Point. Click. Kill: Inside The Air Force’s Frantic Unmanned Reinvention
The age of remote-control warfare isn't coming--it's here, and not even the Air Force, which made it happen, is entirely prepared. Here, a firsthand look at the struggle to train thousands of drone pilots virtually overnight
Without traffic, it takes Captain Adam Brockshus about 45 minutes to drive from his four-bedroom suburban home outside Las Vegas to Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. His commute follows Highway 95 northwest through a stretch of the Mojave freckled with Joshua trees and flanked by arid mountain ranges. He trains pilots for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet this desolate drive may be the most harrowing part of his job. Tall, blond and new-daddy doughy, Brockshus spends the rest of his day in a windowless room full of office chairs and computer monitors, teaching 20-somethings how to fly war drones 7,500 miles away. Although his is, for all intents, a desk job, it may be one of the most critical posts in today’s Air Force. The number of unmanned aircraft missions has more than tripled in the past two years, and the Air Force can’t train people fast enough to keep up with the demand. Brockshus’s responsibility is to churn out new drone pilots, and churn them out fast.
Until a few years ago, most of what he knew of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) came from whatever he might have read in magazines like this one. Operating killer drones wasn’t even an option in 2001, when he was accepted to Air Force flight school after graduating from South Dakota State University, because weaponized UAVs didn’t exist. Not that he necessarily would have gone that route. While some of his classmates were bent on flying F-16s, the competitiveness of such a career wasn’t for him. “For a fighter it makes absolute sense, but I’ve never been that aggressive type,” says Brockshus, whose serene brow could fit right alongside the granite faces of Mount Rushmore in his native South Dakota. “I felt more at home with the heavies.” And so it was that he wound up flying KC-135 refueling tankers, like his father.
As his first tanker tour in Mildenhall, England, wound down in 2007, he and his wife were discussing having a second child, and the prospect of another tour didn’t appeal to either of them. One of the problems with flying KC-135s is that the Eisenhower-era fleet is prone to breakdowns, and Brockshus was often diverted to any number of places to wait out repairs. So when the Air Force offered to reassign him to Nevada, Brockshus thought it sounded good.
In the short time since he arrived at Creech, Brockshus, now 30, has become one of the Air Force’s more experienced pilots of one of its most unexpectedly valuable weapons, the MQ-1 Predator. Along with its bigger and deadlier brother, the MQ-9 Reaper, these armed and remotely controlled spy planes have generated what Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz calls an “insatiable” demand among ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention special operations in Pakistan. It’s easy to see why. At this moment, dozens of armed drones circle miles above insurgents, watching everything in real time, with a resolution sharp enough to read a license plate. Every month they stream 18,000 hours of live video to commanders, intelligence officers and ground troops; they track vehicles, scan convoy routes for explosives, and fire missiles. Unlike the F-16, a Predator can remain above a target for 24 hours, while pilots like Brockshus spell each other in shifts, perhaps watching the sun rise over Afghanistan on their video monitors before driving home in the dark. “They give you a capability that you never had,” says retired Air Force Colonel Tom Ehrhard, a leading UAV expert. “And when you couple it with a lethal system, guess what? It’s magic.”
In the end, what lured Brockshus out of the heavies was not the “magic” of bombing targets each day from afar, but being able to tuck his kids in at night. It’s a lifestyle the Air Force hopes will attract new recruits to the job.
An Annotated Strike
_In this video, exclusive to PopSci.com, Captain Adam Brockshus narrates a Hellfire missile strike on a group of insurgents in Afghanistan. As a Predator instructor pilot, Brockshus was called into the Ground Control Station to oversee a former student who was taking his first shot in combat. The insurgents gave themselves away when, apparently, they accidentally detonated an IED they were trying to set up. The pilot’s instructions were to target the second man in the group.
