Anne crawled out of bed in her North Las Vegas house around 10 p.m. and started to get ready for her shift.
She pulled her chestnut hair into a bun and slipped on her olive green flight suit. In the kitchen, she packed fruit to snack on during her shift and stuffed her schoolwork into her backpack-sized lunchbox just in case it’s a boring night. Most nights she doesn’t have a chance to open a book.
Giving her dog, a tan Sher-Pei/pit bull mix, one last pat, she left her house and joined thousands of other workers leaving for the midnight shift. While most people were heading to hotels and casinos in town, Anne was on her way to Creech Air Force Base and a war.
Anne, an Air Force staff sergeant, was—and still is—a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) sensor operator or “sensor.” At Creech, she is assigned to a reconnaissance squadron flying missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. Few weapons in the American arsenal are more relentless than the RPA fleet, often called drones. For more than a decade, the United States has flown RPAs over Afghanistan and Iraq, providing forces on the ground with an eye in the sky to spot terrorists and insurgents, and in most cases the firepower to destroy them.
As she rode to work, Anne—or “Sparkle” as she’s known to her fellow drone operators—wasn’t focused on the desert outside her window. It was 2009 and President Obama was sending troops in a surge to Afghanistan. Sparkle’s mind was on a desert 7,000 miles away. Over the next 24 hours she would track an insurgent, watch as he was killed by a Hellfire missile, and spy on his funeral before ending her night with a breakfast beer and a trip to the dog park.
The RPA has become the symbol of America’s ongoing wars, from Afghanistan to Somalia to Syria. And, 14 years after a U.S. “drone” first fired a missile at an al Qaeda operative, the morality and legality of remote strikes remains a matter of intense controversy. Earlier this year, the U.S. government revealed it accidentally killed one of its own citizens with a drone—a hostage held by al Qaeda—triggering another round of debate about when the U.S. is justified in using the remotely piloted planes to attack.
On Thursday, the Intercept published a cache of new documents about RPA missions in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. The documents paint a damning picture of the RPA, including an internal U.S. military study that found a “critical shortfall” in how targets are identified. The government's reliance on cellphones has led to the wrong target being killed. The new documents also call into question the accuracy of the RPA. The Intercept reports more than 200 people were killed—only 35 were actual targets—in Afghanistan between January 2012 and February 2013.
“This outrageous explosion of watchlisting—of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers… assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield—it was, from the very first instance, wrong,” the source of the documents told the Intercept. “We’re allowing this to happen. And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.”
But for all the attention paid to RPAs, the men and women who operate the 21st century’s most divisive weapons system remain largely hidden from public view—except for reports about strikes, especially when a missile kills civilians. The Daily Beast interviewed more than two dozen Air Force officers and airmen in the RPA community last year at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico the RPA’s training base, to talk about life in the community and what it is like to wage a counter-terror campaign from the air. Because many of them will leave Holloman to join operational squadrons, we agreed to identify the pilots and sensor operators by their first names or call signs.
Sparkle’s first stop after she arrived on that day in 2009 was to check the schedule at the operations desk to see whom she was flying with on the midnight shift. Like factory workers, the aircrews work shifts, sometimes flying for eight hours at a time. The pilots and sensors are in constant rotation, so often a sensor will fly with a different pilot every shift.
She was flying with Patrick, a tall, lanky former B-1 bomber pilot. Patrick’s father-in-law, a former F-4 weapon systems officer, talked him into joining the Air Force with stories of low-level flying. Patrick deployed with a B-1 squadron and dropped bombs in Afghanistan, but because six months was too long to be away from his family, in 2009 he volunteered to fly MQ-9 Reapers instead. The RPA community, he thought, would be the best of both worlds. He could be home and still fly combat missions.
Known as “Spade” at the squadron, the call sign comes from being a family man.
“I had three kids as a first lieutenant with no end in sight,” said Spade, who now trains new RPA pilots at Holloman Air Force Base. “I got a vasectomy and the squadron found out. They named me ‘Spade’ as in female dog, neutered. Everybody thinks it is due to cards or something,”
Sparkle liked flying with Spade. He was laidback and trusted her to do the job. She had worked at a casino in Louisiana before she joined the Air Force for help in paying for college. She started as an imagery analyst, scouring satellite images for signs of militant activity. Then she got transferred to the remotely piloted aircraft program. She earned the call sign because her headset has bedazzled jewels running along the headband and earpieces.
“I use it to emasculate the enemy in the afterlife,” Sparkle said. “Many radical jihadists believe that being killed by a woman means they will not enter heaven. Considering how they treat their women, I’m OK with rubbing salt in the wound.”
