Story Stream
recent articles

The myth of the lone drone warrior is now well established and threatens to become as enduring as that of the lone lawman with a white horse and a silver bullet who rode out into the Wild West to find the bad guys. In a similar fashion, the unsung hero of Washington's modern War on Terror in the wild backlands of the planet is sometimes portrayed as a mysterious Central Intelligence Agency officer. Via modern technology, he prowls Central Asian or Middle Eastern skies with his unmanned Predator drone, dispatching carefully placed Hellfire missiles to kill top al-Qaeda terrorists in their remote hideouts.

So much for the myth. In reality, there's nothing "lone" about drone warfare. Think of the structure for carrying out Washington's drone killing program as a multidimensional pyramid populated with hundreds of personnel and so complex that just about no one involved really grasps the full picture. Cian Westmoreland, a U.S. Air Force veteran who helped set up the drone data communications system over southeastern Afghanistan back in 2009, puts the matter bluntly: "There are so many people in the chain of actions that it has become increasingly difficult to understand the true impact of what we do. The diffusion of responsibility distances people from the moral weight of their decisions."

In addition, it's a program under pressure, killing continually, and losing its own personnel at a startling and possibly unsustainable rate due to "wounds" that no one ever imagined as part of this war. There are, in fact, two groups feeling the greatest impact from Washington's ongoing air campaigns: lowly drone intelligence "analysts," often fresh out of high school, and women and children living in poverty on the other side of the world.

A Hyper-Manned Killing Machine

Here, then, as best it can be understood, is how the Air Force version of unmanned aerial warfare really works -- and keep in mind that the CIA's drone war operations are deeply integrated into this system.

The heart of drone war operations does indeed consist of a single pilot and a sensor (camera) operator, typically seated next to each other thousands of miles from the action at an Air Force base like Creech in Nevada or Cannon in New Mexico. There, they operate Predator or Reaper drones over countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, or Yemen. Either of them might have control over the onboard Hellfire missiles, but it would be wrong to assume that they are the modern day equivalent of the Lone Ranger and his sidekick, Tonto.

In fact a typical "combat air patrol" may have as many as 186 individuals working on it. To begin with, while the pilot and the sensor operator make up the central "mission-control element," they need a "launch-and-recovery element" on the other side of the world to physically deploy the drones and bring them back to bases in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. As with so much that the U.S. military now does, this work is contracted out to companies like Raytheon of Massachusetts.

And don't forget another key group: the imagery and intelligence analysts who watch the video footage the drones are beaming from their potential target areas. They are typically at other bases in the U.S.

Each member of the flight crew has an Air Force designation that specifies his or her task. The pilots are known as 18Xs, the sensor operators are 1Us, and the imagery analysts are 1N1s. The launch and recovery personnel are often former drone pilots who have quit the Air Force because they can make twice as much money working overseas for private contractors.

In charge of the flight operators are a flight operations supervisor and a mission intelligence coordinator who report to a joint force air and space component commander. In addition, there are "safety" observers and judge advocates (military-speak for lawyers) who are supposed to ensure that any decision to launch a missile is made in accordance with officially issued "rules of engagement" and so results in a minimum number of civilian deaths. They are often situated at the Combined Air and Space Operations Center at al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

But Predators and Reapers don't fly solo. They typically roam in packs of four aircraft known as "combat air patrols." Three of them are expected to be in the air at any given time, leaving one on the ground for refueling and maintenance. A fully staffed patrol should have 59 individuals in the field doing launch and recovery, 45 doing mission control, and 82 working on the data gathered.

Bear in mind that the Air Force is currently staffing 65 such combat air patrols around the clock, and the Central Intelligence Agency may well be operating quite a few more. (It is possible that the two fly all missions jointly, but we have no way of knowing if this is so.) In other words, toss away the idea of the lone drone pilot and try to take in the vast size and complexity (as well as the pressures) of drone warfare today.

This, by the way, is why Air Force officials hate the popular industry term for drone aircraft: "unmanned aerial vehicle." The military notes correctly that drones are in every meaningful sense manned. If anything, of course, they are hyper-manned, when compared to, say, a traditional F-16 fighter jet. (In fact, the preferred military term is "remotely piloted aircraft.")

How PTSD Hits the Drone Program

In covering Washington's drone wars, the media has tended to zero in on the top of the kill chain: President Obama, who every Tuesday reviews a "kill list" of individuals to be taken out by drone strikes; the CIA general counsel who has to sign off on each decision (John Rizzo did this, for example); and Michael D'Andrea, the CIA staffer who oversaw the list of those to be killed until he was replaced by Chris Wood last year.

In reality, these decision-makers at the top of the drone pyramid see next to nothing of what happens on the ground. The people who understand just how drone war actually works are the lowly 1N1 imagery analysts. While the pilots are jockeying to keep their planes stable in air currents that they cannot physically feel and sensor operators are manipulating cameras to follow multiple individuals moving around on the ground, the full picture is only obvious to the imagery and intelligence analysts. They are steadily reviewing both real time and past drone footage and comparing surveillance data to see if they can spot potential terrorists.

Many of them are in their teens or slightly older with perhaps a year of formal military training. They are outranked by drone pilots, officers with degrees and years of training at the Air Force Academy, who will typically pull the trigger on a Hellfire missile.