A MOVING TARGET
The spindly remote-control plane that began as an experimental aerial intelligence gopher for the Army during the Balkan wars in the mid-1990s has morphed into a full-fledged weapons system. But with it, the Air Force’s unmanned program has become a victim of its own success. After 9/11, it rushed the armed Predator into service without so much as an instruction manual, and now it’s struggling to figure out how to integrate the UAVs into an increased workload. The Air Force’s current strategy of yanking combat pilots from their cockpits to retrain them to fly drones is depleting other squadrons, leaving the service short of pilots to fly manned planes. It’s also a slow and costly way to staff up. The education required for a pilot to fly unmanned aircraft is comparable to that of earning a master’s degree, and even the best-trained pilots struggle with the learning curve. More than a third of the 200 Predators delivered to date have crashed catastrophically, due to both aircraft malfunction and human error. One pilot executed a hard left at high speed—perfectly doable in a manned combat craft but not a maneuver the Predator, powered by a snowmobile engine, can handle; it flipped over and spiraled out of control. Several other operators accidentally switched off the engine mid-flight. One inadvertently erased the onboard RAM, and with it any hope of controlling the aircraft. “That this was even possible to do during a flight is notable in itself and suggests the relatively ad hoc software development process occurring for these systems,” wrote human-error specialist Kevin Williams of the Federal Aviation Administration in a 2004 analysis of UAV crashes. As Colonel John Montgomery put it to a group of reporters at Creech last March, “We’re on the ragged edge.”
After being chastised by its own audit agency last December for failing to establish a dedicated career track for UAV pilots, the Air Force is now jamming pilots through its primary operator school at Creech. The immediate goal is to create a cadre of 1,100 drone pilots, up from the existing ranks of about 400, and to boost unmanned combat patrols 47 percent within the next two years. To accomplish this, 100 airmen will go straight from the traditional 12-month undergraduate pilot training to Creech this year, where they’ll learn to operate the Predator and immediately begin flying combat operations.
The Air Force’s long-term solution, however, hinges on a radical new program to train non-aviators for the job and establish two pilot pipelines—one for manned flight and one for unmanned flight. Trimmed of the intense undergraduate training that pilots go through, the “beta” school takes nine months instead of 16. This month, eight captains with four to six years of experience in the service, and with little to no previous aviator skills, will graduate from the abbreviated track after logging just 20 hours of manned flight, versus the conventional 200. Nobody knows yet whether this hurry-up strategy will serve as the foundation for a more efficient, more affordable fighting force or undermine the Air Force’s own ambitious vision of ruling the skies with combat ‘bots.
The Air Force doesn’t have time to debate it. The final 20 F-22 Raptors, the so-called 21st-century fighter jet, arrive this year, while more than twice that number of Predators and Reapers will also enter service. In May, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates underscored this seismic shift in procurement priorities at a hearing about the 2010 budget, telling senators who were recalcitrant over the end of the $150-million F-22 that the solution to future threats “is not something that has a pilot in it.” Already the Air Force will train more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined this year. Meanwhile, Congress is coughing up an additional $2 billion for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, the agency that encompasses UAVs. Although the Air Force has been invested in the spy trade for more than 50 years, the ability to conduct unmanned and armed reconnaissance is a whole new business, and one it aims to own.
THE NEW FACE OF AIR POWER
Zipped into a flight suit and dressed for battle, Brockshus stands over a trainee slouched in a tan naugahyde chair, schooling him in the art of modern warfare. The setting looks like a simulator, but somewhere out there, a real drone is hovering over the Nevada desert, waiting for the trainee’s instructions. “So let’s see if you can hook around to get a better view,” Brockshus says. Calm though not quite laid-back, he’s mastered the kind of clear, deliberate radio cadence that gives ground commanders the confidence to call in an air strike with “friendlies” nearby.
