In a tent at Nellis Air Force Base on the northern edge of Las Vegas, the officer in charge of a U.S. Air Force drone unit strolled into a meeting with the 20 or so pilots and sensor operators under his command. It was in the winter of 2005-2006, and the officer just wanted to try out some ideas he had for boosting unit morale, he recalled later in a conversation with an Air Force historian.
But it was too late. The drone crews from the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron were already “so bitter and angry,” the flight commander remembered. And when he opened his mouth, the drone operators actually booed.
Ten years after the Predator drone first flew spy missions for the Air Force, and four years after the U.S. added missiles to the airborne robots to transform them into remote-controlled killing machines, the overworked, under-appreciated community of men and women who actually fly and maintain the Predators hit rock bottom.
And stayed there. For another decade. Drones continued to play a larger and larger role in conflicts around the globe. But no one in charge—from the president to the secretary of defense to the generals overseeing America’s wars—seemed to appreciate that drones require people. More than ten thousand people, in fact. And those people are tired.
It doesn’t help that a Predator, built by California firm General Atomics, is also an unnecessarily labor-intensive bit of technology.
“It’s at the breaking point, and has been for a long time,” a senior Air Force official told The Daily Beast earlier this year. “What’s different now is that the band-aid fixes are no longer working.”
Now the Air Force is taking truly desperate measures. Realizing that business-as-usual could result in a total collapse of America’s vital robot squadrons—and soon—the flying branch is bucking the ever-increasing demand for drone surveillance.
Reversing a 20-year trend of expansion, the Air Force is actually reducing by nearly 10 percent the number of Predator “combat air patrols,” or CAPs, it makes available to the president, the Pentagon brass and generals overseas.
“Cutting CAPs? That never happens,” said Col. Brent Caldwell, commander of the 726th Operation Group at Creech Air Force Base, a drone hub in the desert north of Las Vegas.
To be clear, the Air Force will still possess a lot of drones—more, in fact, than the rest of the world, combined. And those drones will still spy on and occasionally kill America’s enemies. But an era is ending. Where once it might have seemed that the Air Force’s robot arsenal would only grow and grow, now we know that arsenal has a practical limit. The drone force has peaked—at least for a while.
But the cuts are absolutely necessary, according to Col. James Cluff, the top officer in the 432nd Wing at Creech, which oversees most of the Air Force’s drones and drone operators. “We’re going to get to a level we can afford and can train to,” Cluff said, “and that’s got to be enough.”
As it turns out, operating the Air Force’s growing fleet of killer drones takes a lot of hard work by a lot of people. More than a hundred folks for each robot, in fact—including pilots, sensor operators, intelligence analysts, communications specilists, maintenance techs, bomb-armers and others.
Small teams scattered at secretive airfields all over the world launch and land the drones using line-of-sight radio connections—like steering a remote-controlled toy plane. Once the robot is airborne, the local crews pass control to pilots and sensor operators sitting in trailers at Creech and other bases in the United States. Connected to the drone via satellite, the U.S.-based crews see what the robot sees, tell it where to go and when to fire missiles or drop bombs.
All told, the Air Force employs nearly 11,000 drone operators and can keep 65 Predators and Reapers at a time in the air over Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other war zones. All at a cost of around $4 billion a year.
And remember, the CIA has some Predators of its own and also sometimes takes charge of the Air Force’s drones for secret missions.
It’s a massive organization, but that wasn’t always the case. And therein lies the problem. America’s drone air force has expanded fast. The Army deployed its first Predator to the Bosnia war in 1995. Six years later Predators were patrolling over Afghanistan, but the flying branch still possessed just a handful of them. By 2004—a year into the Iraq war—the Air Force could keep five Predators at a time in the air. That number swelled to eight in 2005, 11 in 2006, and 18 a year later.
Commanders still wanted more. And with Pres. George W. Bush and Congress pouring more and more money into the military, cost wasn’t an obstacle. “We’re going to tell General Atomics to build every Predator they can possibly build,” Air Force Gen. John Jumper, then the flying branch’s top officer, said in 2007. At the time, a single Predator cost around $5 million.
