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Behind the Scenes With America's Drone Pilots 419

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-can-see-my-house-from-here dept.
An anonymous reader writes "As President Obama meets with advisors on an Afghanistan strategy today (who are now leaning more toward Joe Biden's more-drones policy), and even as Al Qaeda claims it's not all that scared of drones, the new issue of Esquire takes the first real in-depth look at the American military's UAV build-up. Defense geek Brian Mockenhaupt spends some time on the ground in Afghanistan, as well as back at the Pentagon, where the pilots ('more like snipers than fighter pilots') are playing a kind of role-playing game, getting to know terrorists' daily ins and outs. Looks like these Reaper drones are the real wave of the future, eh?"
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Behind the Scenes With America's Drone Pilots

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  • ChAir Force (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Conchobair (1648793)
    I've heard UAV pilots refered to more than once as the ChAir Force.
    • by biryokumaru (822262) * <biryokumaru@gmail.com> on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:27PM (#29746981)
      I've heard the Air Force referred to more than once as the Chair Force.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      ChAir Force?

      Then Steve Ballmer should be made a general.

    • Re:ChAir Force (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Whorhay (1319089) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:55PM (#29747375)

      That's the Air Force as a whole not just the drone pilots.

      What is laughable though is that the drone pilots get their time flying drones counted as flight hours which count toward their career gates. So for being at less risk than most anyone else and essentially playing flight sim games all day they get bonus pay.

      • Re:ChAir Force (Score:5, Insightful)

        by thrillseeker (518224) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:04PM (#29747493)
        It's a flight sim "game" with real death for someone at the end of the day, not "pretend death and go post my frag score on slashdot". They receive flight hours towards their career gates because the training and experience to perform this mission is specialized and expensive to generate, so that providing a solid incentive path to bring and keep high quality personnel in the career field is important.
  • by Botched (1314867) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:30PM (#29747041)
    To be a rigger?
    • by jgtg32a (1173373)
      Am I the only one who misread that, and was confused why a troll was +5 funny?
      • No, my friend, you're not the only one: I definitely read the "magic word" right there, and thought "huh? WTF has THAT gotta do with anything?"

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Wiz idea, chummer.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:34PM (#29747089)

    ...given the serious topic, but this is IMHO another typical case of American fantasy: a war without casualties. I mean, without American casualties, of course. Wishful thinking, whatever technologies you throw at the problem.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      This isn't really a fantasy. Assuming other unmanned vehicles are developed such as tanks, or robots that can replace infantry it's reasonable to think that within a few decades America could conduct a war without casualties against a sufficiently undeveloped nation.
      • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:54PM (#29748217)

        And lose. You can't *hold* ground with robots or avatars. You can't win hearts and minds. You can't accomplish significant political objectives.

    • Also, a war where air power achieves long term goals alone - sure a hell of a lot of the Yugoslav conflict was resolved in the air, until you realize that neither side took any long term losses from it - Serbia seemingly lost a tank force twice the size of what it even had and its entire airforce, and months after the peace it was operational again.

    • by dave562 (969951)

      There seems to be some misguided impression that we can win the war from the air. There is the impression that we can take care of al Qaeda with drone attacks. The dynamics of the situation are far more complex than that. The Afghan government does not have very much legitimacy among the people. Society in that part of the world is heavily based on tribal politics. The Taliban has an entire parallel government setup. That parallel government more or less runs the country outside of Kabul. Don't even

      • Society in the world is heavily based on tribal politics.

        Deep down, that is the accurate version.

        • by dave562 (969951)

          I meant to say in "that part" of the world... It hasn't evolved much past the tribal level over there.

          • That's why I didn't say corrected, I said that it was more accurate, nuance - I see what you meant, and I'm saying you're partially wrong.
            No, it has, they just have less of a veneer. Which is understandable, they've been in civil war since the fall of the monarchy with short phases of dictatorship in between, it's a breeding ground for a return to old style politics - besides we don't notice it as such elsewhere, but in a lot of places the "state" is just a fancy thing a local tribe did - see how many of th

            • by dave562 (969951)

              To see tribal politics at work in America you don't have to look much further than the local school playground. By high school the tribal culture is ingrained. Gangs are tribes. The police force and law enforcement agencies are tribes. The marketing machine thrives on tribal politics. Look at the cults that have sprouted up around Linux, Apple, Microsoft, etc. Those are just obvious examples that are at play here on Slashdot. Tribal mentality pervades pretty much all aspects of our culture. Our gove

      • by jamstar7 (694492) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:18PM (#29748549)

        The Afghan government does not have very much legitimacy among the people. Society in that part of the world is heavily based on tribal politics. The Taliban has an entire parallel government setup. That parallel government more or less runs the country outside of Kabul.

