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

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; A01

The question, scrawled on a Pentagon whiteboard last fall, captured the strange and difficult moment facing the Air Force.

"Why does the country need an independent Air Force?" the senior civilian assistant to Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the service's chief of staff, had written. For the first time in the 62-year history of the Air Force, the answer isn't entirely clear.

The Air Force's identity crisis is one of many ways that a decade of intense and unrelenting combat is reshaping the U.S. military and redefining the American way of war. The battle against insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq has created an insatiable demand for the once-lowly drone, elevating the importance of the officers who fly them.

These new earthbound aviators are redefining what it means to be a modern air warrior and forcing an emotional debate within the Air Force over the very meaning of valor in combat.

Since its founding, the Air Force has existed primarily to support its daring and chivalrous fighter and bomber pilots. Even as they are being displaced by new technology, these traditional pilots are fighting to retain control over the Air Force and its culture and traditions.

The clash between the old and new Air Force was especially apparent in the aftermath of the 2006 strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq.

Predator crews spent more than 630 hours searching for Zarqawi and his associates before they tracked him to a small farm northeast of Baghdad.

Minutes later, an F-16 fighter jet, streaking through the sky, released a 500-pound bomb that locked onto a targeting laser and killed Zarqawi.

The F-16 pilot, who faced no real threat from the lightly armed insurgents on the ground, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the same honor bestowed on Charles Lindbergh for the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Predator pilots, who flew their planes from an Air Force base outside Las Vegas, received a thank-you note from a three-star general based in the Middle East. Senior Air Force officials concluded that even though the Predator crews were flying combat missions, they weren't actually in combat.

Four years later, the Air Force still hasn't come up with a way to recognize the Predator's contributions in Afghanistan and Iraq. "There is no valor in flying a remotely piloted aircraft. I get it," said Col. Luther "Trey" Turner, a former fighter pilot who has flown Predators since 2003. "But there needs to be an award to recognize crews for combat missions."

The revolution

It is the job of Schwartz, the Air Force's top general and a onetime cargo pilot, to mediate between the old and new pilot tribes. In August 2008, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates tapped him to lead the service, the first chief of staff in Air Force history without a fighter or bomber pedigree, reflecting Gates's frustration with the service's old guard.

A quiet and introspective leader, Schwartz has turned his attention to dismantling the Air Force's rigid class system. At the top of the traditional hierarchy are fighter pilots. Beneath them are bomber, tanker and cargo pilots. At the bottom are the officers who keep aircraft flying and satellites orbiting in space.

Schwartz has also pushed to broaden the Air Force's definition of its core missions beyond strategic bombing and control of the skies. New on his list: providing surveillance imagery to ground troops waging counterinsurgencies. Today, the Air Force is flying 40 round-the-clock patrols each day with its Predator and Reaper unmanned planes, an eightfold increase over 2004.

"This is our year to look up and out . . . to ask big questions," Schwartz said in an interview. "Who are we? What are we doing for the nation's defense? . . . Where is this grand institution headed?"

One answer to those questions is taking shape at Creech Air Force Base, an hour's drive from Las Vegas, where the Air Force launched a trial program to train a first-ever group of officers with no aviation background or training to fly the Predator. Before the trial program, virtually all of the Air Force's Predator and Reaper pilots began their careers flying fighter jets, bombers or cargo aircraft and were temporarily assigned to three-year tours as drone pilots.

By 2007, the Air Force started to realize that it didn't have enough traditional pilots to meet the growing demand from field commanders for Predators and Reapers. When Gates pressed for an expedited program to train officers without an aviation background to fly drones, the Air Force initially resisted. Only a fully trained pilot could be trusted to maneuver an unmanned aircraft and drop bombs, some officials maintained.

At the rate the Air Force was moving, it would have needed a decade to meet battlefield demand. Schwartz changed the policy.