General Atomics began offering the bigger, more powerful Reaper—which is four times heavier than the Predator, twice as fast, flies twice as high and carries six times as many weapons. The Air Force got its first Reapers in 2007. The number of CAPs—that is to say, the quantity of Predators and Reapers in the air at any given moment—jumped to 33 in 2008.
That was the year that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously griped about what he saw as the Air Force’s reluctance to invest in drones and other surveillance technology. “It’s been like pulling teeth,” Gates said.
But the numbers tell a different story. Drone CAPs swelled to 38 in 2009 and 47 the following year. By then, the Air Force’s drones were recording 1,000 hours of overhead video every day, according to Lt. Gen. Larry James, then the branch’s top officer for surveillance.
Still, Gates demanded more. In 2011, he ordered the Air Force to put 65 Predators and Reapers at a time in the air “as fast as possible”—and then be prepared to add even more drones, perhaps another 20.
Now, compared to the military build-ups of previous decades, the drone ramp-up might seem modest. After all, during World War II the Air Force grew from 6,800 planes in 1941 to 80,000 three years later. The difference is that the entire U.S. economy mobilized for wartime production during that war, but no such mobilization has taken place for the today’s comparatively much less intense conflicts. The Pentagon’s budget has grown, but it hasn’t grown tenfold. Indeed, in recent years automatic “sequestration” budget cuts have kept military spending flat.
The Air Force balked. Brig. Gen. David Goldfein, then one of the senior officers in charge of drones, wrote a memo declaring Gates’ edict “both unexecutable and unreasonable.” The Air Force asked Gates to be content with between 50 and 59 CAPs, but the defense secretary stuck to his guns.
Reluctantly, the flying branch added more drones—and more people to operate them—reaching 65 CAPs in mid-2014.
The way the Air Force describes it, the unrelenting expansion never allowed the branch to put in place the procedures for smoothly recruiting and training new drone crews.
“The explosion in demand had created a snowball effect that never allowed the… staff to take a pause and say, ‘Let’s normalize all the processes that we should be doing,’” the Air Force reported in one of its official annual histories from 2012. “Instead, normalization was put off to some future date after the pace of combat operations slowed down.”
But the wars never ended. And so year after year, the drone operators at Creech and other bases worked almost non-stop. “Your work schedule was 12-hour shifts, six days a week,” the Nellis flight commander who got booed in 2005 or 2006 told an Air Force historian. “You were supposed to get three days off after that, but people often got only one day off. You couldn’t even take your 30 days of annual leave; you were lucky to get 10.”
It didn’t help that the Air Force never actually had time to refine the ground station where crews sit and control Predators and Reapers. The very first station was a test model, developed by and for engineers working on the first prototype drones. It was never meant for pilots—to say nothing of combat.
Which is why the screen that tracks the health of the drone’s subsystems displays healthy systems in red graphics. Traditionally in cockpits, red means emergency. And why the Air Force had to add extra screens and keyboards to the bare-bones control station as it added new sensors and other enhancements to the basic Predator, resulting in a chaotic, confusing spread of a dozen screens, four keyboards and four joysticks for a single, two-person crew.
Most bizarrely, the early control stations included a telephone that commanders overseas could use to call in target locations. But the phone didn’t integrate with the crew’s radio headsets.
So if a pilot got a call from some commander in, say, Afghanistan—perhaps screaming coordinates for an urgent air strike—the pilot had to wedge the phone between his ear and shoulder next to his radio headset. Meanwhile his hands were busy dancing between joysticks and keyboards, performing the hundred little tasks that kept a Predator in the air and on the prowl.
Finally this year, a drone operator at Creech figured out a way to rewire the phone so calls pipe into the crews’ headsets.
Overworked and stuck using awkward controls, the drone squadrons developed a reputation for awful work conditions—a rep so bad that the units had a hard time attracting volunteers. So the Air Force yanked pilots from fighter and bomber squadrons to fill out the drone units.
That only made the morale problem worse. “When you have mainly a non-vol[untary] community, what do you expect?” the booed flight commander said. “It’s not going to be a happy place.”
It was around 2011 when the Air Force started panicking. It stopped forcing pilots to join the drone squadrons, but that created a manpower gap. Planners filled it by reassigning instructors from training squadrons to combat squadrons. But that opened up a training gap that meant existing crews had to stay on the job longer, as there were too few new crews to replace them while also steadily expanding the overall drone force.