Both Sparkle and Spade noticed a buzz around the building.
“Hey, we’re spinning up for a strike,” one of Spade’s fellow pilots said. “We might get to strike on our shift.”
And tonight it would be Sparkle’s job to guide the missile to the target.
Every shift started in the main briefing room, a big theater with a PowerPoint projector showing updates on the weather, target area in Afghanistan, and the status of the Reapers and Predators flying the various missions. After the mass brief, Spade and Sparkle stayed for a strike brief, their assignment that day. Another Reaper crew joined them.
The target was a mid-level Taliban leader. They squadron spent the last several weeks watching him, and now they’d been ordered to strike. The intelligence analysts put a series of slides on the screen diagramming the strike. A slide of a zoomed-in picture of the compound flashed on the screen. On the eastern side was a cemetery. On the western side was a compound where the target lived. Parked outside was his motorbike, which he drove to daily meetings.
The whole shot was choreographed down to the second. They knew from watching him for weeks that it took the man 12 seconds to get on his motorbike and drive to the edge of his compound. The plan was to hit him on a barren stretch of road between his compound and the cemetery.
Spade and the other pilot would fly in a circle with one Reaper always pointing toward the target. When the lead Reaper turned off, the trail Reaper would be in position to shoot. They’d be cleared to fire for 33 seconds. The intelligence department wanted the Hellfire missiles to strike him at the 16-second mark.
The level of planning was typical for planned strikes, Spade said.
“By collecting all that information, we can make sure that it is a legal target and we minimize collateral damage,” he said, using military jargon for civilian casualties. “We wanted to shoot him between Point A and B so there was no collateral damage. There was no way anyone good can get hurt and the bad guy dies.”
But these planned strikes aren’t the only RPA attacks. The U.S. also uses “signature strikes”—ones in which guys like Spade can pull the trigger if a target merely behaves like a terrorist. In these cases, it’s much harder to be sure that an attack isn’t hitting the wrong person, or won’t end a civilian life in the process. Warren Weinstein, the American hostage held by al Qaeda, was accidentally killed in just such a “signature strike.”
After the briefing, Spade and Sparkle walked to the Ground Control Station (GCS), the RPA cockpit, set up outside of the squadron building. The GCS is the size of a metal shipping container with a door on one end. Inside, a thin carpet covers the floor and a bank of monitors with two chairs sits at one end. Several air conditioners hum, keeping the electronics in the GCS cool. The lights are dim so the pilot and sensor can see the monitors.
Inside the GCS, the other crew was ready to switch out. The Reaper was already airborne and flying over the target area. The RPA community is unique in the Air Force. Drone pilots flying in the United States never take off or land. Crews deployed overseas do all the takeoffs and landings. That is a specialty skill in the RPA community. The crews in the United States switch out with the Reaper already in flight.
On the monitor, the target compound from the briefing slides filled the screen.
“Saw the lights flip on,” the pilot told Sparkle and Spade. “Haven’t seen him yet.”
Sparkle switched with the sensor operator first. Dropping down into the seat, she pulled the chair close to the console—she liked to be near the monitor. She hooked her bedazzled headset to the chair and started to work on the monitor’s picture.
Next to her, Spade climbed into the pilot seat and checked the fuel gauge and other instruments. Since Spade couldn’t hear the engine or feel how the Reaper was handling in the wind, the gauges were his only indicators.
“I want to make sure every single thing that can go wrong won’t go wrong from minute one,” Spade said.
With the other crew gone, the GCS was silent. The door was shut and locked. Spade and Sparkle spent the first few minutes going over the strike plan one more time. They talked about the desired point of impact or where the missile will hit when they shoot. They went over where Sparkle would guide the missile if the shot had to be aborted.
“Don’t let me forget, when you hear cleared to engage, automatically turn on the laser,” Spade said, referring to the beam of focused light that will lead the drone’s Hellfire missiles to their target.
The whole process took about 15 minutes. Then they settled in to wait for the target to appear.
PATTERN OF LIFE
The target compound was a biscuit-colored squat building with a head-high wall and an iron gate. The target’s motorbike was parked against one wall. There was no movement. Spade kept the Reaper in a racetrack pattern. Sparkle kept a constant watch on the compound, turning the camera to maintain the crosshairs on the building.
“It is pretty exciting the first eight or 10 trips around as you tweak everything and make it perfect,” Spade said.
But soon it gets boring. Keeping an “unblinking eye” on a target is one of the RPA’s signature missions, but it is also one of the dullest. Crews can spend hours watching one house.
