With shift to drones, war is often waged from home
A student pilot and sensor operator man the controls of a MQ-9 Reaper in a ground-based cockpit during a training mission flown from Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, Syracuse, New York.
Los Angeles Times
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Strapped into the cockpit of an F-16 jet fighter, Air Force Col. Scott Brenton has dropped bombs over Bosnia, screamed over the desert in Iraq and strafed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. But on a recent morning, Brenton flew his combat mission from a leather easy chair in a low-slung cinder block building on the edge of Syracuse.
Brenton's unit, the 174th Fighter Wing of the New York Air National Guard, traded in its fleet of F-16s for unmanned Reaper drones two years ago. Since then, the reserve pilots have been flying nearly around-the-clock combat operations over Afghanistan from a base about five miles from this city's nearest Wal-Mart.
This is what the future of air power looks like.
The Air Force is pulling jet fighters from the flight lines by the hundreds and replacing them with Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks, all piloted from cockpits bolted firmly to the ground. As a result, more and more of war is being waged from home — thousands of miles from the snap of gunfire, shock waves and shrapnel.
"Ultimately, it is conceivable that the majority of aviators in our Air Force will be remotely piloted aircraft operators," Gen. Norton Schwartz, chief of staff of the Air Force, told reporters last week.
Critics say the shift blurs the boundaries of the battlefield and makes it too easy to decide to drop a bomb.
Brenton, the wing's full-time operations group commander, spent a recent morning here with his finger on the trigger of two 500-pound bombs and a rack of Hellfire missiles nearly 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan.
"I walked out of that building and put on my 'Syracuse hat' and just talked to my wife on the phone," said Brenton, 47, after his combat mission. "It's a different way of fighting a war." He would not say whether he had fired any weapons that day.
Because attack drones can be piloted from anywhere, the technology is beaming the war in Afghanistan into once-sleepy 9-to-5 airfields around the United States.
Air National Guard units based in New York, North Dakota, Texas, Arizona and California have traded some or all of their manned jets for drones, which are piloted here but take off and land on runways overseas.
Air Force reserve pilots are sometimes dismissively called "weekend warriors" because they are required to work only one weekend a month and two weeks a year. Now they're finding themselves stepping into heated combat — and firing live ammunition — for a few hours at a time.
The transition to robots is creating a major cultural shift for the Air National Guard. Weekend training exercises that used to take pilots 30,000 feet above their hometowns at 1,000 mph have been replaced by combat shifts on an air-conditioned base.
Last year, the Air Force trained more drone pilots than the total number of conventional bomber and fighter pilots combined. In the last decade, the Air Force has pulled more than 250 manned fighters off the flight line and plans to retire 123 more next year. During that time, the Air Force drone fleet has ballooned from 39 Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks to 280. When small drones in use by Army scouts and other services are included, the tally of unmanned aircraft in the military shoots to more than 7,000.
Older pilots refer to the newest crop as the "PlayStation generation" but will admit that they have an instinctual feel for the computers that run the drones. The cockpit has a keyboard, a joystick and up to six flat-screen monitors showing the altitude and pitch of the plane, the video feed, maps, navigation charts and mission plans.
"Let's be honest. I miss getting in an airplane," said Col. Greg "Gabby" Semmel, the wing commander for the 174th Fighter Wing. Semmel, 48, who has flown more than 3,000 miles in an F-16, said the remote-piloting technology allows the wing to do what it was trained to do — fly close air support for soldiers on the ground.
"But I can tell you that I get just as excited walking into the GCS [ground control station] to go fly a combat mission. I can tell you when things get busy — and they get busy very often during those missions — my adrenaline gets going just as much as it did sitting in the cockpit of an F-16. My heart gets pounding just as much," Semmel said.
Bringing Reapers to Syracuse saved hundreds of jobs on Hancock Field Air National Guard Base; those jobs would have left in March 2010 when the final F-16 was flown off the base to be mothballed in a boneyard of decommissioned jets in Arizona.
Many of the welders and machinists that patched the aluminum frames of the F-16s and kept the single-seat fighters fast and safe were retrained as imagery analysts and computer technicians. Keeping Reapers aloft and understanding the massive amount of video and radar data they collect requires dozens of technicians, intelligence analysts and sensor operators.
But the new mission at Hancock Field has riled a small and vocal community of antiwar activists in upstate New York. Over the last two years, protesters have barricaded the base's security checkpoint, staged gruesome human tableaus meant to depict Afghan civilians killed by an airstrike, dressed in black-hooded Grim Reaper costumes, and delivered fake war crime indictments to the pilots flying the Reaper missions.
"Jobs have become a justification for anything and everything," said Rae Kramer, a 65-year-old former healthcare administrator, standing at a busy intersection in Syracuse last week with 10 other protesters. She was shaking a piece of white poster board that read: "Drones murder civilians."
"The whole notion that the battlefield is no longer limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan and that rockets are being launched from right here concerns me — and the possibility of retaliation," she said.
Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense who was a navigator on Navy patrol planes during the Vietnam War, said that the "real danger is — because no human beings are exposed to harm in the plane — that people will use this more frequently than they would if they had to send troops in on the ground."
Three years ago, as the 174th Fighter Wing prepared to fly regular combat missions from the Syracuse base, the command increased the number of mental health staff members at the airfield and hired a full-time chaplain.
"If you're flying a combat mission — I don't care if you are in an aircraft or operating it from afar — it is a high-stress environment," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael M. Dunn, president of the Air Force Assn. "Your blood pressure is up. Your heart is racing — then to have someone tap you on the shoulder and say it is time to go home and kiss the wife — that is a hard transition to make," Dunn said.
Air Force Lt. Col. Douglas Cunningham, a Roman Catholic priest, has a security clearance that allows him to be in the control room during active bombing missions. Since his arrival, Cunningham has tried to gain the trust of the pilots and crew members so he can see if the stress of switching between dropping bombs and helping their children with homework is starting to wear.
The hardest part for the crew sometimes is to get up and get out of the chair and go home to a comfortable bed, knowing that the soldiers in Afghanistan are still on the ground and still taking fire.
Cunningham tries to offer some comfort.
"I let them know, 'If it wasn't for you, they wouldn't be as safe as they are over there, because we bring them a lot of security just watching over them,'" Cunningham said. "They are protecting life."