        That's pretty much been the situation in Afghanistan since recorded history began. Under Taliban rule, the Taliban basically ruled Kabul, and outside the city limits, it was no man's land. The Taliban didn't give up bin Laden because they couldn't, he was 400 miles away in disputed territory and the Taliban didn't have the military to pull that off. There's a considerable difference between can't and won't. What the war did was create enough martyrs to put the Taliban in a stronger position than ever before.

    • by vertinox (846076) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:21PM (#29747739)

      ...given the serious topic, but this is IMHO another typical case of American fantasy: a war without casualties.

      I'm pretty sure that was the intent of all inventions developed for wartime use.

      From the spear, the longbow, musket, and machine gun... The intent and purpose was to give your side the benefit of being able to put the enema at "arms length" (so to say) and put you on the side less likely to die.

      I mean having people kamikaze their aircraft into targets might be more cost effective in the short term, but the point of making weapons was to kill the other side more effectively by putting your side at less risk.

      Just a note...

      Its really been the US doctrine since WWII whereas the Russians, Japanese, and Germans generals would still order suicidal attacks on targets for bravery where the US forces would just bomb the crap out of it, shell it with more artillery than needed, call in more air strikes, and then have the infantry move in forward with tanks in front of them. The tactics work.

      • by Red Flayer (890720) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:31PM (#29747879) Journal

        From the spear, the longbow, musket, and machine gun... The intent and purpose was to give your side the benefit of being able to put the enema at "arms length" (so to say) and put you on the side less likely to die.

        FWIW, you don't need to put the enema a full arms' length up there. Just a couple inches past the sphincter will do fine. If you want to try for arms' length, go right ahead -- it's your bowels, after all... I just suggest using extra lube in that case.

      • That's a pretty limited view of things, the Russians carried most of the war and while they lost more soldiers, they achieved more, took more land, and managed to completely open a new front on the other side of the continent in as little as 2 weeks after they finished taking their zone of Germany while the western allies were still ploughing along. On the other hand, strategic bombing barely made a dent in Germany and would probably have had similar results in Japan without a thorough blockade of a country

        • by khallow (566160) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @03:17PM (#29748541)

          Russians carried most of the war and while they lost more soldiers

          They lost almost two orders of magnitude more soldiers than the US did. As I understand it, the US conscripted about 18 million people while the USSR conscripted about twice as much. There's at least an order of magnitude more casualties per million in the USSR army than the US. Further, the USSR lost (as in were killed) about a third of its military. That's cutting it fine for a winning strategy. While it isn't particularly relevant, the US-associated fronts did capture more physical territory (including the gains in the Pacific, of course).

          And the remark about the USSR opening a new front is silly. They could have opened it in 1935 as well as any time prior to 1945, if they so chose. At the time they opened the front, Japan had abandoned that front. So it was low effort for great gain as far as the Soviets were concerned.

          I also think the strategic bombing had greater effect than popularly claimed. While factories might have not been particularly damaged, the bombing disrupted the logistics of the Nazi empire and forced the Germans to occupy territory that spread out their forces (for example, occupying Scandinavia, North Africa and the islands of the Mediterranean particularly Crete and Malta, the latter which was never successfully invaded).

          Finally, it's worth noting that the USSR did as well as it did through the somewhat greater incompetence of Nazi strategy. Hitler's obsession with taking and occupying Russian cities, particularly Stalingrad and Leningrad, led to the greatest mistakes which doomed Nazi Germany.

  • After reading this I realize the not-so-obvious benefit of real planes flying around patrolling and bombing the enemy... The fear factor. As stated in the summary " Al Qaeda claims it's not all that scared of drones", which makes sense, a little spec in the sky orbiting quietly does not put the fear of God, oh sorry Allah, into the enemy. Get a couple of F35s, A10s or Apaches cruising about voila, fear is back. Intimidation is back factor in warfare. Never really thought about that aspect of an all-dron
    • by jollyreaper (513215) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:58PM (#29747407)

      After reading this I realize the not-so-obvious benefit of real planes flying around patrolling and bombing the enemy... The fear factor. As stated in the summary " Al Qaeda claims it's not all that scared of drones", which makes sense, a little spec in the sky orbiting quietly does not put the fear of God, oh sorry Allah, into the enemy. Get a couple of F35s, A10s or Apaches cruising about voila, fear is back. Intimidation is back factor in warfare. Never really thought about that aspect of an all-drone airforce...