Brockshus and two enlisted instructors deliver today’s lesson as part of Predator initial qualification training, designed to teach airmen how to operate the plane and deploy its weapons, laser-guided Hellfire antitank missiles. They’re in a tight room within one of Creech’s many newly erected buildings. It serves as the ground-control station for the “schoolhouse.” In a real combat situation, a ground crew would launch a Predator or Reaper in Iraq, say, and then hand off the plane via satellite link to a crew in the U.S. at either Creech, one of several Air National Guard bases or at a special-operations unit in New Mexico. Ideally, there would be 10 crews for every 24-hour air combat patrol to cover all the shifts, maintenance, vacations and such, but now they’re running thin at seven. So thin, in fact, that there are no transfers out of Creech, and some pilots have been stuck on the desert base, wryly known as the Oasis, for five or six years (three is typical). To get the equivalent coverage from an F-16 unit, however, the Air Force would need to deploy three times as many people, and none of them would have the luxury of sleeping in their own bed.
Brockshus’s charge, Captain Timothy Kile, is a 33-year-old former Air National Guard helicopter pilot from Arizona. He sits in front of an array of monitors, two yellowish Reagan-era keyboards and a trackball that’s mounted in place. One of the two primary monitors shows the video feed from the plane’s cameras overlaid with a head-up display of the horizon, the plane’s altitude and other vitals. Another screen displays a graphic of the plane overlaying satellite maps of the landscape. There’s a joystick too, but it’s mostly for takeoffs, landings and chasing targets. Typically, drones follow a preprogrammed flight path. To change directions, Kile draws a shape onscreen like you might in Photoshop and sits back as the automated plane heels to the line. To his right sits Staff Sergeant William Keltner, who after 11 years in the service found himself reassigned from graphic designer to sensor operator. Although the pilot is responsible for the plane, the sensor operator’s job—to track targets and provide the best picture to the commanders and intelligence officers scrutinizing his feed—is more demanding. Keltner has an identical setup, except that his joystick controls the Predator’s $1-million sensor ball, known as the unblinking eye for its suite of sensors: electro-optical, infrared, video, and laser-target marker.
The big, blocky chairs seem like they should swivel, but of course they don’t. This is not a place one idly spins in circles or puts feet up on the desk. Today’s lesson is target tracking, and after a low-key classroom session and mission brief this morning, things are heating up. Brockshus, along with sensor operator Jonathan Oakley, 24, and mission intelligence coordinator Michael Furger, 22, who are both instructors, challenge Kile and Keltner to find a particular white SUV. Information and acronyms fly from everywhere. The rookie Predator crew is, in military parlance, “drinking from the fire hose”:
Keltner: “OK, we’ve got eyes on.”
Furger: “Copy that.”
Brockshus: “When it gets to a vehicle chase, I want a crew that’s nonstop chatter. Stuff like, there’s a butterfly-shaped IR signature on the hood, so when it gets packed in a Baghdad traffic jam—and cars are everywhere—you’ll be able to spot it.”
Brockshus: “It’s easy to get complacent. You have to be thinking ahead of where he’s going to be scanning.”
Kile: “I wasn’t paying attention.”
Oakley: “And you didn’t mark PID [positive identification].”
Kile: “No, I did not.”
Oakley: “So what would you do to get back on target?”
Kile: “I’d zoom out and use my PID features.”
Furger: “We’re cleared off that target. Stand by.”
Brockshus: “Funnel navigation. Always be working big to small, big to small.”
Furger: “Any recent vehicle activity there?”
Kile: “Let me switch to IR now. I don’t see anything.”
Furger: “Any of those parking spots been used recently?”
Kile: “I’m not sure where you’re going with this. . .”
Stumped, Kile and Keltner glance at each other and then squint back at the video feed, which is full of blank parking spaces. Oakley reveals the magic: With infrared, darker means cooler, so a darker space could be an indication that a vehicle was there, shading the pavement from the heat of the sun.
The sensor operator is doing more actual work as the pilot sits and watches. And in the event the pilot pulls the trigger, launching a missile from the wing, it’s the sensor operator who actually tags the target with the laser designator for the missile. It can be a nerve-racking 30 seconds trying to keep a moving target in the crosshairs. Oh, and there can be a two-second delay before the data is decompressed and the sensor ball moves. Oakley says that even though he grew up playing Microsoft Flight Control and has more than 1,200 hours in the Predator, he still finds operating UAVs challenging. It’s definitely no videogame.