"We had a math problem that quickly led to a philosophical discussion about whether we could create a new type of pilot," said Maj. Gen. Marke F. Gibson, the director of Air Force operations and training. With Schwartz's backing, Gibson crafted a nine-month training program for officers from non-flying backgrounds, including deskbound airmen, military police officers and "missiliers."

The crash program has been controversial, particularly among traditional pilots, who typically undergo two years of training. "We are creating the equivalent of a puppy mill," complained one fighter pilot.

One of eight initial trainees was Capt. Steve Petrizzo, who joined the Air Force in 2003 hoping to fly F-16s. He was too nearsighted to fly planes, so the Air Force assigned him to a nuclear-missile base where he manned a concrete capsule 50 feet below ground, waiting for the order to launch.

Petrizzo leapt at the chance to fly the Predator. "I wanted to be in the fight," he said.

His first six months of training beginning in early 2009 focused on the basics of flying. The last few months of instruction were spent in a ground control station maneuvering a simulated Predator through video-game reproductions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

One day last summer, inside the cramped and aggressively air-conditioned ground control station, the tension between the old and new Air Force was obvious. Maj. Andy Bright, an F-15 pilot turned Predator instructor, was coaching Petrizzo through the simulations.

In one scenario, Petrizzo followed a squad of soldiers through a village. Suddenly, the troops were hit with a blast of sniper fire and sprinted for cover. Although Petrizzo quickly spotted the insurgent, it took him almost five minutes to maneuver his plane into a spot where he could get off a shot that wouldn't also spray the soldiers or nearby civilians with shrapnel.

Those few minutes amounted to an eternity to soldiers under fire. Bright counseled Petrizzo to think more about how he positioned his plane. "Flying a Predator is like a chess game," he said. "Because you have a God's-eye perspective, you need to think a few moves ahead."

Four hours and several ambushes later, Petrizzo and Bright sat across from each other in a conference room for a mission debriefing. Bright was professional. But it was clear that he had doubts that any officer could be ready to fly combat missions after just nine months of training. "I have to spend a lot of time with them on the very basics," Bright said of Petrizzo and his fellow officers in the program. "They are still learning how to maneuver a plane."

The graduation ceremony for Petrizzo and his classmates raised a new set of questions for the Air Force: Should the new graduates wear the same wings as traditional pilots? Did they qualify for extra flight pay? Should they even be called pilots?

Schwartz decided the graduates were pilots. Even though they didn't leave the ground, they would receive flight pay. On the day of the ceremony, the general flew in from the Pentagon to pin a specially designed set of wings on each of the trainee's uniforms. The traditional shield at the center of their wings was festooned with lightning bolts to signify the satellite signal that connects the ground-based pilots to their planes.

"You are part of the major new Air Force development of the decade," Schwartz told the graduates.

A few days later, Petrizzo and his classmates were flying missions over Afghanistan.

Top-down changes

Lasting cultural change won't take place in the Air Force until officers who serve in these new fields rise to the top ranks, which are still dominated by fighter pilots.

Because of the huge demand for drones, the pilots who fly Predators and Reapers aren't being allowed to leave bases such as Creech for other assignments that would give them the experience they need to ascend to higher ranks. Today, there are about a dozen officers with experience flying Predators and Reapers on the Air Force staff in the Pentagon, compared with more than 100 fighter pilots.

"My guys understand this mission is important," one squadron commander told Schwartz on a visit to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in late January. "But for them this tour is never-ending."

Some senior Predator and Reaper commanders are leaving the military because they probably won't make general. In a few weeks, Col. Eric Mathewson, who has more experience with unmanned aircraft than just about any other officer in the Air Force, will retire after 26 years.

The former F-15 pilot started working with the Predators in 2000 after he hurt his back and was unable to fly. As a squadron commander during a bloody 15-hour battle in eastern Afghanistan in 2002, Mathewson saw his Predators outperform the Air Force's most advanced fighter jets.

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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