How Humans, Machines and Media Perform Drone Warfare

Rutgers University Press
Chapter Title: DRONE
Book Title: Unmanning
Book Subtitle: How Humans, Machines and Media Perform Drone Warfare
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Stable URL:
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In the decade before World War II, the U.S. Navy launched a classified project
known by the codename Drone. It took its inspiration from earlier attempts at
unmanned aircraft that were discontinued by the military as failures. The project
joined a multitude of prior, worldwide experiments in unmanned flight, which
extended from aerostat flight in the eighteenth century and military experiments
with air balloons in the nineteenth to aerial torpedoes built in World War I.
Project Drone, however, marks a discursive beginning in the history of
pilotless aircraft: it is at this moment that the term drone begins to acquire the
entangled layers of connotation that will lead to today’s Predator drones, used
in the United States’s so-called war on terror. The Americans did not invent
the secret name out of whole cloth; instead, they repurposed the term from
a competing project begun earlier by the British. William Standley, the U.S.
chief of naval operations, advocated for the experimental Drone project after
attending the Second Naval Conference in London in 1935, where he witnessed anti-aircraft training with the Queen Bee, a remote-controlled plane
meant to test ship defenses against aerial attack. In a memorandum he circulated to the navy on March 23, 1936, Standley wrote, “An urgent need in the
fleet exists for radio-controlled aircraft for use as aerial targets.”1
Delmar Fahrney, the officer-in-charge of Project Drone, recounted the conversation that led to the codename in a history of pilotless planes and guided
weapons he wrote more than two decades later. “It was brought out that the
English had dubbed their project the ‘Queen Bee’ and following this phraseology, a number of insect names were reviewed. It was decided that the word
DRONE best fitted the situation in which a released target plane found itself
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Drone • 17
engaged; and the terminology was easy to handle. Without further ado the
name was used in all discussions oral and written and the term persists to this
The final declaration, “the term persists to this day,” resonates beyond
Fahrney’s intended reader in the late 1950s. Indeed, “to this day,” uses of the
term drone proliferate and the insectoid analogy persists, describing military
weapons, hobby planes used by enthusiasts, and an emerging commercial sector
for surveillance, filming, and delivery. A difference inheres in the commonly
understood purpose of the drone as offensive or, in its most benign form, watchful. “The situation” Fahrney describes posits the drone as a remote-controlled
training target. While this use of the drone continues today, it has become
less ascendant in the American mind. Neither Project Drone nor Queen Bee
purported to be an offensive technology. Instead, the drone was proposed to
simulate and study the conditions of a new field of battle: aerial combat. Project
drone, in the interwar period, was an aircraft built to be shot down.
This chapter examines how the drone organizes a theater of war by suggesting that aerial offensive attack and defensive anti-aircraft response are a
mechanical exchange. Theater of war is a concept that draws on Joseph Masco’s
study of “American self-fashioning through technoscience and threat projection.”3
During the interwar years, air power and its theater of war take shape in
public trials of aerial bombardment and secret experiments with drone aircraft.
These dual aspects produce a scene of battling machines and political decisionmaking as technoscientific observation. Yet, analyses of air power in the 1920s
and archival documents from the target drone trials demonstrate that these
scenes are far from mechanical. Instead, they are messy, human, and above all
formed through and by discourse. In the interwar period, the target drone is
shaped by anthropomorphism, theories of air power, divisions within the U.S.
Navy, and the military’s lack of prior experience with aerial war and simulated
aerial bombardments. The theater of war created in anti-aircraft trainings was
at once prescient of World War II, even as it utterly failed to prepare the U.S.
Navy for air attack.
The memorandum in response to Standley that circulated in the Navy
Bureau of Aeronautics highlights the drone’s role in creating a theater of war. It
explains that a remote-controlled aerial target was necessary for the following
reasons: “1. Definite data must be obtained as to the effectiveness of present and
projected anti-aircraft equipment before any further marked improvement can
be reasonably expected. 2. Training of personnel assigned to anti-aircraft activities must be carried out under conditions more closely simulating action conditions
than exist at present if maximum proficiency is to be obtained.”4
The rationale for
the target drone in the memorandum highlights how remote-controlled aircraft
are conceived as both defining and mimicking air power. Even as a training target to be shot at (and without a camera onboard), the drone informs the navy’s
emerging strategy of how to counter and participate in aerial bombardment.
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18 • Chapter 1
In this way, the program is not just about creating a target or a targeting system
when the platform is later transformed into an assault weapon—rather, it performs aerial battle from its inception.
The blurred lines between simulation, defensive response, and offensive
attack are not unique to air power. Samuel Weber notes that the term “target”
contains this conflation in its etymology. Its earliest usage in the 1400s meant
“shield,” which would have been used as a defensive technology in battle. Later,
a target was used to practice archery, coming to primarily signify a point of aim
in the middle of the eighteenth century. Weber draws out this implicit tension
between defense and offense before turning to a Washington Post article describing the capture of Saddam Hussein and his advisers, “‘Target of Opportunity’
Seized.” He then ties the verb “to target” to a specific kind of knowledge: “The
enemy would have to be identified and localized, named and depicted, in order
to be made into an accessible target, susceptible to destruction.” This kind of
knowledge is not new to warfare. Yet, as Weber notes, aerial combat brought
the “mobility, indeterminate structure, and unpredictability” of targeting to
the fore.5
While Weber points to Hussein’s capture and the war on terror as the
historical watershed for this new kind of indeterminate knowledge, the interwar drone’s use as a target shows that these shifts unfolded decades before, in
experimental efforts to build a remote-control plane in a theater built not only
through identification and mobility but also through simulation.
The memorandum I quote above insists that the drone provide “definite
data” in service of “maximum proficiency.” As its progress in the interwar
period shows, it does no such thing: the data remains murky; the proficiency,
weak. In the early drone trials, contradiction and indeterminacy plagued the
relationship between the drone-as-target and the navy’s anti-aircraft targeting, while the “definite data” provided by the trials remained controversial and
subject to interpretation within the naval hierarchy. The ambition to mimic