WHO’S FLYING THIS THING, ANYWAY?
So what does it take, exactly, to produce a UAV ace? To start with, the same skills required to master any other aircraft, according to experts like Colonel Eric Mathewson, who switched from flying F-15s to UAVs 10 years ago after a back injury forced him out of the cockpit. If that’s true, though, will sending pilots directly to Predator grad school without the full foundation of aviation training rob them of “airmanship,” that immeasurable suite of skills that includes sound judgment, proficiency under duress, and a sixth sense called situational awareness—knowing where your plane is in the three-dimensional battle space? Sitting in Nevada, says Kile, “You don’t get that seat-of-the pants feeling.”
On the other hand, should that matter? With drones, all the information you need to fly is right there in front of you, numerically and visually—the same information a cockpit pilot would use to fly at night. And you don’t have the added stress of worrying about dying. Either way, the beta training is designed to find out. “It’s called ‘beta test’ because it’s a test, a guess,” says Mathewson. “It’ll be modified.”
If the standard undergraduate pilot training proves expendable, it’s not hard to imagine a distinct set of characteristics that recruiters might look for in the UAV pilots of tomorrow. Maybe a little less barnstormer and a little more geek. Predator pilots don’t need the killer instinct so much as the ability to switch from boredom to rapid-fire project management when a target is getting away. “One of the things that’s very difficult to wrap your arms around is that we have So. Much. Information,” said a Predator operator and former fighter pilot, Captain Patrick, who would give only his rank and first name because he’s involved in combat operations. “Look at all these monitors. It’s learning how to filter and find and utilize that information correctly. You’ve got to be able to multitask in a fighter, and you’ve got to do that even more so here. It’s harder.”
PATTERNS OF LIFE
Brockshus doesn’t particularly love the commute to Creech every day. But when he was still flying combat operations, it served as a buffer between the stress of work and his home life. “Sometimes I’ll be sitting there having a soda on the couch and think, Wow, an hour ago, I was just at war,” he says.
A month after he began flying combat UAVs, he and his crew were watching a trigger house, which gives insurgents a vantage over a roadway to detonate an IED as a vehicle passes. Brockshus had spotted two people stringing wires from the house to the road the night before, but that wasn’t enough to go on. This night, however, the figures appeared to pull back a dark spot on the road and crouch—plugging in wires. Seeing that feed, the ground unit gave him clearance to fire, and he launched a missile. He saw it reach one of the men. “It landed right at his feet, and—” Brockshus pauses. “He was gone.”
His wife was in bed when he arrived home at 2 a.m. after filling out all the reports. She gave him a groggy hug, said she was proud he took his first shot, and fell back to sleep. He’ll never forget the date. It was his daughter’s second birthday, and he had cake with her before heading off to work.
Call in an Order
Ground units in Iraq or Afghanistan file hundreds of requests a day for air support from the constantly airborne 31 Predators and three Reapers among the Air Force’s fleet. Missions include tracking vehicles, scanning roads for bombs, and providing cover for troops.
Wait for Approval
With demand outpacing supply, the Joint Forces Air Component commander can approve just a fraction of the requests. Once cleared, a pilot crew in the U.S. diverts an airborne UAV [above, a Reaper] to the designated hotspot.
Track the Data
The Predator and Reaper drones stream up to 18,000 hours of live video a month to ground troops and pilot crews back home. The Predator can stay aloft for up to 24 hours, the Reaper 16.
Find the Target
The pilot communicates with an airman on the ground through a secure radio signal transmitted through a satellite link to determine targets.
Once a target is marked, the ground commander clears the pilot crew for akinetic engagement.a The pilot fires the missile, while the sensor operator aims the drone’s laser, constantly adjusting the beam to remain on target.