The Drone Dudes

Captain Ray Rollins backs his Dodge Ramcharger truck out of his modest homegarage in Las Vegas and begins the 30 – minute commute to work. Evidence of the economic recession looms large across Las Vegas in 2012 as he rumbles past abandoned strip malls and empty parking lots, shopping centres that have died by the roadside, starved to death by the lack of dollars. Red lights have no cross – traffic. It is a parody of the American dream. But Rollins does not notice the meltdown. His mind is on his mission as he steers across the Mojave Desert to his ”. Rollins might live and work in Las Vegas, but his day job is bombing Afghanistan – 12,133 kilometres away. As long as he doesnget a flat tyre on the way to work.
Rollins works at Nellis Air Force Base, which covers 12000 acres in the desert and is home to a series of top-secret US Air Force programmes. Conspiracy theorists focus on nearby Area 51 and the tales of captured aliens and intergalactic UFOs. But insiders know the real intrigue is here at Nellis, where thousands of Air Force personnel and much of the baseactivity is focused on controlling deadly aircraft on the other side of the world. No reporters are allowed anywhere near the drone operations. Even the word “drone” is rarely uttered. To the military these are either UAV or RPA: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or Remotely Piloted Aircraft. When armed, these crewless machines are known as the Killers”.
Rollins hands his magnetic entry ID to an armed and uniformed Air Force guard. While he waits for clearance, he notes there are no protestors at the base gate today. Sometimes local peace groups stand in the scorching sun and hold signs calling for an end to the drone wars. Probably too hot, Rollins thinks.
His credentials confirmed, Rollins parks his truck outside a low, coffee coloured building, is buzzed through two more levels of security, then sits down in a padded chair bolted to the floor – it looks like a seat scavenged from the economy section of a Boeing 747.
Rollins is inside the zone”, a room roughly the size of a typical prison cell, where a three – person crew is uncomfortably crammed together for eight-, ten- or 12 – hour shifts. Rollins is a remote pilot and, at least for now, the US Air Force is still using real pilots who have been through flight school and are qualified to man military aircraft. There s talk, though, of just using the skills of guys who grew up on a diet of XBox and PlayStation.
A bank of screens in front of Rollins reflect nearly a dozen blinking and flashing images: flight status, speed, wind conditions and all the other information a pilot needs to be able to fly a plane, even if he is firmly on the ground, in a room 12000 km away. Somewhere out in Afghanistan, a Predator drone is cruising at 160 km/h at 2,7 km above a desert that looks a lot like the one where Rollins lives.
The Predator is a windowless, eight metre – long aircraft that looks like a giant insect. It and other drones are launched and landed from a series of mostly secret bases around the world, while in-flight control is handled by pilots like Rollins, many of whom live in Vegas.
The US military calls the Predator its top Hunter Killer and, as any hunter knows, therealways more time spent tracking than killing. Ittedious. During work hours, the drone crews donhave any access to the Internet and the use of cellphones is banned. While discreetly following vehicles and individuals half a world away, boredom is so common that staying awake at the controls can become a medically diagnosable problem for some pilots.
Where Hollywood populates the military world with non-stop action, the reality here is more like the world of a long-distance spy. Usually orders are strict and unchanging: watch the screens, monitor the craft, but do not actually touch the controls. Todaymission is one of these. think our job is all action,”says Rollins. orders are mostly to be on standby.”Mostly, theyjust tracking suspicious vehicles and individuals: Predator [can] tail them wherever they [go] and they never seem to catch on,”writes Lt. Col Matt Martin, who has flown hundreds of drone missions. Special cameras onboard allow for filming in low
light or during night flights, but the camera angle is tight – just 30 degrees – so the pilot has no peripheral vision, just a straight and narrow view that the men call Soda Straw”, as it feels like youlooking down one. Ita keyhole perspective using a peeping eye that never blinks or sleeps. As one Predator runs low on fuel, a second is launched to continue the non-stop surveillance.
Classified chat messages flash up on a screen and allow the pilots and camera operators to monitor and feed information to military personnel throughout the chain of command – ranging from small, special ops units on the ground to generals at command HQ.