“action conditions” via the target drone does not so much respond to those
conditions as it imagines and creates an as-yet undefined context of aerial war.
The drone—itself a patchy network of moving discursive parts drawn from
human, machine, and media—thus shapes the context it is supposed to mimic,
a theater of air war.
Inventing Air Power: From the Ostfriesland to Project Drone
In the 1930s, the destruction that would be wrought through aerial bombardment in World War II was not a foregone conclusion. Though the possibility
of devastation from the air was widely imagined, military commanders had
yet to reckon with the conditions of broad-scale aerial bombardment.6
World War I, Roger Ehlers points out that “senior officers viewed bombers
as extensions of field artillery rather than independent bombing platforms.”7
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Drone • 19
Airplanes primarily engaged in reconnaissance and tactical missions, using
planes as spotters for artillery and troops on the ground. Aircraft flown by
the U.S. Navy received little use in World War I and their significance at sea
was debated. When the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics proposed that the
remote-controlled drone could simulate aerial attacks on ships, what exactly
this meant was not yet known; the bureau hoped that the target drone would
not only inform anti-aircraft practices but also settle the question of whether
battleships were vulnerable to aerial attack.
In the United States, William “Billy” Mitchell is credited with promoting
the concept of air power. He served as deputy commander of Air Aviation during World War I, after which he advocated for an independent air force as assistant chief of the Army Air Service. During the summer of 1921, at Mitchell’s
urging, a joint army–navy exercise known as “Plan B” was organized to simulate aerial attacks against ships. The results of the exercise were disputed and
continue to be today. Among the best-known trials was a test bombing of a
captured German battleship from World War I, the Ostfriesland, which was
also a news media event. The goal was to mimic air-to-sea warfare by attacking the battleship with aerial bombers. Though the tests claimed to replicate
conditions of war, this was an overstatement. The Ostfriesland was a static target
and, unlike a battleship in war, could not perform any maneuvers. On July 20,
army, navy, and marine corps aircraft ran the first wave of attacks, which were
halted due to poor weather. Only smaller munitions were used, and unsurprisingly, the damage was not substantial. The following day, in another wave of
attacks—this time with larger bombs—the Ostfriesland eventually sunk. Following this mixed show of aerial might, the demonstration bombings against
the Ostfriesland failed to create a consensus within the military about air power.
Two articles in the New York Times suggest diverging interpretations of the
Ostfriesland’s sinking in the media. After the first day, the Times ran the headline, “Bombs Fail to Sink the Ostfriesland,” reporting that “Fifty-two bombs,
weighing 18,990 pounds, loaded with heavy charges of TNT were dropped,
and of these thirteen bombs, weighing 4,470 pounds, fell on the deck of
the Ostfriesland. Only four of the thirteen bombs making these direct hits
Far from suggesting the primacy of air power, the first part of the
trial suggested its limitations. The following day, a new headline announced,
“Sinking the Ostfriesland.” After the eventual destruction of the battleship,
the article claimed, “Brig. Gen. William Mitchell’s dictum that ‘the air force
will constitute the first line of defense of this country’ no longer seems fanciful.” The article went on to support Mitchell’s assertion, stating, “A nation
unequipped to concentrate her whole air force over the water, if the decision
lies there, can just as well leave her navies tied up to the wharves instead of
sending them out to certain destruction against a hostile country equipped
for this purpose.”9
In this case, air power is tested not only by the military but
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20 • Chapter 1
also as news of the experiments circulated publicly to organize the theater of
war proposed by aerial bombardment. Reports from the bombing of the Ostfriesland position the trial as a test for the nation, extending the significance of
the scene to the American public.
The trial bombing against the Ostfriesland was one of multiple tests that
aimed to assess the air-to-sea war and occurred in the midst of an escalating
antagonism between Mitchell and the navy. Earlier that year, Mitchell had
testified to Congress about the vulnerability of ships to aerial attack, questioning plans to invest in a conventional navy. He advocated for the development of an Air Service, separate from the army and navy. In the aftermath,
Mitchell was asked to resign by the chief of the Army Air Service, Charles
Menoher. Mitchell did not retire, however. A new chief of the Army Air
Service, Mason Patrick, sent Mitchell on an inspection tour of Europe in
1921–1922. Mitchell was eventually demoted and transferred to San Antonio,
Texas, in 1925. That year, Mitchell was court-martialed for publicly accusing senior army and navy leaders of incompetence following the crash of the
helium ship Shenandoah in September 1925, which killed fourteen crewmembers. Mitchell was charged with discrediting the military service and found
guilty. He was suspended from active duty for five years and resigned from
the military in 1926. While he never returned to the service, he continued
to be a vocal advocate for air power until he died in 1936. His downfall and
resignation indicate the precarity of air power as a concept in the interwar
period and the extent to which air power’s success was not a foregone conclusion, but rather hotly contested even among the military elite. The tactics of
aerial war, which Project Drone in the next decade was supposed to assess,
were uncertain.
It is common to read the rise of air power in the twentieth century as part
of a larger cultural trend toward dehumanization. Such an approach emphasizes the affective indifference of distant bombing, its speed, and its mechanization. Critics often link these transformations to the rise of technoscience
within the military. Carl Schmitt, writing in the aftermath of World War II,
posits air power as a new spatial order organized by technological domination. He writes, “Above and below . . . can be thought of only naively, from
the perspective of an observer who, from the surface of land or sea, looks up
and down, up and down, while bombers pass in the airspace overhead and
execute their missions from the sky to the earth.”10 We can think of it “only
naively,” as the disorientation created by aerial bombardment undoes the relationality between the two sides on the battlefield and instead creates a form
of technological domination unaccountable to what is below. A vertical form
of domination premised on targeting from above replaces a horizontal battlefield, extending the indiscriminate ability to attack to the land and flattening
earlier distinctions between war on land and sea. Schmitt’s theory takes up the
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Drone • 21
contested claim made by Mitchell in the interwar period as the basis of a new
global order.
A further consequence of the disorientation of aerial war is that any attack
is rendered justifiable. Schmitt explains that under vertical control the “victors consider their superiority in weaponry to be an indication of their justa
