The Air Force's new poster boys: drone jocks

The service is putting more pilots behind a joystick to fly the unmanned planes crucial to today's wars.

Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor
'THE BOX': Officers work eight-hour shifts in an enclosure with multiple monitors, keyboards, rudder controls, and a joystick. They monitor assigned targets and use texting to communicate with other operators around the world.

If the Air Force needed a poster boy for the way it is adapting to the 21st century, it has high hopes that a young officer named Captain Bob will fit the bill.

Captain Bob can't wait to deploy in the cockpit of the F-16 jet he's trained to fly, but the Air Force has other plans for the young fighter jock.

As it scrambles to meet an exploding appetite for real-time video surveillance of the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force is undergoing a seismic cultural shift, adapting to the needs of warfare today while pondering what it might look like tomorrow.

Bob, who asked that his full name not be used because of the sensitivity of his job, has for now turned in his G-suit to be a desk jockey with a joystick. His days are spent, not pulling Gs, but inside an air-conditioned trailer an hour from the Las Vegas strip.

From here, he flies a remote-controlled airplane over Afghanistan or Iraq to produce video feeds of those wars a world away. The images are fed immediately to troops on the ground to track the enemy, spot someone planting a roadside bomb, or monitor other insurgent activity.

Most agree that they are lifesaving images that can have an immediate impact in turning the course of the fight. But Bob didn't volunteer for this duty, and he isn't sure if he wants to make a career of it.

In many ways, Bob represents the rub within the Air Force, which still clings to the throb of the throttle while increasingly recognizing that warfare might not be what it once was. Whether the service can adapt to the often-sedate work of watching patches of empty Asian desert for hours on end could determine its relevance to the US war effort, at least in the short term.

For now, Bob is happy to salute smartly.

"I signed up to be in the Air Force as an officer first, and then as a pilot," he says. "That, to me, means I'll support the Air Force mission wherever it is, whatever we need to do."

End of an era?

For years, the Air Force's big, muscular jets have been largely back-benched as ground forces fighting counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken the day. Meanwhile, the service has been prodded to deploy pilotless planes with names like Predator or Reaper to provide much-needed surveillance video to those ground forces.

It is a job the Air Force did not take to initially, its culture largely defined by the collective dreams of officers like Bob to fly jets fast and high. But many, including Pentagon chief Robert Gates, believe this is the way of the future, and now the service has begun to embrace its new role even amid criticism that it still isn't moving fast enough.

It's too simplistic to say that it's the end of an era as the service replaces flyboys with computer gamers. But there is little doubt that the character of the force is changing. The billions of dollars the service spent over the years on combat power, speed, and the sex appeal of roaring engines is waning as Pentagon brass ask the Air Force to provide more relevant capabilities.

This year marks firsts on several fronts:

•The Air Force will train more officers on remote-controlled aircraft than combat fighters for the first time ever.

•Last month, the service's prestigious weapons school graduated its first group of students who know more about munitions for unmanned aerial vehicles than they do weapons for fighter jets.

•And last month, the first group of officers with no formal Air Force pilot training graduated from an Air Force school.

This comes amid concerns that the Air Force is being too quick to respond to current needs and taking its eye off the threats of the future – conventional threats requiring the kinds of big, fast planes that defined the Air Force's potent past.

Mr. Gates has attempted to shape this debate by ending production of the F-22 Raptor, the $130 million stealth fighter that the Air Force says it needs to fight China or other near-peer states.

Yet ground forces engaged today demand the kind of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability – known as ISR – that only the Air Force can provide, says Gen. Norton "Norty" Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff hired last year to reshape the service and its culture.

"The bottom line," says General Schwartz, is that the current wars need a new Air Force. "Ideally, in the counterinsurgency context ... what you don't want to have happen is [to have] an American marine, an American sailor, or an American soldier turn a corner and be surprised by what he confronts or what she confronts," he told reporters this spring. "We as an Air Force can do something about that."

Schwartz has recognized that the ISR mission is seen by some in the Air Force as a "leper colony," because it remains so unpopular in some quarters. He has tried to sell his service on the need for change.

Watching Kandahar through a monitor

CAPTAIN BOB AND HIS COLLEAGUE, Master Sergeant Lyle, a sensor operator, work in eight-hour shifts inside what some crew members call "the box." A third crew member, who coordinates the mission, sits in a building near­­by. Ensconced before a bank of eight moni­­tors, two keyboards, a rudder control, and a joystick, the two men fly their unmanned plane remote­­ly and monitor whatever target they are assigned.

One monitor contains maps, another flight data, and another instrumentation on the plane. Yet another contains half a dozen "chat boxes," allowing the pilots to text other operators around the world using clipped language like "R U ready?"

Oftentimes, the hours of monitoring – "persistent stare" in the parlance of ISR – is uneventful.

One recent day they were told to watch a group of American "friendlies" on a patrol in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province. So they watched a small unit huddle near a field and a group of small buildings for several hours. Nothing whatsoever happened, until an object later identified to be a dog or another animal bolted through a pasture.

Bob and his crew were never told exactly why they were there – invisible players in a faraway mission. But they kept close watch, moving their joysticks to ensure no insurgents amassed to attack the men on the ground or place an improvised explosive device on a nearby road – meaning they did just what they were needed to do.

Sometimes the men are asked to track a target for a few hours, sometimes for days or even weeks, allowing each crew rotation an intimate knowledge of the patterns of insurgent behavior.

How drones help save troops – and civilians

AT ANY ONE TIME, the Air Force has 35 Predators or Reapers in the skies over Iraq or Afghanistan. They are flown from here as well as from reserve bases in California, Arizona, North Dakota, and, soon, New York. By 2010, the Air Force has pledged to have 50 such planes flying, and most experts agree the number will soon expand beyond that.

"This has a lot more direct impact with helping people on the ground, so I wanted to be a part of that," says Lyle, who also requested that his last name not be used.

The information gleaned from the ground is often used only to safeguard troops. But it can also be used to conduct the airstrikes that have become so controversial – particularly in Pakistan, where many citizens see the attacks as a violation of national sovereignty. Civilian deaths and collateral damage there have undermined the war effort by breeding anti-US sentiment, some experts say.

Military officials here say only about 3 percent of their missions ever become "kinetic," requiring the use of a munition.

Col. Pete "Gunz" Gersten, the new commander of the 432nd Wing here at Creech Air Force Base, claims the hours of persistent monitoring help to prevent accidents that cause civilian deaths. Colonel Gersten, an F-16 pilot with more than 2,800 hours of flying under his belt, is a passionate convert to the new mission. He cringes when anyone on his staff uses the word "drone," saying that the word implies a mindless flying machine with no human element. On the contrary, he says the unmanned aerial systems require hundreds of people working together.

He signed up for this job to be part of the Air Force's future, he says, and he's bullish on what lies ahead as he works to educate a new generation of officers about what they do here.

To Gersten, it's not a question of fighter jets over remote-controlled airplanes – the future will require both. But changing the perceptions within the service to better accept this increasingly prominent role will take time, he says.

"We take people out of their normal routines and their expectations – pilots that want to be flying F-16s and F-15s. But from a morale perspective here, once you're here and you see what we do, you should see their eyes light up," he says. "When people get here, there is no leper colony."

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