CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada — Twenty years after the U.S. Air Force deployed its first Predator spy drone—and 14 years since the missile-armed, flying robot killed its first human victim—the lethal, flying robot finally has a conflict to call its own.
More than any previous war, the U.S.-led assault on ISIS is being waged by drones. And that’s both a point of pride and a problem for the relatively small and badly overworked group of airmen who fly and repair the remotely piloted warplanes.
Since launching Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS militants last August, the United States military and its allies have conducted more than 3,800 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, dropping or firing no fewer than 15,000 bombs and missiles, according to Defense Department statistics from late May.
Predator drones and their larger cousins the Reapers, carrying 100-pound Hellfire missiles and 500-pound precision-guided bombs, have accounted for 875 of those airstrikes, officials at the Air Force’s main drone base in Nevada tell The Daily Beast. And on the raids where manned planes hauled the weapons, the Predators and Reapers have played a vital supporting role.
“We’re involved in pretty much every engagement,” says Col. James Cluff, commander of the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base just north of Las Vegas. The 432nd’s nearly 4,000 people operate the majority of the Air Force’s roughly 300 Predators and Reapers. For ops in Iraq and Syria, small crews launch and land the drones from a base in Kuwait.
Once the ’bots are airborne, operators at Creech and other bases in the United States take control of the drones via Ku-band satellite, scanning the ground below through sophisticated cameras packed in ball-shaped turrets under the drones’ noses.
Even with weapons underwing, a Predator or Reaper can stay airborne for more than 12 hours, thanks to its lightweight airframe made from fabric-like carbon composites and its fuel-efficient, rear-mounted propeller engine.
The drones have been American leaders’ favorite surveillance tool since the Bosnia war in 1995. The remote-controlled warplanes grew even more popular after the Air Force added weapons in 2001. But Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria is, in many ways, the perfect war for the high-tech drones.
That’s because President Obama has forbidden the thousands of U.S. advisers in Iraq from getting close to the front lines. In previous conflicts, the Air Force, Army, and Marines were able to send specially trained spotters right up to the front lines to help direct warplanes to their targets. Manned planes over Iraq and Syria rely mostly on Predators and Reapers to guide them.
The drones lent their assistance from the start of Inherent Resolve. ISIS militants had surrounded tens of thousands of civilians from the Yazidi minority group on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq and threatened to exterminate them. One of the Pentagon’s first actions was to send C-17 cargo planes to drop food and water to the civilians, and weapons and ammo to the mountain’s militia defenders.
But with no Americans on the ground to scout out the terrain, the C-17s were flying blind. So Creech’s remote air warriors sent in their drones to pinpoint the Yazidis and track each parachute-rigged bundle the C-17s dropped, all to “ensure the supplies reached the people who needed it,” says Col. Julian Cheater, a senior officer at Creech.
After ISIS pulled back from Mount Sinjar and the Yazidis evacuated, the Predators and Reapers switched to what the Air Force calls “buddy-lasing.” Flying ahead of the fighters and bombers, the drones spotted militant forces with their cameras then hit them with invisible, low-power lasers. The manned warplanes lobbed precision-guided bombs that followed the drones’ lasers right onto the militants’ heads.
Most of the thousands of air raids the United States and its allies have launched since August have involved Predators or Reapers spotting or lasing targets, making the flying robots the war’s indispensible weapons.
Cluff, Cheater, and the other top officers at Creech are proud of their airmen’s leading role in Iraq and Syria and, in an unusual move for the traditionally secretive drone force, even invited reporters to the desert base this week. But the drone leaders say they’re worried, too—their airmen are overworked. “Some of them have flown in combat for three, four, five years straight,” Cluff points out.
Fighter and bomber squadrons deploy overseas for six months then return home and take a break. But because most of them can work via satellite from Creech and commute home when they’re off-duty, during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, the drone operators fell into a military version of a nine-to-five routine, flying surveillance missions, buddy-lasing, and launching Hellfires five days a week, week after week, year after year without meaningful rest.
A year ago, Creech’s Predator and Reaper crews were looking forward to a break as the wars wound down. “Then ISIS happened,” Cluff says. “We never saw a lull.”
Drone crews have always worked hard. But now they’re busier than ever waging the first war they can truly claim to own. “There’s insatiable demand,” Cluff laments. And with his drone crews at the breaking point, the colonel says he and other commanders have no choice but to cut back on the number of Predators and Reapers they keep in the air at any given moment—from 65 to 60.
It’s the first time in the 20-year history of modern drones that the Air Force has reduced, rather than expanded, its robotic ops. At the peak of their military prowess, leading an intensive air war over Iraq and Syria, America’s Predator and Reaper crews insist on a little relief.