight operations on that deployment, I spent hours standing by with the motor whaleboat just in case it splashed so we could attempt to recover its payload.
But most of the drone losses happened during recovery, when a gust of wind or a pilot miscalculation sent the RPV off course to split the uprights on Iowa’s fantail that held the Pioneer recovery net, and instead sent it pinwheeling off a post into the sea. After a number of these episodes, a boatswain’s mate was disciplined for accidentally announcing a test of the flight deck crash alarm as the “RPV crash alarm.”
Considering that the Pioneer was derived from a design originally intended to patrol the skies over Israel, the problems were to be expected—especially when flying at latitudes above the Arctic Circle. The aircraft was built for the Navy in a collaboration between AAI of Hunt Valley, Maryland, and Israel Aircraft Industries, and based on the Tadiran Electronic Industries Mastiff drone first flown by the Israeli military in 1973. (A Mastiff somewhat infamously spotted Yasser Arafat with its onboard sensor during the 1982 war in Lebanon.) But the lessons learned from the Pioneer led to increasingly greater investment in drones by the US military, which accelerated during the war in Iraq.