Last week I made a stab at outlining just a few of the problems the United States Air Force is wrestling with and suggested that, perhaps, a veteran of the service is stepping up to run for Congress in the First District in New Hampshire to lend a hand in securing its future.
Gates, Air Force Battle Over Robot Planes
By Noah Shachtman EmailMarch 21, 2008 | 2:53:00
There may not be an open war, quite yet, between the Secretary of Defense and the leadership of the Air Force. But there is serious, palatable tension. And a nasty game of brinksmanship over the use of drones in the Middle East has only made things worse.
Now comes word from L.A. Times' ace Peter Spiegel that Gates "has ordered the Air Force to put nearly all of its unmanned Predator aircraft into the skies over the Middle East, forcing the service to take steps that officers worry could hobble already-stressed drone squadrons."
The Air Force is worried that, like the ground forces, its teams flying 22 Predators in the air over Iraq around the clock, instead of the 12 they started out with, are going to get worn out. Still Secretary Gates demanded more:
In response, the Air Force has stepped up training. Next year, commanders will train 200 two-man crews to remotely fly a fleet of Predators that numbers more than 100, as well as a larger version called the Reaper, mostly out of a spartan air base in the Nevada desert. Trainers will turn out more pilots for Predators next year than for all other Air Force fighter planes combined.
So, what's the problem? Flying drones turns out not to be quite as satisfying as might have been expected.
Then, as part of the January deal, Predator and Reaper crews were frozen. Even pilots who have been flying drones nonstop for three years will have to remain in Nevada for at least two more years. Many of them originally were trained as fighter and bomber pilots.
Air Force officials are acutely aware that their concerns may seem like whining, particularly compared with Army counterparts who serve 15-month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, Predator crews have been working 13-hour days, sometimes six days a week, for three years with no end in sight.
And then there's the inevitable control question. Do they need a pilot's license to wield a joy stick?
In the debate over control of the fast-growing fleet, the Air Force argues that only qualified pilots should fly airplanes that drop bombs and fire missiles. But Army ground commanders maintain they most need and use the streaming video to plan and execute their ground operations.
"I want to control it," said Lt. Col. Adam R. Hinsdale, head of the Army's unmanned aircraft program, which has its own family of smaller, short-range drones. Hinsdale said Army troops occasionally found that an Air Force Predator assigned to their unit had unknowingly flown off for other missions. "I don't want it to be pulled away."
You'll forgive me if I'm not overly deferential. News that the establishment of an online facility to accept suggestions about uniforms is being touted by the organization that thinks it's going to conquer the domain of cyberspace and add it along with air, land, sea and outer space to its belt is not reassuring. Neither is the information that every Air Base, anywhere on the globe has to be outfitted with a golf course. Somehow, when we are approaching a drinking water crisis for over a billion and a half people, watering putting greens seems a tad insensitive.
It wasn't so long ago that sitting at a console in Nevada was considered a cushy job (close to the golf course?):
Typically, it takes hours, even days, to get an accurate idea of the damage bombs have caused in a war zone. GIs on the ground have to make their way to a target and report back. But Rogers can get the job done in minutes.
As his plane passed over the site of the safe house, dawn was breaking - a clear, sunny morning that had yet to give way to the August heat. But for Rogers, it was after sunset. He was operating his Predator unmanned aerial vehicle - a drone - from a secure terminal at Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas.
Tracking the feed from the Predator's camera, Rogers could see rubble where the safe house had been. He and a sensor operator on his crew watched a crowd gather to ogle the destruction. Then a white Dodge pickup rolled up with a .50-caliber heavy machine gun in the back. Five men climbed out, ran into the house, and returned to move the truck to a secluded alley. They began loading ammunition and arc-welding the .50-cal's mount.
Back at Nellis, Rogers wasn't limited to just assessing battle damage. He could also inflict it; his Predator was equipped with two Hellfire laser-guided missiles. Rogers, who flew F-15s (call sign: Smack) before switching to drones, radioed for authorization to destroy the Dodge. He got it.
"We left their truck one big smoking hole," he remembers. "My heart was pumping as we were doing our business. It felt just as real to me, however many thousands of miles away, as if I was sitting right there in that cockpit."
However pumped the operator of that console in Nevada might have felt about blowing up a Dodge truck in Iraq, the question that doesn't seem to have been asked is what laws of warfare this assassination by remote control complies with.