causa . . . [and] the discriminatory concept of the enemy as criminal and the
attendant implication of justa causa run parallel to the intensification of the
means of destruction and the disorientation of theaters of war.”11 Schmitt
thought the global order organized by air power, and thus untethered from the
land below, would lead to the intensification of war. With the rise of air power,
all limits that had been previously placed on war would be undone, resulting
in a world order where might is right. The concept of the “just enemy” in particular would unravel, replaced by the enemy-as-criminal rather than as equal
Air power, for Schmitt, would be fueled by escalating technological superiority, which itself would be metonymically reinscribed as a more general
political and civilizational superiority: we are above and you are below, says this
logic, therefore we are superior—“above you,” as one would say in English. The
enemy had already been redefined to include the colonial other as criminal
prior to World War II; however, modern European conflicts retained the concept of the just enemy, now undone by aerial war in Schmitt’s view. Schmitt’s
claims fail to account for the possibility that the tectonic shifts reorganizing
the global order after World War II cannot be fully explained by advances in
weaponry alone. The nascent technologies of air power, after all, failed more
often than they succeeded. Right, in other words, is not tied to actual might.
Rather, the above/below ideology of civilizational superiority continued
to function even in the absence of effective aerial weaponry. Air power thus
suggested a framework that named the enemy as criminal even before aircraft
were “superior.” Priya Satia outlines how in the early twentieth century British
aerial bombing campaigns and drone experiments aimed to control colonies in
the Middle East; air war was not an extension of ground war in these contexts,
but a form of occupation.12 As with early experiments to test air power, there is
little indication these campaigns achieved their intended effects. Rather, they
suggest how the emerging theater of aerial war already positioned the enemy
target as criminal other, even while the significance of aerial bombardment
within military institutions was hotly contested and it was not yet a “superior”
technological practice.
A less commonly cited example of air power from 1921 extends the enemyas-criminal framing to extraordinary extralegal procedures internal to the
United States. A month after the demonstration bombing against the Ostfriesland, the U.S. Army was called to intervene in a labor dispute between
coal miners and coal mine operators at the behest of the West Virginia state
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22 • Chapter 1
government. The federalization of the National Guard for World War I
allowed Secretary of War Newton Baker to implement extraordinary measures
that bypassed the law and allowed for direct, internal military interventions.
This loophole remained in place even after troops returned from overseas and
was used in Mingo County between 1919 and 1921. More than five thousand
miners mobilized in support of their union, while a local militia of a similar
size organized against them. Clayton Laurie explains, “In labor disputes . . .
federal regulars were sent in to suppress what were deemed by local, state and
federal officials as radical and foreign-inspired labor uprisings and challenges
to legally constituted civil authority.”13 Ultimately, the use of aircraft in Mingo
County would tie air power to the control of civilian populations in labor disputes, thus linking air war with domestic control.
On August 26, 1921, under the orders of the deputy chief of staff and
the chief of the Army Air Service, Mitchell flew to Kanawha Field, outside
Charleston, to assess its suitability for reconnaissance or tactical air support
while the U.S. government weighed its options. “Upon landing, Mitchell,
never one to mince words about airpower, commented to the press that the
Army Air Service, by itself, could end the civil disturbance by dropping canisters of tear gas upon the miners. If that failed he recommended the use of artillery by the ground forces to bring the crisis to a speedy conclusion.”14 Mitchell
spent only a day at Kanawha Field and did not have the chance to deploy the
tactics he promoted. However, when President Warren G. Harding did decide
to intervene, only copies of his proclamation—not tear gas canisters—were
dropped by private aircraft on September 1, 1921. He also decided to close the
legal exception that had enabled federal troops to be deployed domestically at
a state’s request.
Meanwhile, coal companies hired aircraft to fly over the miners and drop
homemade bombs filled with nails and metal fragments; the bombs missed
their targets or failed to explode. The same day, twenty-one army aircraft were
sent to West Virginia, though only fourteen arrived as a result of mechanical
failure and inclement weather. Mitchell was ordered to stay in Washington,
D.C. The aircraft never used their armament, though “they performed several
reconnaissance missions and enjoyed the unique distinction of being the first
air unit to participate in an American civil disturbance.”15
Federal troops occupied Mingo County for three months until the standoff between the miners and the local militia eventually ended. Although he
was not there, Mitchell subsequently claimed the “Mingo War” was a paragon
of air power and demonstrated its ability to control across land and sea. Coal
mine owners, borrowing from the imaginary, attempted to drop homemade
bombs on the miners. Yet in the end, it was not air power as a new form of
technology that thwarted the union’s strike but, rather, the combined institutional force of local, state, and national government, enabled by the extralegal
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Drone • 23
procedure that permitted U.S. military forces to be used on domestic soil. In
other words, air power only has power to the extent that it is given that power
by an institutional network of powers.
Schmitt argues that aerial attack introduces a third dimension of war
through the vastness of air space and its potential to exert global control, if
mastered. Mitchell similarly claimed the dominance of air over the land and
sea. In the interwar period, these theories circulated globally and shaped
military developments that led to the massive bombing campaigns of World
War II and the enormous loss of life that came as a consequence. Tami Biddle
emphasizes that the domination imagined by interwar air power proponents
was overstated, even as their ideas eventually took hold in the U.S. military.
She highlights two failures of air power theories: First, aircraft were vulnerable
to anti-aircraft defenses and bombing was much less accurate than expected.
Second, civilians on the ground were largely able to withstand aerial bombardment despite its devastation. The interwar assumptions of air power are,
according to Biddle, based in rhetoric, not fact.16
By the 1930s, Mitchell’s status as a disgraced antagonist to the U.S. Navy
had shifted. As Williamson Murray notes, “Navy reformers . . . found Mitchell as [a] useful foil for pushing the navy’s leadership towards serious investment in naval air power.”17 As the world raced toward World War II, Project
Drone at once tested and defined the as-yet murky future that investment in
air power would bring.
Human-Media-Machine: The Drone as Network
Remote-controlled flight in the 1930s was not developed as a replacement