From Nellis and other Las Vegas – area Air Force Bases like it, the US organises a worldwide fleet of remote – control aircraft, ranging from small, hand – launched surveillance drones (called the Raven) to the armed triage of kill machines that bear the official names ”, ”and ”. They all carry sophisticated ”missiles, for when things get real.
And they do. from above,”writes Martin, describing his first kill. His experience was unusual: after just ten minutes at the controls healready used a drone to kill. But he was detached from the reality. Describing the immediate aftermath, he says: I remember my wife Trish has asked me to pick up a litre of milk on the way home.”The dream of unmanned flight was, until recently, still the stuff of science fiction. But immediately after September 11, drones were hurriedly deployed. Now the US spends as much as $4 billion a year on them. In the first three years of Obamapresidency, drone operations increased by about 400 percent, with more than 250 attacks by drones in Pakistan alone – one every four days.
Drone pilots insist they have multiple safeguards to protect against killing civilians, but firing rockets from the air can have unintended consequences. Martin describes once launching a missile at a group of terrorist suspects, only to watch helplessly as civilians wandered into the kill zone.
There have been quiet kills: small bands of rebels in Somalia, Yemen or Pakistan who are one moment driving along in a remote canyon, feeling protected in their armoured 4x4s, when suddenly death swoops down.
There have been celebrated kills: the death of Osama Bin Laden was allegedly based on thousands of hours of radar – evading drone flights that circled quietly above the figure of a tall man walking alone in his thick – walled back yard.
But there have also been highly controversial kills. The drone killing of three US citizens suspected of being Al Qaeda operatives has sparked a debate within the US about the legality of the secret drone wars.
All this while the CIA maintains resolutely there havenbeen any civilian casualties from drone attacks and the Pentagon is working on expanding the drone programme at record speed.
While newspapers and magazines debate it, the US Air Force is wasting no time to permanently militarise the sky with thousands of non-stop drone operations ready to film, follow and bomb anyone considered an enemy of America and the “free world”. US military budgets may be cut slightly over the next several years (barring the eruption of another war in Iran), but the budget for drones will increase, to double, and perhaps even triple, in less than a decade.
Many of the core drone functions could finally be handed over to computer programs, as finding enough staff to pilot these drones is proving to be one of the “free world”. US military budgets may be cut slightly over the next several years (barring the eruption of another war in Iran), but the budget for drones will increase, to double, and perhaps even triple, in less than a decade.
Many of the core drone functions could finally be handed over to computer programs, as finding enough staff to pilot these drones is proving to be one of the
Drone operations are growing so fast that everyone is doing double-time. And, as many of the men note, this is not exactly the movie star image of fighter pilots. is throwing a scarf around your neck and climbing into a cockpit on the airstrip,”says one pilot who was transferred – against his wishes – from flying fighter jets in a maelstrom of G – forces to just holding a joystick. His new office is a miserable, virtual isolation chamber in a prison – sized box in the middle of the Mojave Desert for 12 hours a day, six days a week. Usually the pilots work six days on, two days off, but given the huge increase in demand, many of the men are shanghaied into ”for extra hours.
one wants to be here,”one pilot says. is where they dump us. My boss, he was a pilot who accidentally killed a group of civilians, thatwhy he is here. They dontrust him with a real plane.”
One in five drone operators confesses to being extremely stressed, and a big part of it is from the strain of living two distinct lives, with very different demands and expectations. The Air Force report noted that fliers have great difficulty in the attempt to juggle onewar fighter role with having to sustain onedomestic duties”. Thatmilitary speak for, weird that I bomb Afghanistan in the morning, then take my four – year – old to swimming lessons in the afternoon.”
Whatever one may think of it, this is just the early stages of an entire generation of far more sophisticated robot war machines to come. coming drone wars are going to be huge. We are about to have swarm technologies where a whole bunch of drones are operated by one guy,”says one active duty drone pilot.
And for men like Rollins, how will their minds continually withstand the contradictions of living in parallel realities, both equally important? Ita little like being Dexter, perhaps. On the one hand, you are like a Dark Passenger, killing without remorse; on the other, you have to remember to change Juniornappy and mow the lawn.