True to counterinsurgency tactics, the Air Force is mindful of operating in a way that tries to avoid damaging economic conditions. So, for instance, planners try to operate in a way that doesn't obstruct commercial air traffic passing over Afghanistan, where fees received for airline flyovers from other countries are a top source of income for the government.
A key task now is "taking intelligence and then focusing it like a power hose to whoever needs it at that time," Crowder says. At the urging of the Pentagon, the number of Predators available in Iraq and Afghanistan has doubled in a little more than a year. Along with increasing their numbers, the emphasis is on using the UAVs more efficiently, particularly in Afghanistan, which has roughly one third of the Predator resources as Iraq. One complication: finding enough pilots to "fly" the drones, which are operated remotely from the ground. Air Force officials have complained that being directed to churn out so many UAV pilots leaves them short in other areas.
Like the Army, the Air Force finds itself stretched to meet manpower needs while being called upon to quickly absorb lessons from counterinsurgency fights on two fronts. This command center is where the Air Force has to make it work, and there is little room for error. Says Crowder: "The mission is so complex and so different from anything the Air Force has ever done."