for piloted aircraft. Instead, it proposed to test the U.S. Navy’s anti-aircraft
defenses and mimic aerial attack. Project Drone aimed to maintain the remote
operator’s control over the plane, even as actions and emotions associated
with the project overlay, confuse, and disavow interconnections between
the control pilot and drone. The navy’s remote-controlled target plane was
linked not only to the changing context of air war I discussed in the previous section but also to a broad range of innovations with radio and telephone,
the uses of which extended beyond the military into homes throughout the
United States.18 Radio signals meshed with air space, offering a way to act at
a distance through the discontinuous human and machine parts. Yet, radio
did not just communicate between the operator and drone; it also set up their
Consider again the scene at Navy Research Laboratory (NRL) mentioned
at the outset of the chapter, which dubbed that target plane “drone” based on
its insectlike qualities. The recollection suggests the arbitrariness of the codename, though the term persists and resonates. In Insect Media, Jussi Parikka
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24 • Chapter 1
proposes an intricate theory, examining how insects are “carriers of intensities and modes of aesthetic, political, economic, and technological thought.”19
By naming the drone after a male bee, engineers at the NRL interlinked
radio control with a long history of insect media and the forms of social and
political organization it proposes. A hivelike organization emphasizes hierarchy and order, as well as a social association that causes the individual bee to
become part of a swarm. The name contains the possibility that the actions of
the drone exceed the human, while at the same time defanging any potential
threat: a drone, after all, has no stinger. The drone-as-target is thus represented
as a kind of technology that is both uncanny and nonthreatening, inhuman
yet still safely gendered. In human-machine systems, Lucy Suchman observes,
“the distinction between person and machine rests on the traffic back and
forth between the two terms that questions of human-machine identity and
difference matter.” In Project Drone, human, machine, and media parts shape
what will come to be a mechanized context for air war, resulting in “the ongoing, contingent coproduction of a shared sociomaterial world.”20 However, these
exchanges did not always perform as expected.
The drone represents the ideal of the social insect’s hive mind, linked and
effortlessly functioning in perfect unison; yet, this name was more aspirational
than reflective of reality. In the development of the project, the team’s engineers reckoned with what would happen if the aircraft lost its connection to
the remote operator, who guided the flight. Human and machine control was
also figured by its failure. The NRL’s “drone” drew on an earlier program to
create an aerial torpedo, tested by the navy in the 1920s. When the proposal
to build a remote-controlled target reemerged in 1936, some senior navy officers questioned its utility based on a remotely guided seaplane tested as an
aerial torpedo. They recalled in their response to the new project a test flight
in September 1924, in which a seaplane “was taken off without pilot, flown for
about twelve minutes, and landed. The plane sank after landing.”21 A puncture
in the seaplane’s pontoon was the cause. The radio control gear was retrieved
from the submerged aircraft and tested again in October with similarly flawed
results. When the researchers attempted another test in December 1924, the
plane crashed on takeoff and the project was “allowed to die a natural death.”22
This account of the failed project reflects Bruno Latour’s conception of
technology, where we never see “people on the one hand and things on the
other.” For Latour, technologies are “programs of action, sections of which
are endowed to parts of humans, while other sections are entrusted to parts
of nonhumans.”23 The unmanned but remote-controlled target plane underscores its status as an entanglement of human and machine parts. That entanglement, however, often failed to create the action to which it aspired.
The officer-in-charge of Project Drone, Delmar Fahrney, was an aeronautical engineer trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
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Drone • 25
who worked with other researchers at the NRL. The “out of control” aircraft
preoccupied the engineers of the new project who sought to show radio control could be used to guide a distant aircraft as if it were piloted by a human.
Among the key early considerations for the team building the drone was the
possible failure of radio communication. A monthly report outlining a possible design suggested, “If, for example, the receiver gets no signal after an
elapsed period of two minutes, the plane is placed in a turn by the time relay.
If no signal is received after twenty minutes, the controls are neutralized and
set for the landing condition and the throttle cut.”24 The failure of the parts of
the drone to respond are just the moments when Latour’s program of action
comes apart. Latour names these “anti-programs.”25 The drone, however, does
not merely acknowledge an anti-program as a mode of organizing human and
nonhuman action, but takes that disavowal as constitutive and equal in importance to synthesis. Human, machine, and media parts contradict the organization the drone aims to create.
By March of 1937, the basic parts of the radio-control system—a modulator, demodulator, and a hydro-mechanical system—had been fabricated
and tested. The drone drew on telephony, which allowed multiple signals to
be sent from a control box, using dial commands, to move different parts of
the hydro-mechanical system to operate the aircraft. The first tests involved
a manned control aircraft, which sent radio control signals to the “laboratory drone” inside the navy’s facilities, monitored by the engineers leading the
project (figure 1). The transmitted signal moved the hydraulic servo-valves
that would activate the aircraft’s actuators, used to maneuver the plane also
stabilized by an onboard gyroscope. Early tests showed the radio control to
be functional from an aircraft twenty-five miles from the laboratory drone.
While the NRL team developed the radio system, the airframe was built at the
Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia.
Anxious to work on a model that could be flown, the team of engineers at
the NRL procured a training plane, NT DRONE, for their experiments after
construction with the new airframe. NT DRONE (figure 2) had previously
been used to train navy pilots and could still be flown by a pilot onboard. Initial tests operating the NT DRONE with radio control used a “safety pilot,”
a pilot onboard to take over controls of the plane in case the radio controls
malfunctioned in flight. Here, human and machine overlay one another, with
the pilot onboard if the system malfunctioned. The NT DRONE was initially
flown by the safety pilot, Fred Wallace, and the flight shifted to radio control once it was airborne with the pilot still onboard. In his monthly report,
Fahrney describes the test: “At 3000 feet the circuits were tested and found
O.K. and then the DRONE pilot was ordered to throw in the gear—shortly
thereafter, there ensued the most astonishing evolutions which could only be
ascribed to a drunken pilot: the DRONE went into wild gyrations to the right