      I've been under an F-15 at an air show and it sounds like God just got home, especially when the afterburners light up. I can only imagine what it's like when there's no concern about popping the eardrums of those on the ground.

      That being said, operationally they keep the aircraft above 20k feet specifically to avoid small arms fire. The level required to act as a psychological weapon makes them great for target practice.

      Incidentally, if they're not intimidated by having antitank missiles and precision-guided bombs falling on their heads, I doubt flying any lower will do much to wilt their spirits.

      • I've been under an F-15 at an air show and it sounds like God just got home, especially when the afterburners light up. I can only imagine what it's like when there's no concern about popping the eardrums of those on the ground.

        The F-15 doesn't get much louder than what happens at an airshow. afterburner is afterburner. A Predator/Reaper is much quieter nearby, and pretty much silent at altitude.
    • by Nidi62 (1525137) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:02PM (#29747475)
      The fear factor isn't from noise. It's from never seeing what platform delivered the munition. You sit a drone up at 25-30k feet, the target wont ever hear it or see it. The survivors of an attack only know that the hand of God came down upon them without any warning, no sound, and their buddies got vaporized. THIS is where you get the fear factor. The knowledge that it could come at any time, and there is no way to know when. In fact, you almost have to assume that there is a drone over you at all times, and that all it would take is the push of a button to wipe you out.
    • If they're not afraid that something they cannot see, but is likely to be present, isn't about to bring in an air strike or an armed patrol... They either ain't too bright, or bullshitting.

      While open brute intimidation is a valuable facet of the psychological side of warfare (which is different from psychological warfare), so is increasing the uncertainty and thickening the fog of war. There are different levels to the game... Open intimidation and shows of force are aimed at the tactical level,

  • Look at the USAF... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tcopeland (32225) <tom@thomaslYEATS ... d.com minus poet> on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:49PM (#29747301) Homepage

    ...Chief of Staff's reading list [militarypr...glists.com]. Short on fighter pilot stuff, long on strategy and counterinsurgency. They see the way things are going, no doubt about it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:53PM (#29747357)

    They're bad because one of the reasons people, soldiers included, don't like war is due to the risk of being killed. If you remove that you also remove the only motivation to stop a war or just not start it. The geek in me loves the tech involved in drones development (minus the weaponry) but my human half is scaried as hell because they represent one more step towards an endless war scenario.

    • by cromar (1103585) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:08PM (#29747575)
      On the other hand, if wars are made up of robots fighting robots, there'd be drastically lowered casualties on both sides... then, maybe, we could reduce wars to episodes of BatteBots [battlebots.com] and generate a large potential for advertising profit as the world tunes in to see the latest "war." In this way, it would be possible to turn the human craving for cyclical violence into a family friendly TV show. The advertising revenue would feed back into the "wars" much in the same manner as the current military-industrial complex uses profits from one war to develop the weapons for the next.
      • Re:Not that bad (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Whorhay (1319089) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:28PM (#29747845)

        It'd never work because people and nations don't go to war over things they think are trivial. And if it's not trivial they are likely to fight tooth and nail for whatever their cause. This is already evident in that the terrorists have resorted to being terrorists because they do not have the resources to fight in a more traditional way on a field of battle. Even we, in the USA, did this during the Revolutionary War.

        We didn't necessarily fall to the same level as the terrorists of today. But at the time shooting from any available cover, specifically targeting officers, and not forming up in ranks to exchange volleys was considered very dishonorable and unsavory by the British.

      • by Rolgar (556636)

        There is going to have to be either a threat of death (either for soldiers or civilians) or economic pain, probably above and beyond the cost of building/replacing and operating your robots. After your enemy destroys your robots, they will always have an incentive to attack your human military, economic capital, or civilian population to force you to give up more in the ensuing treaty.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rleibman (622895)
        Reminds me of a SF short story I read a while back (where did I put that anthology book???) of a time in which the only thing left are robots fighting each other, defending two opposing non existent civilizations.
    • by vertinox (846076)

      They're bad because one of the reasons people, soldiers included, don't like war is due to the risk of being killed.

      I've heard this argument time and time again, but its plain BS

      If it were true Europe would have stopped at WWI and not did WWII.

      People don't mind dying... In fact if you read the memoirs of most WWII US, German, Japanese, Soviet soldiers they have no fear of death after a while and seeing dead bodies doesn't even phase them. Any grunt can have the fear of death beat out of them. Heck, national

      • by khallow (566160)

        Or have you any evidence that genocide and war was any less worse during the Greek and Roman times than now?

