David Axe, Drone War Vietnam. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. viii + 166 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Roger Connor


The rapidly expanded use of military drones for surveillance and targeted strikes has generated greater interest in 20th Century military drone development and use over the past two decades. The most prolific antecedent to the General Atomics Predator was the US Air Force’s (USAF) Vietnam-era employment of Ryan 147 ‘Lightning Bug,’ a variant of the Firebee turbine-powered target drone developed in the late 1940s. In all, 3,435 Lightning Bug combat missions were flown over the South-East Asia combat by 1,106 of what today would be regarded as ‘attritable’ drones. Launched from a DC-130 mothership and recovered in flight after popping a parachute by CH-3 helicopters, these unconventional reconnaissance remotely piloted aircraft fit the traditional rationale for drones – the D’s: Dull, Dirty (nuclear), or Dangerous operations. Over North Vietnam, Lightning Bug flights freed RF-101 and other reconnaissance crews from particularly hazardous or politically sensitive missions, such as documenting air defence sites, especially S-75 (NATO designated SA-2) surface-to-air missile complexes. Some even performed propaganda leaflet drops. While the 147s flew unarmed in operations, considerable development occurred in equipping them with precision-guided ordnance, but the war ended before they were suitable for deployment.

David Axe, a self-described journalist, filmmaker, and blogger, has produced a slick-looking, if somewhat anemic, study of the Ryan Lightning Bugs. Organized into sixteen short chapters of roughly four-to-eight pages, each separated by photographic spreads, the first three chapters address the early history of the Lightning Bugs, framing them as a response to the challenge of the Soviet S-75 (SA-2) surface-to-air missile. Chapters four to fifteen document various episodes of operations of operations over North Vietnam with an emphasis on Ryan’s response to the challenges encountered. The final chapter documents Ryan’s next generation Model 154 drone.

A US Air Force Lockheed DC-130A Hercules taking off on a mission in Southeast Asia, carrying two Ryan AQM-34 Firebee drones, c. 1969. Firebees flew reconnaissance missions using a pre-programmed guidance system or by remote control from the DC-130 crew. (Source: Wikimedia)

Drone War Vietnam attempts a survey of Lightning Bug operations while linking them with post-war strategic applications of remotely piloted aircraft and the broader narrative of drone development. The primary attraction for Axe’s narrative is that it is well-illustrated with images that do not appear in other works on the topic. Many of these photos originated with the Ryan archives, now in possession of the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives. These include multiple perspectives of drone operators in DC-130 motherships and a Marine Corps CH-37 helicopter used in drone recovery operations that crashed in just such an attempt. As a visual record of this technological niche, Axe’s monograph is the best available in print.

Unfortunately, Axe’s narrative is disappointing. A significant factual error in the first two sentences of the introduction sets the tone (incorrectly describing the well-documented 2001 first strike made from an MQ-1). Casual errors such as Mutually Assured Destruction being described as having existed in 1950 also crop up. While these contextual errors are frustrating, fundamental errors on the topic are less forgivable. For instance, Axe notes, ‘[B]etween 1966 and the end of the Vietnam War, Army helicopters attempted 2,745 drone recoveries and completed 2,655 of them: a 96.7 per cent success rate’ (p. 90). This is a nice recitation of facts, except that almost exclusively USAF helicopters of the 350th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron performed the duty – a critical fact that does not appear in the text. Axe’s writing style is accessible, but sometimes overly so with the use of incomplete sentences, for example, ‘[N]o opportunity to bait an S-75 battery’ (p. 80).

Axe’s understanding of the sweep of drone history is poor. He takes an American-centric focus, but even then, has ignored the broader historiography of remotely piloted aircraft development. Instead, he describes drone history as Kettering Bug begets Denny Radioplane begets Firebee. A quick look at H.R. Everett’s Unmanned Systems of World War II (2015) should have been enough to avoid such a flawed chronology. Meanwhile, the technical aspects inherent in the Lightning Bug’s achievements receive little attention, particularly concerning the challenges and limitations of operating and recovering the drones. Likewise, the incredible advances in inertial navigation that made autonomous flight in contested airspace possible pass with only a couple of sentences.

The text is not footnoted, and tellingly, neither Axe nor his editor understood the difference between primary and secondary sources as they are delineated in his bibliography, though almost nothing he includes there would be considered a primary source. Even obvious sources, like the Project CHECO report on Buffalo Hunter (the late war phase of Lightning Bug operations), easily obtainable online, are missing.