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Fig. 1 Laboratory drone, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, DC, 1936
Credit: Collected Files of Delmar Fahrney, NARA II
Fig. 2 NT-1 Training plane, Naval Aircraft Factory, Navy Yard, Philadelphia, 1937
Credit: Lt. Cmdr. Fred Wallace Scrapbook, San Diego National Air and Space Museum
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Drone • 27
and to the left with plenty of climbs and dives mixed in to give Wallace a most
harrying ride.”26
When the remote pilot begins operating the NT DRONE, the result is
“astonishing evolutions.” Although the safety pilot can still control the aircraft, “its” flight takes Wallace, now passive in its operation, on “wild gyrations
to the right and to the left with plenty of climbs and dives mixed in.” Action
in the report is attributed to the drone, likened to a “drunken pilot,” while the
safety pilot rides out its antics. Fahrney’s report continues, however: “After
a few moments of anxious concern it developed that the controls governing
climb and dive were satisfactory, but that the aileron controls were decidedly ‘hay wire.’ . . . The obvious fact that the controls were crossed was not
at first apparent because the safety pilot threw out the gear and brought the
plane back to level flight after each unusual maneuver.”27 Because wires were
crossed, mixing up right and left, a “harrying” first flight resulted. The safety
pilot’s ability to straighten out the plane actually made it more difficult to see
how an error had occurred. The “hay wire” plane suggests how actions moved
from the control plane through the radio signal to the drone. When these connections functioned, the drone seems as if it could be pilotless. When the signal was crossed, as it was in the first test flight, missed communications led
to chaos and confusion over the control of the drone. Of the next attempts,
Fahrney reports, “After the aileron control was properly hooked up, following this first awkward flight, the next test hop proved that the radio control
was adequate for all normal flight maneuvers.”28 The language used to describe
successful unmanned flight is mechanical. The faultless drone is “adequate” and
“satisfactory”; by contrast it is imperfect and human, operated by a “drunken
pilot” when it suddenly reveals its contingent nature. Despite the composite
nature of the drone’s “drunken” flight, the language splits it into either human
or machine, disavowing the network that makes its flight possible at all.
When the airframe built for the project by the Naval Aircraft Factory finally
arrived, Fahrney notes in his report from November 1937, “No further testing
is scheduled for the ever faithful little NT ‘DRONE’ which suffered through
many hours of radio controlled mistreatment. While all safety pilots reverently view its passing into the discard, they nevertheless feel relieved that its
testing days are over.”29 The passage reverses the suffering of the NT DRONE
and the safety pilots; one can only imagine how the safety pilots handled the
jostling of “many hours of radio controlled mistreatment.” The report emphasizes the obedience of the technology—it is “ever faithful.” But it is also safely
contained, “little,” and thus nonthreatening like its stingless insect namesake.
The passage makes a brief stab at humor, commenting on the pilot’s “relief ” at
the drone’s “passing into the discard,” but undercuts itself with the odd choice
of “reverently.”30 To “reverently view its passing,” taken together with ascribing
its “suffering,” suggests a human quality to the drone; one watches its passing
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28 • Chapter 1
as one might watch that of a fallen comrade. In this way, Fahrney once again
undermines any clear-cut distinction between human pilot and unmanned
Even as Project Drone tried to make this distinction, what is human is not
always (or ever) straightforward. By November 1937, successful drone flights
led naval engineers to propose a test without a human onboard. In his report,
Fahrney recalls the new terminology that results. Describing the preparations for the first flight without a safety pilot, he writes, “When a human pilot
climbs into his plane to fly alone without an instructor for the first time, the
flight is called a ‘Solo.’ In this case where a plane flies without a safety pilot for
the first time under radio control it is obvious that the term to describe the
flight is ‘Nolo.’”31 “Nolo” was first a wordplay on “solo” and, later, an acronym
for “no live operator,” foregrounding the mechanical operation of the drone.
The term continued to be used in the U.S. military throughout the 1950s. Nolo
again anthropomorphizes and genders the machine, bestowing the drone with
a twist on the honorific used for a pilot climbing into “his” plane alone for the
first time. That gendered, humanizing rhetoric at once acts to make the drone
seem mechanistic, independent, and beyond human control while at the same
time undercutting its apparent lack of humanity by granting it human qualities and agency. In fact, the unmanned drone remains under the operation of
multiple human operators and entangled with human action at every stage of
its mission. “Nolo” frames the machine system through the negation of human
action, suggesting how radio and aircraft functioned to produce flight, even as
a team of personnel was necessary.
The human operators for the first Nolo flight included Fahrney and the
former safety pilot, Wallace, who became a radio controller. Fahrney operated
the drone from a ground-control unit for takeoff and landing, while Wallace
operated the drone in the air from a piloted aircraft flown by another navy airman. Fahrney explains how they rigged the drone for Nolo flying: “In the safety
pilot’s seat a special 14 volt aircraft battery was secured which was to supply current for a duplicate receiver and selector which doubled the chances of loyal
and faithful operation of the electronic equipment.”32 Here, “loyal and faithful” emphasizes how human attributes are transposed to the machine. This
exchange is compounded by the report documenting the test as it describes
how “the Officer in Charge opened the DRONE’S throttle by radio and the
plane made a normal takeoff. Very little difference was noted in the behavior of
the DRONE without a Safety Pilot.”33 Once the aircraft was airborne, Wallace
took over the radio operation of the drone from a control plane that tailed it.
He “controlled the DRONE through simple maneuvers for about ten minutes
and then lined up the plane for a well executed landing approach.”34
Landings and takeoffs were difficult to carry out by radio control. The
monthly report suggests the challenges during the first Nolo flight: “As soon
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Drone • 29
as the throttle was cut the DRONE’s nose went down abruptly and the front
wheel struck the ground before an elevator correction could be applied—the
front wheel carried away and the plane slid along for forty feet on its nose as
the rear wheels folded slowly.”35 Despite an otherwise normal flight, the crash
landing emphasized the struggle of achieving the illusion of perfect, humanindependent control. The newly networked system did not yet perform as
expected. If a safety pilot had been onboard the drone, he would have corrected for the plane’s nosedive. Yet, with the loss of the throttle power, the
plane dipped into a crash landing. For subsequent Nolo flights, the remote
operator stalled the aircraft before guiding it in for a landing to prevent the
