Un­der­manned air­craft

An ex­pand­ing U.S. drone fleet adds bur­den for pilots, a world away

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By W.J. Hen­ni­gan wil­liam.hen­ni­gan@latimes.com

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev.— The pilots sit in dimly lit, air-con­di­tioned trail­ers, each star­ing at glow­ing video and data screens and tog­gling a joy­stick that con­trols an armed drone fly­ing some­where in theworld.

With more than 100 Preda­tor and Reaper drones a loft ev­ery day, this sun-scorched desert out­post is the hub of Amer­ica’s grow­ing drone fleet around the globe.

The 500 or so pilots here help launch mis­siles at Is­lamic State fight­ers in Syria and Iraq, pro­vide over­watch of U.S. spe­cial forces raids in Afghanistan, and scour the rugged Horn of Africa and else­where for wanted mil­i­tants.

“Ev­ery sin­gle day, this base is atwar,” Col. James R. Cluff, com­man­der of Creech, said Tues­day. “These kids are not play­ing video games out of their moth­ers’ base­ments.”

But the Pen­tagon’s in­creas­ing de­mand for re­al­time sur­veil­lance over hot spots, and the grow­ing role of un­manned air­craft in the mod­ern mil­i­tary, has cre­ated a prob­lem: The Air Force has too few drone pilots.

About 1,066 pilots now fly drones from Creech and other bases, fewer than the 1,281 that the Air Force says it needs to ful­fill a Pen­tagon man­date of 65 daily mis­sions, called com­bat air pa­trols. A pa­trol has one to four air­craft.

As a re­sult, pilots here work up to 12 hours a day. Some are clock­ing 1,100 flight hours a year, four times the num­ber flown by tra­di­tional pilots, ac­cord­ing to Pen­tagon data.

“It does get eye-glaz­ing, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said a drone pi­lot who was not au­tho­rized to speak on the record. “If it’s 4 o’clock in the morn­ing and you’re sit­ting there watch­ing a com­pound wait­ing for some­thing to hap­pen, you’re go­ing to get tired.”

To help the pilots cope with stress, a chap­lain at Creech has a top-se­cret se­cu­rity clear­ance so he can coun­sel them about trou­bles re­lated to clas­si­fied work.

Com­man­ders also have sought to re­duce the num­ber of mis­sions, in­crease monthly flight pay and hire civil­ian con­trac­tors to help share the work load.

Last year, as the U.S. com­bat mis­sion in Afghanistan wound down, the Pen­tagon tried to cut back on daily mis­sions. But then Is­lamic State swept out of Syria and seized vast parts of Iraq, spark­ing a new U.S. in­ter­ven­tion in the re­gion.

U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, which over­sees mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in the Mid­dle East, sud­denly needed eyes above the war zone to zero in on strongholds, hunt for po­ten­tial tar­gets and gen­er­ate fresh in­tel­li­gence.

“From our per­spec­tive, we never saw a lull,” Cluff said. “Now we’re en­gaged in al­most ev­ery facet of ” the war against Is­lamic State.

Drone strikes grab the head­lines, in­clud­ing one in Ye­men that the White House said Tues­day had killed Naser Ab­del-Karim Wahishi, head of Al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula and sec­ondin-com­mand of Al Qaeda’s global net­work.

But most of the time, the pilots here say, they pro­vide video sur­veil­lance, fly­ing end­less hours over deserts, moun­tains and towns in what one of­fi­cial has called “death TV.” Drones of­ten fly hun­dreds of hours or more be­fore com­man­ders feel con­fi­dent enough to launch amis­sile at a tar­get.

MQ-1Preda­tor and MQ-9 Reaper drones have flown 3,300 flights in Iraq and Syria, for ex­am­ple, but have launched just 875 strikes, ac­cord­ing to the AirForce.

“It’s not al­ways glam­orous work,” said Col. Ju­lian C. Cheater, a for­mer F-16 fighter pi­lot who now is com­man­der of the largest drone oper­a­tions group in the Air Force. “You may not drop more bombs or fire more mis­siles than any­one in the Air Force. But you are in the fight ev­ery day.”

Less than an hour’s drive from Las Ve­gas, Creech is carved out of the desert and ringed by craggy red moun­tain ranges. The 3,325 mil­i­tary and civil­ian per­son­nel com­mute, as no one lives on base. The only drones are used for train­ing, and the air buzzes as they take off and land in the bak­ing heat.

In the dis­tance, pilots fly their mis­sions in trail­ers scat­tered in the desert. They han­dle the joy­stick be­side an op­er­a­tor who con­trols cam­eras and sen­sors.

Six com­puter screens al­low them to ex­change mes­sages with spot­ters on the ground, see their lo­ca­tion on var­i­ous maps, and view data on how the drone is fly­ing. They also have an en­crypted phone line.

“The skill set here is man­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion,” Cheater said. “It can be tough at times.”

So is find­ing enough pilots. In fis­cal year 2014, the most re­cent data avail­able, the Air Force re­cruited and trained180 new drone pilots, far be­low its goal of 300.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter re­cently ap­proved a plan to re­duce the num­ber of daily drone pa­trols from 65 to 60 by Oc­to­ber to ease the pres­sure. He also agreed to hire con­trac­tors to help with train­ing.

Con­trac­tors also will play amore ac­tive role in com­bat mis­sions, con­duct­ing take­offs and land­ings. These launch and re­cov­ery oper­a­tions take place at over­seas bases be­fore they’re handed over to pilots here, who re­motely con­trol the drones on their flights.

Many of the con­trac­tors are for­mer ac­tive-duty pilots who left the Air Force and now earn twice as much in the pri­vate sec­tor.

“That can be rather en­tic­ing to a young pi­lot who’s look­ing to­ward the fu­ture,” Maj. Lou Pine, a Preda­tor and Reaper pi­lot who has stud­ied the drone pi­lot prob­lem for the Air Force, said by phone from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Vir­ginia.

The AirForce re­cently in­creased monthly bonuses for drone pilots from $650 to $1,500 if they keep fly­ing un­manned air­craft be­yond a six-year com­mit­ment. But a Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­port in May found few pilots el­i­gi­ble for the ex­tra bonuses.

David A. Dep­tula, a re­tired three-star gen­eral and for­mer Air Force deputy chief of staff for in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance, or ISR, said the new mea­sures were not likely to fix the pi­lot short­age.

“They will not solve the over­ar­ch­ing prob­lem of the in­sa­tiable de­mand for ISR,” he said.

“This is a prob­lem of our own mak­ing,” agreed Peter W. Singer, fel­low at the non-profit New Amer­ica Foun­da­tion in Washington and au­thor of “Wired for War,” a book about ro­botic war­fare. “It re­flects years of fail­ing to rec­og­nize that this is the new nor­mal of the Air Force.”

Rick Loomis Los An­ge­les Times

SGT. James Jochum, left, a sen­sor op­er­a­tor, and Capt. Sam Nel­son, a drone pi­lot, at Creech Air Force Base in Ne­vada, where hun­dreds com­mute to carry out mis­sions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots.

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