To stay focused, RPA crews have come up with games to kill time. The crews debate the best restaurants in Las Vegas, monitor sports scores, and play RPA bingo over the secure Microsoft Internet Relay Chat, a text-based messenger program used by the crews and support staff to pass information.
“A pilot made cards and every time you saw something in your screen, a donkey, or a car, you got a bingo point,” Sparkle said.
The crews say they’ve watched fighters shit in the woods countless times or have sex, sometimes with animals. One sensor said he watched an Afghan target fight a goat for an hour. They’ll often zoom in tight so the intelligence analysts can watch too.
It is not unheard of for crews to track a target for two to three months. The constant surveillance creates an intimacy other fighter pilots and even soldiers don’t have with the target. The crews get to know the target’s family. They know the family’s mosque, the kid’s school.
“I understand there is an intimacy you get with your target,” Sparkle said. “However, you’re a bad guy and you’re doing bad things to the people I am here to support. We just don’t go out there and shoot stuff. There is a reason. They are always associated with some part of hurting our friendly forces. At the end of the day, when you boil it down to that one point, the rest of it goes out the window.”
Back over the compound, Sparkle and Spade watched and waited for hours. Two hours after the shift started, the target finally came out of the door dressed in the baggy shirt and pants typical of the region.
“He’s coming out,” Sparkle said as the crosshairs rotated to put the man in the middle of the screen.
There was excitement as both Spade and Sparkle instantly locked on him. The crosshairs followed him as he stopped along the wall to take a leak. Finished, he walked back into the compound. That kind of thing went on for hours until he finally got onto the motorbike.
Headsets go on. Extra radios go off. No one is allowed in the room. It is very quiet.
“Headsets on mean game time,” Sparkle said. “We’re fangs out.”
Sparkle’s fingers started to tingle as she kept the crosshairs on the target. It always happened when she was about to strike. During her first strike, her hand went numb from anxiety just before she guided a laser-guided bomb into a cluster of 15 fighters in Afghanistan.
“I remember thinking, I’m about to drop this weapon on this dude,” Sparkle said. “After you do five, six, 10, it is another day at work. You put your hard hat on.”
Next to her, Spade kept the Reaper level and headed for the target. The man started the motorbike and rode out of the compound and onto the dirt road. Sparkle’s crosshairs never wavered.
While Sparkle tracked the man, Spade checked his flight path and started to do the math in his head. At his current speed, he was going to miss him. The other crew was going to get the shot. It was the luck of the draw, and he’d lost.
“Outbound,” Spade said, letting the other crew set up the shot, and letting Sparkle know.
Sparkle and Spade didn’t have time to worry about not getting the shot. They had to be ready to follow up if the first shot failed. Sparkle kept her track on the motorcycle.
“You’re almost hoping the other guy screws up his timing so we can shoot,” she said.
Spade finished the outbound leg and started to turn back to the target as the other crew fired. A pair of Hellfire missiles raced from the rails of the Reaper and landed just in front of the motorbike, spraying the target with shrapnel. As the other Reaper peeled off, Spade came in right behind. Sparkle kept the crosshairs locked on the cloud of smoke and debris from the strike. It was up to them to do the battle damage assessment—and handle the feelings that come with taking a life from thousands of miles away.
“When you hit a truck full of people, there are limbs and legs everywhere,” Sparkle said. “I watched a guy crawl away from the wreckage after one shot with no lower body. He slowly died. You have to watch that. You don’t get to turn away. You can’t be that soft girly traditional feminine and do the job. Those are the people who are going to have the nightmares.”
It isn’t the shooting that haunts RPA operators. It is what happens afterward. Unlike their fighter brethren, RPA pilots and sensors often loiter nearby after a strike to make sure it was successful and to gather more intelligence. To do that, the sensor pod keeps the crater and the blasted body in the center of the frame.
Sparkle could see a bunch of hot spots all over the ground, which were likely body parts. The target was dead, but that isn’t always the case. The Hellfire missile only has 12 pounds of explosives, so making sure the target is in the “frag pattern,” hit by shrapnel, is key.
As the other Reaper flew home to refuel and rearm, Spade stayed above the target, watching as villagers ran to the smoldering motorbike. Soon a truck arrived. Spade and Sparkle watched as they picked up the target’s blasted body.
“It’s just a dead body,” Sparkle said. “I grew up elbows deep in dead deer. We do what we needed to do. He’s dead. Now we’re going to watch him get buried.”
A 2011 survey from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that RPA crews suffered from “high operational stress.” Experts think long hours, shift work and combat violence are some of the reasons for the high stress level.
“Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days,” Jean Lin Otto, an epidemiologist who was a co-author of the study, told The New York Times. “They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”
The Air Force now has mental health teams—psychologists, chaplains, doctors, counselors—assigned to big RPA bases to help pilots and sensor operators cope. But Spade said he has no trouble compartmentalizing it. He always goes back to one of the first intelligence briefings he got at the squadron. The analysts told him the Taliban and al Qaeda was putting suicides vests on kids. His mind went to his own kids.
“I am a dad number one and I am an Air Force pilot number two,” Spade said. “You mess with innocent kids and it is not hard for me to kill you.”
But that doesn’t mean what they see in the monitor doesn’t have any impact. Spade watched once as Taliban fighters took a group of men, bound and blindfolded, and executed them in the middle of the road. There was nothing he could do. Sparkle says she cried as she watched an Afghan man drag his wife out in the courtyard and beat her. She wanted to shoot, but couldn’t, so when she does have the chance to fire, she doesn’t hesitate.
“I know what they do to their women,” Sparkle said. “If you’re going to shoot a child in the head for trying to go to school, I have no problem with you being buried before sundown. I don’t think it is something to be upset about or cry about because they would kill me in a half a second if they could.”
Muslims try to bury the dead before sunset when possible, so a big part of the BDA is watching the funeral, Spade said.
“If a lot of people show up, we know he has a lot of support in the area,” Spade said.
As they circled the blast site, Spade and Sparkle watched as about 50 people lined up in straight, long rows near the gravesite. There were about 15 people per row. It took about a half-hour. As the Afghans buried the target, Sparkle made sure the video feed was clear. The intelligence analysts would check it later for leads on new targets.
At the end of the shift, Spade and Sparkle debriefed the mission. They watched the video of the strike again. Any mistakes were talked about and rectified. Spade was happy about everything that happened except that he didn’t get to shoot.
THE DOG PARK
After the debriefing, Sparkle met some of her unit mates at a bar that serves breakfast, and one free drink to members of the military.
“It’s a place that makes you feel appreciated,” she said.
Sipping her free Blue Moon draft, she ordered bacon and eggs with sausage on the side. Her squadron mates were the only people she could talk with about the strike and stress of the job. Sparkle said her job makes it hard to be friends with women.
“You feel a little pulled back from the world because of the types of things you do and everyone else goes on with their normal life,” she said. “A lot of the time it’s hard to relate to women that just want to have lots and lots of babies and be absorbed in their stupid reality TV shows. They don’t know how hard the world is beyond our borders, the danger that their kids will have to see in the future. It makes them seem frivolous and petty. This job has made me impatient with society’s petty trifles. It opened my eyes to the horrors of the world, the fault in religion.”
Dating wasn’t easier. She dated a bar manager and a pharmacy school student, but their worlds were too different.
“You want to date a guy and they just do jobs that seem so menial,” she said. “They gripe, bitch, and complain about the most trivial things. Most are still wrapped up in their idea of masculinity. They think their jobs or their money should be impressive. It just isn’t anymore. I don’t care how much weight you can lift, not a damn bit. Get over yourselves.”
She is now married to a fellow sensor.
“It’s better to have someone who understands that you can take lives and not be a monster for being OK with doing something like that,” she said.
After the brief, Spade used the hour-long drive to decompress. The drive is essentially the split between combat and daily life. By the time he pulls into his driveway, the sun is up and his house is alive with the sound of kids playing cars on the tile floor. On his way up to bed, Spade tells his wife about the busy night. Nothing classified, but enough for her to know his shift wasn’t flying circles around a building. He’ll tell her more when he wakes up for dinner. For now, Spade just wants to rest.
“If I just struck 7,000 miles away I am probably not going to retain anything,” Spade said. “You should be tremendously excited that you just did your job well and there is one less bad guy, but you should be sad that you had to take a person’s life.”
Sparkle came home to her dog, eager to head out to the park. It is a ritual for the pair, who are part of a regular dog park crew. Sparkle likes it because no one is in the military. She isn’t “Sparkle” at the dog park.
“It’s great to sit and just share a love of dogs,” she said. “They make me happy to protect a world where we can spend lavish amounts of money on recreation places for our animals. The women I met there were strong and independent… and [the dogs] give us some subject to talk about other than work. Its an easy atmosphere in which to unwind.”
Her friends know she is part of the RPA community, but they have no idea what it is like to balance her suburban life while waging war 7,000 miles from the battlefield.
“Make any strikes today?” one of her friends asked.
“If I did,” she said, “I couldn’t tell you.”
Kevin Maurer is the co-author of Hunter Killer: Inside America’s Unmanned Air War.