Remote Warriors: How Drone Pilots Wage War

By in New York

Drone pilots sit in air-conditioned rooms far away from the anti-terror wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They guide their weapons systems with joysticks and monitors. The remote warriors work with a high degree of precision -- and at a fraction of the cost of a fighter jet.

Drones are piloted from thousands of miles away in the United States. Zoom
Getty Images

Drones are piloted from thousands of miles away in the United States.

"Two passengers, including target five, have entered the building," announces a disembodied voice. "Copy," the woman replies. "Sensor confirms."

She is sitting in front of a computer keyboard with five monitors, joysticks in both her hands. The man next to her has the same set of instruments in front of him. "I've got eight missiles and two bombs on two Predators," he says. "Weapons ready."

The main monitor shows an aerial image of a street, live and from a considerable height. Two people can be seen walking out of a building, getting into a truck, and driving off, followed by the computer's crosshairs. "Three, two, one," the man counts down, then presses a red button: "Impact."

The truck disappears in an explosion. "Excellent job," the man says.

Like A Video Game without the Sound

The entire mission lasts two minutes. It's an "enemy target kill," performed by the United States military against a faceless enemy and executed by a remote-controlled drone, known in technical terms as an "unmanned aerial vehicle" (UAV) or "remotely piloted aircraft" (RPA).

A demo video shows this particular mission as viewed from the ground station in the US, where the pilot -- the man -- and the sensor operator -- the woman -- sit on the other side of the world from their target. The whole thing looks like a computer game minus the sound effects.

Photo Gallery

11  Photos
Photo Gallery: Waging War with the Click of a Mouse

But, of course, it's far from a game. The increasing use of drones to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban is creating a virtual war, one that doesn't require combatants to get their hands dirty -- but their actions are just as lethal.

"This is much beyond an evolution," P.W. Singer, an expert on warfare, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's a revolution."

'We're Only at the Beginning'

Linden Prause Blue is the president of reconnaissance systems at General Atomics, the defense and technology contractor that manufactures the Predator and the Reaper, two leading drone types. He oversees the relevant department within his company. "I think we're only at the beginning," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "There are major changes the public will see in the coming decade."

The US has two drone programs operating out of two command centers. CIA drone pilots are located on the east coast, in the catacombs of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. They are 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) away from Kabul. The US military's drone pilots are even further west, at Creech Air Force Base in the deserts of Nevada, about an hour's drive northwest of the gamblers' paradise Las Vegas.

Both flight control centers look alike -- they're computer rooms that are sterile, insular and above all secure. Members of the Air Force's 42nd Attack Squadron, who operate drones in Afghanistan from the base in Nevada and mostly live in Las Vegas, call themselves "combat commuters". They perform their military duties for the day, then drive home.

Bizarre Lifestyle

"In the morning you carpool or you take a bus and drive into work, you operate for an eight-hour shift, and then you drive back home," Air Force Major Bryan Callahan, 37, explained to SPIEGEL ONLINE. Callahan flew drones for four years in Nevada and now serves as assistant branch chief at the Air Combat Command Headquarters in Langley, sharing responsibility for all US drones worldwide. He is well acquainted with the somewhat bizarre lifestyle of a drone pilot.

"I do emails in the morning, rush to the airplane, come out, go to the BX (editor's note: Base Exchange), get myself a hamburger, do some more email, do it again, drive home," he relates.

These long-distance warriors, who have been stationed in Nevada since 2006, always work in pairs. The pilot sits on the left side of the computer station, controlling the drones and firing the weapons. The sensor operator sits on the right and controls visual surveillance, with the ability to zoom in and make infrared and other types of radiation visible. The pilot and sensor operator each have five monitors in front of them, with live video feeds from the drone's camera as well as images and data from satellites.

The team is in constant radio contact with the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at the US Central Command headquarters in Qatar, through which ground troops request drone deployment, and with the American base in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, where the UAVs take off and land. These missions follow the same rules of conduct as all battleground combat, with the goal of avoiding civilian casualties -- at least on paper.

Not a Video Game

Despite the distance, the drone pilots feel as if they're on the front line. "You get more attached than you would think from being in Nevada," Callahan says. "Killing someone with an RPA is not different than with an F-16. We're well aware that if you push that button somebody can go away. It's not a video game. You take it very seriously."

This new technology, Singer writes, is worryingly "seductive," because it creates the perception that war can be "costless."Nonetheless, it creates psychological wounds, former CIA lawyer Vicki Divoll warns in the New Yorker. "Mechanized killing is still killing."

Unlike the CIA's drones, the majority of the Air Force's drone missions simply provide surveillance, logistics support and data collection, according to the Pentagon. "The power behind it is more about the video downlink and the huge ability to bring information into the system," Major General Stephen Mueller, director of coordinating air resources for the Air Force in Kabul, told the New York Times. The two most common drone models, the Predator and Reaper, now supply more than 400 hours of video a day to troops in Afghanistan, which they can follow on their laptops.

A single drone system consists of four aircraft, a ground station, a satellite link and a maintenance crew at the launch site, who keep the drones ready for use around the clock. The system is nonetheless considerably less expensive than a fighter jet. A Predator system costs $20 million (€15 million) and a Reaper system $53 million (€39 million).

One sector that is certainly profiting from the drone boom is the defense industry. The US defense budget for 2010 allots $3.5 billion for UAVs alone and this money is split up between a small number of highly specialized companies. They include the Boeing subsidiary Insitu and General Atomics from San Diego, which is currently working on a brand new drone prototype.

Steven Sliwa, head of Insitu, recently told the Wall Street Journal that the industry is in an enviable position -- like "the aeronautical industry around World War II."

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Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Prominent Victims of Drone Attacks
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Graphics Gallery: The Use of Drones

The Most Important Drone Models
MQ-1 Predator
The MQ-1 Predator was the first drone put into operation. It was introduced in 1995 by the US Air Force.

Manufacturer: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Unit Price: About $4.5 million
Armament: Two air-to-surface AGM-114 Hellfire missiles
Dimensions: 8.23 meters long, 14.84-meter wingspan
Range: 3,704 kilometers
Maximum altitude: 7,620 meters
Control: Remotely controlled by a pilot
MQ-9 Reaper
The MQ-9 Reaper (formerly Predator B) is based on the same technology as the MQ-1 Predator. However, it can carry 10 times more weaponry than its predecessor. It is used by the US Navy and Air Force.

Manufacturer: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Unit price: $10.5 million
Armament: Up to 1,351 kg (e.g. AGM-114 Hellfire and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles or the GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU-38 DAM bombs)
Dimensions: 10.97 meters long, 20.12-meter wingspan
Range: 5,926 kilometers
Maximum Altitude: 15,400 meters
Control: Remotely controlled by a pilot
RQ-7 Shadow 200
The RQ-7 Shadow 200 is used by the US Army and US Marine Corps for reconnaissance. It has been in operation since 2003 and is not capable of flying attack missions.

Manufacturer: AAI Corporation
Unit Price: $275,000
Armament: none
Size: 3.4 meters long, 3.9-meter wingspan
Range: 125 kilometers
Maximum altitude: 4,600 meters
Control: Autonomous, with GPS

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