        Well, there were less people to kill back then. ;-)

    • I agree let's keep the war to good old fashioned radar guided, over the horizon artillery barrages and "precision" carpet bombing.

      War is about killing the other side without getting killed yourself, it sucks, it's war.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by JerryLove (1158461)

      Soldiers don't start wars. Politicians start wars. Politicians and their families rarely get killed in wars.

  • by Nidi62 (1525137) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:58PM (#29747419)
    Air power never wins wars, and that is what drones are. It is important to have boots on the ground, especially in a counterinsurgency campaign. For most insurgencies, the recruitment pool is the citizenry within the country who are unsatisfied and discontented. If a counterinsurgent force is relying primarily on impersonal methods such as drones or air power, the local populace will never see or interact with the foot soldiers of the counterinsurgency. The only way you can beat an insurgency is by interacting with the populace within the country, to galvanize support for the counterinsurgency campaign. If all you do is bomb people from the air you are going to get eh exact opposite effect. Without boots on the ground, you will not get proper intel. As such, there is a higher likelihood of collateral damage. When surprise attacks indiscriminately kill both combatants and civilians, you lose what little support you may have had. You have to go out there into the bush at the squad or platoon level and interact with local leaders, repair damage from both insurgent and counterinsurgent attacks, give little kids food/medical attention. You build up a rapport with people, and they will work with you. Otherwise, they are more likely to see you as the enemy instead of the insurgents. It may not be the newest, sexiest piece of technology, but it works. And you cant be afraid to have people out in harm's way. You have to have men getting in firefights, so the locals see you actually taking an interest in protecting their towns, their fields, their families. If this doesn't happen, you will lose.
    • by Black Parrot (19622) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:20PM (#29747729)

      Air power never wins wars

      That's the one lesson that nations can't seem to learn.

      Without boots on the ground, you will not get proper intel. As such, there is a higher likelihood of collateral damage. When surprise attacks indiscriminately kill both combatants and civilians, you lose what little support you may have had.

      This is the key. As long as we keep blowing up women and children, we're making more enemies than we kill.

      The West (including Israel) have a blind spot, thinking "collateral casualties don't count". But to the people on the receiving end, their family is just as dead as if we had deliberately blown up their skyscrapers.

      Whatever else our new strategy entails, "no civilian casualties" needs to be the cornerstone, or we're never going to win.

      \rant

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        I'd be tempted to say there's a good half of the west that doesn't have this luxurious blindspot America has. If anything big we to happen, they were on the frontline. Casualty previsions from the cold war in European countries basically ran in the high 80% range, and I'm pretty sure most major powers (India, China, Japan, the Soviets) in Eurasia had pretty similar things - sure, there's probably some of it in what are considered "side conflicts", but that blind spot is something you can't afford to have wh

        • I know, replying to oneself is tacky, but "basically ran in the high 80% range" - for first strike estimates and one week after, they got worse.

    • by jmichaelg (148257)

      Not only are boots on the ground important, but you have to have enough to hold the territory you've gained. It was a hard lesson from the Iraq war that this administration doesn't appear to have learned.

      Michael Yon [michaelyon-online.com] has a great, non-partisan, blog on the war in Afghanistan. Yon is a blogger who used to be a Special Forces member and can see situations developing years before most folks can.

    • I would not agree. However in this day and age where we handicap our side in every war you point is true.

      bombing a population into submission works, it broke the back of the Germans and Japanese. It is far cheaper in manpower expenditure on our side to demoralize an enemy than befriend them. Yet we choose the later and put more people into direct risk.

      I really think we would get seriously hurt in any real conflict as it would take a large population center being affected before we could fight like we had

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MarkvW (1037596)

      Saying airpower doesn't win wars is probably false. I would suggest that the thermonuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki played a war-winning role.

      You have to qualify your statement to read "airpower ALONE doesn't win wars"--that statement has been generally true in the past. On the other hand, any person would be a moron to assume that the statement will continue to be true in the future. Generals usually start the next war off by fighting it just like the previous war. They are oftentimes no

  • by Dan East (318230) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @01:59PM (#29747423) Homepage Journal

    From page 4:

    Indeed, they see many things meant to be secret, like men having sex with sheep and goats in the deep of night. I first heard this from infantry soldiers and took it as rumor, but at Bagram I met a civilian contractor who works in UAV operations. "All the time," he said. "They just don't think we can see them."