drop in the aircraft’s nose.
Early test flights with drone aircraft interconnect human operator and
remote-controlled aircraft, even as one is defined against the other. Human,
machine, and media make drone aircraft, while simultaneously establishing a
disavowal of what is human. Gilbert Simondon writes, “The opposition drawn
between culture and technology, between man and machine, is false and without ground.”36 Nonetheless, resistances between people and machines characterize sociotechnical relations, not just the smooth programmed action or utility
of the system. He contends, “The machine is a stranger to us; it is a stranger
in which what is human is locked in, unrecognized, materialized and enslaved,
but human nonetheless.”37 Today, the actions of the weaponized drone are
made strange and inhuman. Early drone experiments highlight, however, how
this characterization was made by interlinking aircraft and operator. In other
words, the first Nolo flights were an extension of manned flight, rather than an
ontological break with it. To make this point is to highlight that the violent
consequences of unmanning cannot be attributed to mere mechanization and
technological advance. Contemporary critiques of drone warfare often point
to the supposed dehumanization of unmanned flight to account for its moral
atrocity. Yet, as the interwar reports show, this discounting of what is human
is always already an illusion that overlays the interconnection between human
and machine. The conceptual division between pilot and machine nonetheless
outlives its specific rendering in Project Drone and the exact directions of its
consequent disavowal of the human; while the “faithful” NT DRONE was a
target to be destroyed, today’s Predator drone destroys its targets.
From Loyal Servant to Enemy: A Proto-History of Aerial War
Derek Gregory’s “From a View to a Kill” outlines the process by which the
apparatus of aerial targeting, organized by the contemporary unmanned aircraft, assembles an object by identifying it within an environment or milieu.
He emphasizes how the drone’s target is made through calculation and abstraction, rendering life killable. As Weber’s analysis of the dyad of target/targeting
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30 • Chapter 1
outlines, however, this relation did not just make an object: it simultaneously
created a context for targeting. It is a theater of war, not just a pilotless plane or
point of aim, that emerges through these trials and experiments.
Although the first Nolo flight indicated how the radio-control system built
for the drone program could be used to guide the aircraft remotely, doubt
remained in the navy about its utility. Fahrney described the ambivalent reactions to Nolo tests in his manuscript: “Even though this test produced good
results for the most part, yet it came at a time when a hassle was going on in the
Bureau about maintenance funds for the project, so route slip comments were
not very favorable, as, ‘we should . . . disband the “Unit” . . . as soon as possible.’
Cmdr. Stevens was quick to defend the project with, ‘If this Unit is disbanded,
what is to happen to further development of radio control? I firmly believe
that R.C. has enough possibilities . . . to warrant keeping it alive.’”38 There was
widespread concern about the usefulness of the project in the Bureau of Aeronautics, as officials questioned the innovations proposed by radio-controlled
aircraft. The “life” of the project and how it tied to the transformation of war
was debated by military officials.
The navy positioned Project Drone as a simulation of wartime conditions.
On May 21, 1938, Rear Adm. H. R. Stark, senior member of the U.S. Fleet Permanent Anti-Aircraft Board, wrote to Delmar Fahrney, officer-in-charge of
radio-controlled aircraft, outlining the significance he saw for the project: “The
most important use to which DRONES may be put is to determine the effectiveness of our present anti-aircraft armament—the use of DRONES will give
us a test that is nearer to wartime conditions than any we have had to date.”39
These comments anticipate the move of the drone unit to San Diego over the
summer of 1938 for the next phase of the project: using pilotless aircraft to train
anti-aircraft gunners for air war. Fahrney notes in a letter to Cmdr. Albert G.
Noble, the fleet gunnery officer, “Fleet Training and the Bureau of Aeronautics
are withholding any decision as to future work on this project, pending the outcome of these experimental firings and dependent on the reaction of the Fleet
Gunnery Officers as to the value of this type of training.”40 The goal and value
of target-drone training were to make sense of the indeterminate context of air
war, which also proved a test for the drone itself. While the setup for the navy’s
targeting trials proposed a mechanical field of war that pit gunner against the
drone, these practices were also predicated on uncertainty.
Drone control, as outlined in the previous section, moved between multiple points on the ground and in the air, connected by radio. In attempting to achieve machinelike flight, what emerges is not a replacement for the
human pilot, but human, media, and machine parts acting together as an air
target. They make a milieu for air war defined as a network, not simply a vertical plane. The target drone transported to San Diego was operated through
“beep control,” a radio control box that sent nine commands to the aircraft by
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Drone • 31
a telephone dial, a predecessor to a joystick system. The drones were guided
by a radio pilot based out of a Chevrolet truck that served as a field station
(figure 3). Once airborne, control shifted to another radio operator with a control unit onboard a TG-2 plane following the drone (figure 4). This operator maneuvered the pilotless plane from approximately one mile away. The
remote pilot could change the direction and pitch of the plane and operate
the throttle and a wing stabilization system. Distance between the aircraft and
the drone was limited to the control pilot’s sight. At landing, control would
again shift to the radio pilot at the field unit.41 Drone flight interlinked operator, multiple aircraft, and ground control, fitting the drone target into a more
complex assemblage that anticipates networked warfare.
Yet, trials were marked not by the ascendancy of a new framework for war
but by challenges for both anti-aircraft gunners and the drone target. The first
target practice using radio-controlled drones was held on August 24, 1938.
Outlining plans before the trial, Fahrney writes, “The first practice will simulate an attack directed by a bomber on the Fleet center and the U.S.S. Ranger
will take station as a protective vessel. . . . Firing will be opened after the drone
passes overhead.”42 The drone ran a rehearsal pass over the ship and then, on
the second pass, was targeted by the starboard battery and the port battery.
Fig. 3 Radio control set-up for drone practice at Otay Mesa, San Diego, CA, n.d.
Credit: Lt. Cmdr. Fred Wallace Scrapbook, San Diego National Air and Space Museum
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32 • Chapter 1
Fahrney observes, “After fire was opened the target [DRONE] turned right
and, as seen from the above ranges, maintained a nearly constant range from
the firing ship. From the firing ship, bursts appeared to be to the left of the
target. . . . The bursts followed the changes of course of the target but lagged
so far behind that it is not believed any hits were obtained.”43 The lag between
