Why America's drone warriors need a yellow Lab named Lily

The military's insatiable appetite for intelligence from drone-recorded video means a group of analysts in a cold, dark building are struggling to cope with the emotional toll of wars thousands of miles away.

Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/US Air Force/Reuters
This US Air Force photo shows a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft.

The top-secret operations center here is about half the size of a football field​, lit only ​by​ the ambient glow of hundreds of computer screens.

The thermostat is kept perpetually low to help the computers run smoothly as they chew through some 20 terabytes of data daily. (To put that in perspective, the entire collection of the Library of Congress is estimated to be roughly 10 terabytes.)

College-age analysts huddle in groupings known as "pods" in this chilly semi-darkness for 12-hour shifts, often pulling all-nighters to finish​ a ​day's work.

Everything at the Air Force's Air Combat Command operations center on the Virginia coast is done for one reason: to feed what officials here call the American military's growing​ "addiction" to intelligence from its worldwide fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles.

​As a result, this Spartan netherworld of blinking light is bringing into sharp relief the Air Force's struggle to come to grips with the human cost back home of running drone war abroad. 

The men and women here are intelligence analysts, not pilots and trigger-pullers. They sit, and they sift – staring at hour after hour of video footage to monitor the actions of enemy forces.

They are diagnosed with higher-than-average rates of post-traumatic stress from watching “just about every horrible thing” imaginable on their video screens and not being able to do anything about it. They have the worst cavity rate in the Air Force, presumably from slugging sugary, caffeinated drinks they drink to keep them awake and alert. And they seek treatment for back problems from hours of sitting hunched over a computer.

In a nod to the daily stress, commanders have brought in Lily, a yellow lab therapy dog who spends her 35 hour work week roaming the operations floor and stopping by for office visits.

But in this epicenter for America’s campaign in Iraq an Syria, a different kind of martial fortitude is on display – a derring-do for the Digital Age, in which a clutch of young analysts have to figure out, for example, how to halt an Islamic State offensive on an Iraqi dam without destroying the local crops.

Three weeks after taking over as head of the Air Combat Command, Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle is sure of one thing: “We are victims of our own success.”

Like a conductor for a frenetic symphony orchestra, General Carlisle is responsible for coordinating the requests of US military commanders throughout the world for drones and the intelligence they provide. 

Prioritizing these demands is a “huge challenge,” since commanders want “more, more, more,” he says. “But it is not easy – it is not easy at all.” 

These days, requests from US Central Command, which runs the current US military campaigns in Iraq and Syria, tend to trump all of the others.

The 24-hour-a-day live-stream video of the Islamic State’s campaign from Predator and Reaper drones really doesn't “mean a lot unless you can do something with it,” Carlisle notes. And that is where his analysts come in.

The red digital clocks on the walls monitor the international time zones and the shifts of the analysts, but no one here is punching time clocks, even at the end of a 12-hour shift. 

“If you don’t have the mission complete, you’re going to stay,” says Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer. (Air Force rules at the operations center require that its analysts be identified only by rank and first name.) “You don’t give your baby to someone else.”

Behind her, on a repeat loop in black-and-white, a parachute carrying a humanitarian supply drop floats across the screen, over the fields of Iraq, looking like a wafer from a Chex cereal box.

Senior Master Sergeant Jennifer recalls a recent operation in which Islamic State (IS) fighters had built a berm across a dam in Fallujah, backing up water and flooding the fields of desperate farmers. The IS “likes to use water as a weapon,” Jennifer says. “Water means everything to the people of Iraq.”

Their actions had caused flooding in Ramadi, where US troops had once waged fierce street battles for control of the city. 

By studying the feed from a drone – or remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA), as the Air Force prefers to call them (since it sounds less dystopian and emphasizes that real pilots fly them) – the analysts helped to determine where best to bomb the berm to help alleviate the flooding that was occurring in some areas, and the water deprivation that was taking place in others. 

That requires a broad array of knowledge – from engineering to historical demographics research.

The job also requires intense vigilance. It can be tough, for example, to tell the good guys from the bad – particularly in Iraq and Syria. “If you’re looking at the ground and you’re watching folks moving around, to tell a Shia from a Sunni is pretty hard to do,” Carlisle says​. ​“Unless ISIS is actually flying a flag that says ‘ISIS’ across the top of it,” he adds, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State.

“People cannot begin to imagine what goes into this job,” Jennifer says. 

Carlisle agrees. The young analysts who watch and cull through the intelligence streams “are truly the unsung heroes” of America’s wars, he says. Yet as with so many troops waging Pentagon battles around the globe, the long hours and intensity of the job can take their toll, says Lt. Col. Cameron Thurman, the wing surgeon for the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing here.

“They are sitting at computer work stations that are not ergonomically the best,” he notes. 

Most concerning are the higher-than-average rates of post-traumatic stress, which may seem counterintuitive since the intelligence analysts here do not fire weapons.

But these analysts watch the real-time devastation of war unfold up close in real time, beamed back to their screens in high-definition, Thurman adds.

“Nothing is more painful than watching a horrible massacre and not being able to do anything about it," says Thurman, who adds that analysts have seen "just about every horrible thing" there is to see in war, including battles and beheadings.

While encouraging analysts to check in and seek counseling if they need it, commanders here have also brought in Lily, whose presence is comforting, analysts say.

So, too, are the often tangible results of the work that they do, the analysts add.​​​

Sgt. Victor, whose name tag is duct-taped over during the interview, says that prior to becoming an analyst at Langley, he was working in mortuary affairs at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the coffins of US troops killed in action are delivered for burial with full military honors. 

He says he wanted to get into this line of work to try to do something different. After seeing the impact of the war up close, he says, “I was motivated to save some lives.”

Yet the stress of the work of those under his command has led Col. Tim Haugh, who heads the 480th, to wonder aloud whether a 12-hour shift is healthy for his analysts. 

“We’re looking at it,” he says, particularly considering that ​it creates “challenges with child care” and demands that his troops work intense shifts that require considerable concentration and energy. 

“When I think about it intuitively,” he says, “we’re asking a lot of them.” 

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