Growing violence in Afghanistan—coupled with too few troops on the ground—has created what amounts to an "insatiable" demand for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, and the pilots who fly them remotely, according to U.S. Air Force officials.
These aircraft include drones such as the Predator and its newly introduced cousin, the Reaper. While the Predator carries two laser-guided Hellfire missiles and can travel 135 mph, the Reaper can fly twice as high, at 50,000 feet, and three times as fast. It can also carry eight times more weaponry and has a range of more than 1,800 miles, vs. 450 for the Predator.
But even more important to commanders on the ground are the drones' high-tech "targeting pods," which stream video intelligence and deliver it to troops fighting militant groups throughout the country. The UAVs help to search the rough, mountainous terrain for insurgents and provide what is known as "armed overwatch" for troops in battle.
"We could certainly use more," says Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. "The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan runs 2,500 kilometers [1,500 miles]. That's a huge area to maintain surveillance on."
The U.S. Air Force was criticized earlier this year by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who charged the service with being "stuck in old ways of doing business." He added that getting the Air Force to field UAVs and their pilots in the Middle East had in some instances been "like pulling teeth."
Col. Trey Turner, commander of the 451st Air Expeditionary Group in southern Afghanistan, says that his command has vastly increased the number of UAV missions it is running in 2008 over 2007: "We will shatter those numbers this year." Currently, the UAVs are doing more than double the number of combat air patrols, or CAPs in military parlance, in Afghanistan as in Iraq—and those figures, he adds, have grown 12-fold since 2003.
The problem, says Turner, is that the demand keeps increasing, and there are too few U.S. Air Force pilots to fly the UAVs. Those who do, he adds, are overworked and overstressed. "Every time we graduate a couple of classes through [the National Training University], every time we think we're getting to a reasonable manning level where people could get some time off, they say, 'Look, here's another CAP requirement,' and we go right back to being undermanned again."
And changing that may require a change in the "pilot in the cockpit" culture of the force. "Flying UAVs hasn't been established yet as a career field," Turner says, and currently, many UAV pilots are "borrowed" F-16 pilots, assigned to fly UAVs for a three-year tour.
But years later, many of these troops have not yet returned to flying their old aircraft, he adds, and that is not likely to change anytime soon. "As it stands right now, a lot of people who were only expecting to do three years are effectively not able to leave so that we can grow" UAV pilots. "It's possible that they may not ever go back to their F-16s. When they showed up, that was their expectation, that they would go back. That's a tough fix," Turner adds. "That's a leadership challenge."
In the meantime, pilots who do fly UAVs are overtaxed, Turner says. He is aware, too, that few in the Army and Marines—whose troops have been doing extended rotations with little rest in between—have sympathy for the plight of the Air Force.
Still, there are some unfortunate stereotypes of these Air Force pilots, he adds. UAV pilots fly drones from high-tech trailers on large bases, including one just outside of Las Vegas. "People think they're smoking and joking in a casino somewhere," says Turner. "I'm here to tell you that based on the manning right now, I have had a very challenging time getting a guy and guaranteeing him a vacation, and I know I couldn't send him to the normal professional military education schools that are normally required."
Corrected 9/4/08: An earlier version of this article misidentified Gen. David McKiernan. He is the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.