CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Under a searing desert sun, a man in silhouette is pacing sentry-like around a cluster of buildings, a dark object slung over his shoulder.
“Yeah, it looks like a gun,” says an American drone pilot, peering into a gray-tone screen in a darkened, distant trailer.
The pilot, who Air Force officials asked be identified only as Capt. Bert, is talking to ground headquarters through a headset. He then counts off the half-minute until one of the drone’s Hellfire missiles strikes its target, throwing the man to the ground with a flash of light.
The ground controller’s voice comes back in a static burst. “Confirmed: enemy killed in action.”
But this target is not a suspected militant on the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan. He’s a U.S. airman, role-playing in the desert outside Las Vegas, and the missile strike was a training simulation at the Nevada air base that coordinates U.S. drone flight overseas.
Air Force officials hope to provide more training missions like this for drone operators as the U.S. military cuts back the pace of drone operations overseas. They say increased training for new and existing pilots, along with steps to improve pilot recruitment and retention, is crucial to maintaining the effectiveness of an overstressed force and would help the Air Force meet future demand for remotely piloted flight.
The plan to reduce drone capacity to a maximum of 60 simultaneous combat flights by this fall, which the Air Force made public this spring, is the centerpiece of an effort to make the pace of Air Force drone operations more sustainable, and to help heal the stresses caused by a decade of frenetic expansion.
But with renewed operations in Iraq against the Islamic State, a new campaign of strikes against the group in Syria and continued operations in Afghanistan, the demand for unmanned aircraft’s surveillance and combat powers is higher than ever.
Col. James “Cliffy” Cluff, the top Air Force commander for remotely piloted aircraft, said the service had expected demand for drone flights to fall off as the United States wrapped up its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That plan “was overcome by the enemy,” he told reporters in a rare media visit to Creech Air Force Base, where Cluff commands 3,000 pilots and support personnel. Since last summer’s dramatic advances by Islamic State militants, U.S. aircraft have conducted 3,600 strikes in Iraq and Syria, many of them conducted by unmanned planes.
The remotely piloted aircraft program burst into action in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In 2001, the Air Force was only capable of keeping two drones flying combat missions at a time. Behind every drone in the air conducting a combat air patrol, there are hundreds of personnel required to maintain active and reserve aircraft and amass intelligence and even special teams deployed overseas dedicated to takeoff and landing of aircraft.
By 2010, during President Obama’s surge of troops to Afghanistan, the program’s flight capacity had reached 39. It peaked at 65 in 2014.
The growth has complicated challenges the Air Force has faced in fielding and retaining pilots for the program, which has often been seen by pilots as an unattractive alternative to piloting manned aircraft. Today, the Air Force needs to produce 300 new drone pilots a year. Because of recruitment and training constraints, it is only producing 180.The Air Force also loses 240 drone pilots each year as airmen return to other duties or they leave the service altogether.
The 500 pilots and 500 sensor operators at Creech, nestled among bare hillsides an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, have pushed themselves hard in recent years to keep pace with the demands of overseas operations. While they typically work shifts of at least eight flight hours, five days on and then two to three days off, they are often called in for a sixth consecutive day because of personnel shortages.
The strains of that pace are “why we’re attacking the manning problem today.” As commander of Creech, Cluff is in the odd position of touting the effectiveness of the skills of the airmen of his 432nd Wing and 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing and their arsenal of more than 130 Predator, Reaper and Sentinel aircraft while also pushing for recognition that the pace of their operations must be eased.
Earlier this year, the Air Force announced plans to address gaps in drone pilots, including larger retention bonuses and greater use of reservists, National Guard personnel and contractors.
A reduction in U.S. drone flights comes as other nations seek to accelerate their own unmanned flight programs, which has the potential to ease the future burden to U.S. operations. The United States is also moving to allow the sale of lethal American drone technology to certain allies.
Kelley Sayler, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the reduction in flight capacity would “necessarily degrade” U.S. intelligence capabilities.
In the long run, she said, the Air Force must increase promotions and other opportunities available to drone pilots and consider making the job accessible to enlisted personnel or others with a lesser level of training.
“If the Air Force simply maintains its current course, we’re likely to see continued problems with retention, which could in turn result in further reductions in [flight capacity] and negatively impact future military operations,” she said.
The job is made personal for Shantae, a sensor operator who like other personnel asked to be identified only by her rank and first name.
The daughter of an active duty Marine, the senior airman takes pride in a mission she sees as primarily about keeping American personnel safe overseas. Air Force officials said the vast majority of unmanned flight hours are dedicated to surveillance, including watching over American troops as they conduct operations overseas. But she acknowledged that events on the battlefield sometimes “weigh heavy on you.”
The flight demands are made more striking by the fact that drone operators, like a small number of U.S. military personnel stationed in the United States, are “deployed in place.” While they may take part in combat operations during the day, most airmen get into their cars after their shifts conclude and make the 50-minute drive back to Las Vegas, with its lights and revelry.
“Every single day this base is at war,” Cluff said.
While the dissonance of remote warfare is real, a 2012 survey showed that what drone operators struggled with the most were familiar challenges: the demands of shift work, long hours, lack of sleep and inadequate staffing.
To address both kinds of stress, in 2011 the base stood up a “human performance team” including experts in air physiology, psychology and flight medicine, and chaplains, all of whom have top-level security clearances.
The Air Force is now trying to replicate the team elsewhere, officials at the base said.
In 2014 alone, officials at the base said, they made 13 “suicide saves,” or interventions with service members who were contemplating suicide. The suicide rate is no higher among drone personnel than other Air Force personnel.
While in other parts of the Air Force medical personnel might focus on training pilots on coping with high altitudes, those who operate unmanned aircraft must instead find ways to counteract the fatigue associated with long shifts sitting in trailers, their eyes glued to screens. Maj. Maria Elena Gomez-Mejia, who focuses on operational physiology, said many airmen struggled to adjust to regular changing work schedules that could keep them at Creech all or part of the night.
Over time, Air Force officials also hope to upgrade equipment in ways that will lessen the toll of long pilot hours. Now, pilots and their sensor operators must contend with a crowded array of 14 different screens, which provide information on everything from the aircraft’s position and course to area topography. To communicate with personnel on the ground or in the air, they can use radio, online chat or phone. The cluttered arrangement has not changed significantly in 15 years, Col. Matthew Finnegan said.
A next-generation cockpit now under development will merge those screens and streamline communications.