The drone operators at Creech “are constantly in the fight,” Cluff said. “Some have flown combat straight for three, four, five years.”
Worried about the drone crews’ mental health, in 2011 the Air Force assigned one of the branch’s top psychologists to Creech—a man with a mission so sensitive and so important to these secretive operations that the Air Force won’t even divulge his name.
The anonymous psychologist, along with several doctors and chaplains—all with top-secret clearance, a rarity in their career fields—formed their own “human performance team.” It hangs around the Predator and Reaper squadrons at Creech, constantly assessing the crews’ mental, physical, and emotional health—and offering little tips for minimizing stress and maximizing efficiency.
“We spend a lot of time talking about fatigue,” Maj. Maria Gomez-Mejia, the team’s physiologist, told The Daily Beast. Most of the advice is pretty standard. She said she advises crews to eat right, exercise, avoid drinking too much alcohol and caffeine, and abstain from staring at sleep-disrupting electronic devices right before bedtime.
On occasion, drone crews approach Creech’s doctors asking for “go pills,” legal amphetamines that some pilots pop while, say, flying their single-seat fighter jets across the Atlantic Ocean. But Lt. Col. James Senechal, a “flight doctor” at the desert base, said he’s never given out the pills.
After all, drone squadrons are always busy. If you need amphetamines just to handle a Tuesday, you’re going to need them for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, too. “If someone is exhausted or incapable, our approach here is it’s better to take a knee,” Senechal explained. Creech will give crews short rest breaks on request, with no negative repercussions.
Even senior officers at the base have asked for down time—and gotten it. A sign on the road leading out of Creech asks drivers if they’re too tired to make it the full 50 miles back to Las Vegas, where many drone operators lives. Free local overnight lodging is available on request, the sign states.
But all these measures are band-aids on a gaping wound. In 2012, the Creech performance team surveyed 1,300 of the base’s 3,900 personnel—and the results were startling. 53 percent complained of manpower shortages. 42 percent said the Air Force assigned them too many administrative tasks. 41 percent complained about working weird hours. 40 percent said shifts were too long. 39 percent said they weren’t getting enough sleep.
The psychologist warned that all this strain can have a “cumulative effect.”
“You get to a point where nothing is going to help but sleep,” Gomez-Mejia said.
This summer, the Air Force resolved that its drone operators were finally going to get some rest. The final straw, Cluff said, was ISIS—the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Back in 2013, with the last U.S. troops out of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan winding down, the Pentagon assumed demand for drone flights would drop. The Air Force would still be able to put 65 Predators and Reapers in the air—but maybe it wouldn’t have to.
“There was a belief on the part of the government that, as we came out of Iraq and Afghanistan, we could reconstitute,” Cluff said. “But the world situation changed.” Islamic State militants invaded Iraq in mid-2014, compelling the Air Force to surge drones to Kuwait for patrols over Iraq and Syria.
And responding to Taliban assaults on the rickety Afghan government, late last year Pres. Barack Obama slowed the pace of the U.S. withdrawal. As many as 10,000 American troops—and their drones—would remain in Afghanistan through 2015.
Between August and June, Air Force Predators and Reapers flew some 3,300 missions over Iraq and Syria, striking 875 targets. The drones are busier than ever. With no sudden outbreak of peace to give the drones crews the break they’ve needed for a decade, the Air Force recently decided it would unilaterally cut its CAPs from 65 to 60.
It’s a move with major fallout. Fewer drones in the air means fewer crews sitting behind clunky controls for 10 hours at a time. Fewer crews in combat means instructors can return to training new operators to replace worn-out ones. In theory, the 10-percent cut in patrols will finally allow the Air Force to take care of its drone operators. But the cut also means fewer drones overhead keeping an eye on—and striking—Islamic State, the Taliban, al Qaeda and other nefarious actors.
“The Air Force’s decision is to ensure we can support the president and decision-makers for years to come,” Cluff said. “That’s why we’re attacking the manning problem now.”
So far, the Pentagon has not signaled it will override the Air Force’s decision. Through overuse and bad planning over a period of 20 years, America broke its drone squadrons. Maybe now it can fix them.