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Hopefully these are not brought into sovereign US soil because I certainly wouldn't want my privacy compromised by perverts watching me have sex with my lovely goats.
    • Re:Sex with sheep (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Sinical (14215) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:58PM (#29749895)

      Why don't we just buy a television transmitter and have it broadcast this kind of video 24 hours a day? I dunno how well sheepfucking plays with the locals, but if there's any kind of personally identifiable info, maybe we can ridicule some of these guys to death. Uhm, if there're TVs. Otherwise we could distribute leaflets with choice video stills on them.

      Or not. Mostly I just thought the title of "Afghanistan's Funniest Home Sheepfucking Videos" was really catchy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by sponga (739683)

      Sorry, I had to post one of the infamous 'Donkey Love' videos and this one has music.

      Donkey Love
      http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=325_1253735346 [liveleak.com]

      He even has his buddy help him out, tag team action on the donkey?
      *high five*
      "very nice"

      On a side note, they have a UAV operations center somewhere by Tustin, California and you can talk to the guys at the bar after they get off a days work of UAV surveillance. Of course it is all classified, but I read a couple places where some guys got into discussion with them.

      Weir

  • Looks like these Reaper drones are the real wave of the future, eh?

    At $10.9m, I'd rather see them going cheaper, and deploying more. Having seen the advances in home-built drones at Maker Faire and on RCGroups and having done a little myself, that price is absolutely ludicrous. You need $10.9m aircraft to reduce the risk that the components (or humans, if manned) will be lost in combat or fall into enemy hands. But if you use cheap commodity components, you don't need it to survive.

    I do think there is a rol

  • by dpbsmith (263124) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:52PM (#29748177) Homepage

    Am I the only one reminded of H. G. Wells' "The Land Ironclads?"

    "Their rifles... had the most remarkable sights imaginable, sights which threw a bright little camera-obscura picture into the light-tight box in which the rifleman sat below. This camera-obscura picture was marked with two crossed lines, and whatever wascovered by the intersection of these two lines, that the rifle hit... Changes in the clearness of the atmosphere, due to changes of moisture, were met by an ingenious use of that meteorologically sensitive substance, catgut, and when the land ironclad moved forward the sights got a compensatory deflection in the direction of its motion. The rifleman stood up in his pitch-dark chamber and watched the little picture before him. One hand held the dividers for judging distance, and the other grasped a big knob like a door-handle... When he saw a man he wanted to shoot he brought him up to the cross-lines, and then pressed a finger upon a little push like an electric bell-push, conveniently placed in the centre of the knob. Then the man was shot. If by any chance the rifleman missed his target he moved the knob a trifle, or readjusted his dividers, pressed the push, and got him the second time."

    There is no law of physics guaranteeing the U. S. a monopoly on these things. Yet so much of the discussion implicitly assumes this is something "we" can do to "them."

    The U. S. was certain that the Russians didn't have the technology capability to produce nuclear weapons, yet the U. S. had the monopoly on nuclear weapons for less than four years. (And the Russians then scared us by being the first to produce a fusion device that was capable of being a deliverable weapon--the U. S. had the first fusion explosion but it was a ground-based, building-sized device.

    How difficult are these things to build? Are we sure you can't cobble a crude but effective one out of a video cell phone, an R/C model aircraft, and a couple of iPods? How long before we see these things over U. S. skies?

  • by GodfatherofSoul (174979) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @02:56PM (#29748239)
    I'd just virtualize the controls, make it a MMO game, then offer cash prizes for the top "scores." I guarantee you, you'll have some 14 yr old with a D average who'll figure out how to bounce Hellfire missiles off walls to kill terrorists behind corners.
  • by zookie (136959) on Wednesday October 14, 2009 @04:04PM (#29749185)

    I read the article and was amazed at the great use of technology, that we could beam video and aircraft commands across the world to do surveillance and attacks. But then I saw a special on PBS last night where our ground troops can't even talk with the Afghans. The interpreter didn't speak good english, and his face was blurred out -- no doubt due to fear for his life and his family's safety. So, I wondered, why can't we use the same UAV technology to facilitate better translation?

    Simply, give ground troops a video camera, mic, and speaker. Video and audio would be relayed to a translator sitting anywhere in the world. The translator could translate from Afghan to english, speaking into the troops' earpiece. English to Afghan would be broadcast over the speaker the troop carries. It's not nearly as personal, but I'd bet we'd get better and more translators. They can work anywhere and don't have to fear being shot or their family being threatened.

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