Most of Axe’s narrative is a retelling of William Wagner’s Lightning Bugs and other Reconnaissance Drones (1982). Wagner’s forty-year-old effort is the historian’s more thorough and polished option. Axe at least credits Wagner, a former Ryan Aeronautical executive, with much of his content, but this effort is a poor imitation of the original. Where Axe does improve on Wagner is in the contextual frame of drone operations, for which he adds a geopolitical frame of the various events and geographical operations. These are often over-simplistic, but they do succeed in making the book more accessible for an enthusiast audience interested in the hardware but with less understanding of the history and establishing a more well-rounded narrative. However, this contextual frame is often awkwardly executed in a way that does little to inform the application of drones, for example, a three-page chapter on the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The flip side is that Axe spends less than a third of the monograph on Lightning Bug operations in the Vietnam War. Instead, with Wagner as his primary source, he spends as much time on China overflights and ELINT (electronic intelligence) variants used to monitor North Korea as the far more substantive deployments over North Vietnam. Axe’s supposedly operational history thus primarily reflects a contractor perspective with very little of the service experience one might expect from this type of study.

These shortcomings become very apparent when examining a campaign like Linebacker II. As Wagner himself noted, Lightning Bug operations reached their peak during the operation. Axe’s telling of the story is almost exclusively in the frame of B-52 experience, which is a nice contextual detail, but adds nothing to the understanding of how or why remotely piloted aircraft were significant to the campaign.

A QH-50 DASH anti-submarine drone on board the destroyer USS Allen M. Sumner during a deployment to Vietnam. The photo was taken between April and June 1967. (Source: Wikimedia)

Axe pays some attention to remotely piloted adjuncts to the Lightning Bugs such as the Lockheed D-21 and Ryan 154 Compass Arrow, both focused on the Chinese nuclear program. The decision to include these is somewhat odd as they are outside of his Southeast Asian narrative. While the Compass Arrow has at least a corporate family tree associated with the Lightning Bugs, the D-21 has no operational or technical overlap. Meanwhile, Axe makes no mention of the other prominent drone programs employed in South-East Asia such as the QU-22 and the QH-50 drone helicopter. The QU-22 were droned Beechcraft Bonanzas used as communication relay platforms for the Igloo White ‘electronic fence’ of ground sensors on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The QH-50s were used primarily to spot naval gunfire. The QU-22 and QH-50 provide a useful frame for understanding the broader requirement for drone aircraft and the inherent limitations of the technology. It is this sort of assessment and analysis that is most notably absent. Instead, Axe is content to conclude that the legacy of the Lightning Bugs was to show that the Predator’s milestones weren’t new (p. 150). Nuanced quibbles about what was new with Predator aside (quite a lot, in fact), this rather obvious point could have also been made about drone aircraft in World War II. The 147 (along with QU-22s and QH-50s) demonstrated an emergent association between remotely piloted remotely piloted aircraft and the goal of risk reduction in limited war, which was something revolutionary, but the author did is not well versed enough in the topic to see it.

Besides Wagner, there is another useful study, which Axe neglected entirely, specifically Steve Miller’s nearly 700-page self-published The 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron: The Air Force’s Story of Unmanned Reconnaissance in the Vietnam War (2017). Though Miller would have benefited greatly from an editor, it is a useful expansion on Wagner’s dated history, written by a Lightning Bug veteran and introduces a trove of primary source documentation, as well as a much-needed USAF operational perspective. He also brings in the QU-22 story. If Axe had focused more on veterans’ experiences like Miller, Drone War Vietnam might have been worth recommending. Instead, it is a pale shadow of Wagner’s better publication.

With the disappointments inherent in Axe’s monograph, one wonders what an effective revision of Wagner’s solid work might look like. However, Kevin Wright’s We Were Never There: CIA U-2 Operations Over Europe, the USSR and the Middle East, 1956-1960 (2021) gives an idea of what might be possible. Linking mission reports, operational context, supported by high-quality maps and graphics, he has developed a glossy enthusiast-style publication that meets scholarly standards of documentation while proving attractive and accessible for the aviation general-interest audience. A similar work on the Lightning Bugs would help both the scholarly study and enthusiast appreciation of remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft operations.

Dr Roger Connor curates several collections at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, including remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft, vertical flight, Army ground force aviation, cockpit equipment, and aviation infrastructure. He earned his PhD from George Mason University in 2020 with his dissertation, ‘Rooftops to Rice Paddies: Helicopters, Aerial Utopianism, and the Creation of the National Security State.’

Header image: The US Air Force Ryan AQM-34L Firebee drone ‘Tom Cat’ of the 556th Reconnaissance Squadron flew 68 missions over North Vietnam before being shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Hanoi. (Source: Wikimedia)

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