the drone’s maneuvers and the bursts of fire underscored the military’s lack of
preparation for what would become aerial war. The commander of the U.S.S.
Ranger, John S. McCain, noted that prior training sessions that used sleeves
to trail behind the aircraft, anti-aircraft gunners had a high level of success:
“An examination of the sleeves indicated that the starboard battery had three
hits . . . and the port battery made four hits . . . RANGER’s fire control party
was well trained.”44 The sleeve-targets favored the ability to shoot at a target
run in a set pattern, following the path of the aircraft that towed them. This
reliance on patterned, predictable targets shows up again in McCain’s account
of the drone’s first pass: “On the approach the Drone was noted to be maneuvering and the steady course had not been maintained as planned.” McCain
insisted that had there been a squadron of bombers, there would not have been
such variation, and the battery “would undoubtedly have had planes hit and
the formation broken up thus preventing an effective bombing attack.”45 Yet,
Fig. 4 Control aircraft in flight with drone, n.d.
Credit: Lt. Cmdr. Fred Wallace Scrapbook, San Diego National Air and Space Museum
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Drone • 33
none of the firings even came close to the drone and, to McCain’s surprise, the
anti-aircraft gunners on the U.S.S. Ranger failed at what was supposed to be
a simple aerial maneuver to counter. The challenge of the drone tested antiaircraft technology, thus shaping the field of aerial battle before its ascendancy
in World War II.
As engineers improved drone technology, anti-aircraft training simultaneously shifted to defend against it, but it did so in a patchy, incoherent fashion. McCain’s report describes the anti-aircraft gunners onboard the Ranger:
“From the firing ship, bursts appeared to be to the left of the target and were
out of the field of the Range-Finder Operator’s glass thus preventing him from
supplying information to the Range-Keeper Operators as to the position of
the bursts. During this run changes of target angle were given to the RangeKeeper Operators who adjusted the range-keeper set-up accordingly.”46 Teams
operating the gunnery would have included a number of personnel, with five
to seven men assigned to each gun. The range finder would figure the target
speed and altitude, while the range keeper was responsible for a mechanical
computer that would predict future target positions. Together, they would
establish a firing sequence for the gun. In the first drone trials, this information
would have been preset, as the speed of the drone and the altitude at which
the aircraft was flying were determined by the commanders beforehand—
although unexpected deviations still occurred, as evidenced in this case. The
trial of anti-aircraft gunnery aimed to introduce calculation and rationality
into the unpredictable scene of attack.
Yet, the next trial run suggests how the networked parts of the drone might
come undone, crashing the drone target. McCain’s report states, “Anti-aircraft
training received from firing on a target similar to a Drone is the most valuable
and instructive firing that any ship equipped with an anti-aircraft battery can
have.”47 This approval takes on further weight given the disastrous outcome
of the second firing run. After the first pass, the commanders agreed to open
more distance between the control plane and the drone. As in the previous
trial, the bursts of fire were distant from the target, the closest coming within
300 feet. Fahrney observes that at the end of the run, “The DRONE flew a
divergent course of 10 to 15 degrees from the control plane thereby opening the
distance between them still more. Before the control plane could close in on
the DRONE at ‘cease fire,’ the smoke from the bursts obscured the DRONE
and the distance was so great that it was impossible to ascertain the flying altitude of the DRONE.”48 In the ensuing moments, the target plane lost altitude, and shifting control between the ground operator and the radio pilot
in the control plane, the team lost contact with the aircraft. McCain reports,
“Shortly after the last shot was fired the target plane was seen to make a sharp
turn to right finally going into a spin and crashing into the water.”49 The drone
sank in five hundred fathoms of water. It is unclear in the reports whether the
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34 • Chapter 1
gunners actually hit the drone or if it suffered technical failure. Only a gasoline
tank and some small debris were recovered from the wreckage of this supposedly “most valuable and instructive” experience.
Over two years of experimental development and training had gone into
building the drone target, only to have the system crash on its second pass
over the U.S.S. Ranger. Despite this, the simulation is declared “valuable and
instructive,” and taken as proof of what some naval personnel suspected—
ships were more vulnerable to aerial attack than had been previously thought.
In his manuscript, Fahrney quotes from a review of the project by his superior
in the Bureau of Aeronautics, Claude Bloch. Bloch emphasizes how the conditions presented by the drone presented a problem “never before experienced”
based on the target’s mobility and concludes, “It is feared that the fixed conditions of speed, course, and altitude of antiaircraft sleeve targets in formal gunnery firings have resulted in control methods which may not prove sufficiently
elastic for firing effectively on hostile aircraft free to maneuver.”50 Naval personnel counted on a fixed path for the aerial flight, even as the trials pointed
to the possibility that aerial warfare would instead be marked by mobility, elasticity, and surprise. The drone’s contradictory attributes—especially its variability and lack of control in the air—shaped the U.S. Navy’s enactment of the
as-yet hypothetical conditions of aerial warfare.
Yet, not everyone in the U.S. Navy was convinced by the tests or saw the
drone as a realistic training tool. A few weeks after the tests held by the U.S.S.
Ranger, a drone was used to mimic a dive-bombing run against the U.S.S.
Utah. To create a dive-bombing plane, three controllers maneuvered the
drone target: the radio pilot on the control plane, an operator at the airfield,
and another aboard the ship. The radio control would shift from the airfield
to the control plane, while the radio pilot on deck of the U.S.S. Utah would
guide the target drone on the final part of its forty-five-degree dive toward the
ship. After it had been fired upon, the flight angle would be straightened out
and the drone target would return to the airfield for landing.51 Summing up
the pass, Cmdr. Walter E. Brown of the U.S.S. Utah writes, “On the first run,
while firing target ammunition the plane was hit causing it to go out of control and it later crashed 1000 yards port beam. It was not salvaged.” His overall assessment of the trials is less than positive: “Due to the cost of the plane
and the danger to personnel if the plane goes out of control, it is doubtful this
is an altogether feasible program.” Brown expresses confidence in the navy’s
current anti-aircraft measures, describing advocates of the training program
as “mistaken.”52 While Brown’s views were not enough to cancel the project,
they point to an overall confidence within the U.S. Navy in its preexisting antiaircraft measures.
Recalling the first trials in his manuscript, Fahrney writes, “There were mixed
feelings of pessimism and optimism, lament for the failure to hit the DRONE
