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Combat Generation: Drone operators climb on winds of change in the Air Force

The past decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has helped redefine the identity of the U.S. Air Force. With more patrolling and zero opposition in air, Predator and Reaper unmanned planes have seen a six-fold increase since 2004.

Dug-in Taliban insurgents had surrounded a dozen U.S. troops who were fighting for their lives. F-15s and F-16s screamed overhead. But the fast-moving planes couldn't get off a clean shot at the enemy's main bunker without also wounding the American troops.

Army commanders refused to bring in vulnerable helicopters to evacuate the dead and wounded until an enemy machine-gun nest was destroyed.

Crouched behind a cluster of boulders, the Army Ranger platoon leader radioed that one of his soldiers was bleeding to death in the snow. He needed help fast.

A pilot from Mathewson's squadron at Creech Air Force base guided his drone over the Ranger position. The Predator had never been used in a hot battle to support ground troops, and the Air Force controller embedded with the Rangers was hesitant to let it fire.

To prove its accuracy, the Predator crew launched one of its two Hellfire missiles at an empty hilltop. The hit was accurate, but it left the drone with only one missile. The pilot steadied his plane and squeezed the "pickle" button on his stick, setting loose his last missile and obliterating the Taliban machine-gun nest. "We would have all died without the Predator," the controller recalled months later to Air Force officials.

A few months after the battle, Mathewson unsuccessfully nominated several of his airmen for the Distinguished Flying Cross -- an early effort to win medal recognition for Predator crews.

Blocked from rewarding his troops with traditional battlefield honors, Mathewson searched for other ways to build camaraderie among his pilots and camera operators. Shortly after he arrived at Creech for his second Predator tour in 2006, Mathewson wrote a new mission statement for his squadrons.

"Most mission statements are long, complicated and italicized," he said. "Mine was three words: "Kill [Expletive] Heads." His troops shortened it further to "KFH" and painted it on the cluster of trailers that served as their makeshift headquarters. They emblazoned KFH on their unit letterhead. Everyone in the unit carried a poker chip bearing the three letters.

"It reminded us that our job was all about the combat and doing things right," Mathewson said.

After Creech, the Air Force sent Mathewson to the Pentagon, where he spent most of 2009 drafting the service's road map for developing remotely piloted aircraft through 2047.

The plan that Mathewson produced for the Air Force envisions unmanned planes not only providing surveillance and striking targets, but also hauling cargo around the world. Instead of flying just one plane, a single pilot would probably control as many as four or five planes simultaneously. "If I am doing a surveillance mission where the plane is literally just staring at the ground or at a road for eight or ten hours, I don't need a pilot actively controlling the plane," he said. "So maybe I have a squadron of 40 aircraft but I only have four or five people monitoring them." The Air Force and Mathewson have already demonstrated in training that one pilot can fly as many as four Predators.

Col. David Sullivan, who commanded a Predator squadron at Creech, describes Mathewson as one of the Air Force's "visionaries."

The next generation of unmanned planes is likely to demand even greater changes from the Air Force, Mathewson said. The craft will require new kinds of organizations, new types of bases and new kinds of officers who will never peer through a fighter-jet canopy in search of the enemy. Old notions of valor are likely to disappear.

A decade of drone combat has already led Mathewson to adjust his definition of the word, which is a part of almost every combat award citation. "Valor to me is not risking your life," he said. "Valor is doing what is right. Valor is about your motivations and the ends that you seek. It is doing what is right for the right reasons. That to me is valor."

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