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Drone • 35
on a high altitude bombing run in the RANGER practice and joy over the
crushing defeat handed a diving DRONE in the UTAH practice.”53 Air warfare is typically described as abstract, mechanical, and increasingly defined by
technoscientific achievements. Yet, accounts of the interwar drone are rich with
affect, from the earlier portrayal of the drone as “loyal” and “faithful” to the
drone as enemy. With the drone positioned as the enemy, Fahrney “laments”
the drone’s success against the U.S.S. Ranger and proclaims its “crushing defeat”
in the trials with the U.S.S. Utah. The structure of the trial transforms Fahrney’s previously glowing accounts of the aircraft to instead align his analysis
with the pessimism and optimism of the navy gunners onboard the ships. This
shift recalls Schmitt’s characterization of the indiscriminate quality of aerial
war, rendering anyone “below” a target; yet, the drone becomes an enemy not
through its superior weaponry but as it emerges through a theater of war.
The target drones continued to be used between 1938 and 1941 to simulate
aerial attack. A memorandum from April 3, 1939, describes the training and
emphasizes the navy’s unpreparedness, again against the U.S.S. Utah: “The 1.1-
inch battery of the U.S.S. Utah was exercised in experimental firing runs on a
diving DRONE on Wednesday, 29 March and on Thursday, 30 March 1939. . . .
A total of 1500 rounds of service ammunition and 500 rounds of target practice
ammunition were expended. Careful examination of the two DRONES used,
after the practices, gave no evidence of hits.”54 Over 2,000 rounds of ammunition
were fired by anti-aircraft gunners against the drone without a hit. In July of
1939, Adm. W. D. Leahy, then chief of naval operations, writes, “Firings against
DRONE targets during the past year have demonstrated the ineffectiveness
of present control methods and procedures, and possibly, equipment, to combat realistic bombing attacks. . . . The early solution of the AA [anti-aircraft]
Defense problem is considered urgent.”55 A special committee reviewed the
records of anti-aircraft firings against drones in 1940 and made a series of recommendations. They write, “It is considered the unanimous opinion of the
Board that aircraft progress has rendered our AA batteries ineffective against
determined attack by modern aircraft.”56 The report goes on to observe that
confidence in the navy’s defenses against aerial strikes was a “dangerous misconception.”57 Despite these recommendations, the simulated flights—and the
vulnerability they exposed—resulted in no immediate changes to anti-aircraft
defense systems. After Pearl Harbor, however, the debate over the effectiveness
of air war against ships would take a new, deadly direction.
Pearl Harbor
On December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese
Navy confirmed the two hypotheses tested by the drone: aerial bombardment was powerful, and the U.S. Navy was inadequately prepared for it. The
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36 • Chapter 1
Japanese launched 353 fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes from two aircraft
carriers. Japanese forces sunk or severely damaged 19 ships, destroyed 188 aircraft, and killed 2,402 personnel. During the attacks, navy anti-aircraft gunners
shot down only 29 of the 353 aircraft. The realities of aerial warfare were now
disastrously present and material for the U.S. Navy. The wreckage of the U.S.S.
Utah, the same ship used for experimental firing exercises with target drones in
1939, remains at Pearl Harbor today, a memorial to personnel onboard. While
Pearl Harbor is typically presented as a surprise attack that the United States
could neither have imagined nor prevented, the interwar drone trials uncover
a new history of imagined, aerial warfare.
Air power advocate William Mitchell had imagined an attack against Pearl
Harbor from the Pacific (although he proposed it would be launched from
land) in his 1925 book Winged Defense. Intelligence that the Japanese were
planning an attack had been sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and early
radar picked up signals of the aircraft. Hindsight makes it possible to construct
a story that seemingly reveals the “truth” hidden in plain sight: military vessels
were vulnerable to aerial attack. Yet the U.S. Navy’s lack of action prior to the
attack reflected the confidence held by senior officials that earlier patterns of
war would continue unchanged. Pearl Harbor emphasizes that “actual” conditions of war are unpredictable, defying attempts to be made rational and
knowable, despite the three years of experimental trials that had tested U.S.
Navy defenses against target drones.
By the end of World War II, improvements in anti-aircraft defenses meant
ships became much better at defending against aerial attacks, and the U.S.
Navy continued to consider its naval strength to be superior to aerial attack.
This narrative is tidy enough, as historical narratives go. But it exists only as
a superimposed, retrospective claim. In the interwar period, a small number
of U.S. military minds imagined the possibility of air power as total domination over land, sea, and air. In service of that vision, they piled onto the drone
their hopes for an airborne avatar that would at once possess insectlike obedience, anthropomorphized loyalty and faithfulness, and mechanized power.
But despite these hopes, the drone crashed, sank, exploded, sputtered, and,
more often than not, failed at its intended purpose. Simultaneously, it laid the
conceptual groundwork for the rapid expansion of anti-aircraft defenses that
would fall into place after Pearl Harbor. In other words, there is no smooth
narrative of progress here: the evolution of aerial warfare was never a foregone
conclusion but a constructed one. There are only disjointed historical histories
of targets and targeting that we connect, partially, in hindsight.
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(550 words)

Approximate price: $22

Calculate the price of your order

550 words
We'll send you the first draft for approval by September 11, 2018 at 10:52 AM
Total price:
The price is based on these factors:
Academic level
Number of pages
Basic features
  • Free title page and bibliography
  • Unlimited revisions
  • Plagiarism-free guarantee
  • Money-back guarantee
  • 24/7 support
On-demand options
  • Writer’s samples
  • Part-by-part delivery
  • Overnight delivery
  • Copies of used sources
  • Expert Proofreading
Paper format
  • 275 words per page
  • 12 pt Arial/Times New Roman
  • Double line spacing
  • Any citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, Harvard)

Our guarantees

Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.

Money-back guarantee

You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.

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Zero-plagiarism guarantee

Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.

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Free-revision policy

Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.

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Privacy policy

Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.

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Fair-cooperation guarantee

By sending us your money, you buy the service we provide. Check out our terms and conditions if you prefer business talks to be laid out in official language.

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