The Drone Zone
Article below photos
All photography by Sean Hemmerle for The New York Times
Holloman Air Force Base, at the eastern edge of New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range, 200 miles south of Albuquerque, was once famous for the daredevil maneuvers of those who trained there. In 1954, Col. John Paul Stapp rode a rocket-propelled sled across the desert, reaching 632 miles per hour, in an attempt to figure out the maximum speed at which jet pilots could safely eject. He slammed on the brakes and was thrust forward with such force that he had to be hauled away on a stretcher, his eyes bleeding from burst capillaries. Six years later, Capt. Joseph Kittinger Jr., testing the height at which pilots could safely bail out, rode a helium-powered balloon up to 102,800 feet. He muttered, “Lord, take care of me now,” dropped for 13 minutes 45 seconds and broke the record for the highest parachute jump.
Today many of the pilots at Holloman never get off the ground. The base has been converted into the U.S. Air Force’s primary training center for drone operators, where pilots spend their days in sand-colored trailers near a runway from which their planes take off without them. Inside each trailer, a pilot flies his plane from a padded chair, using a joystick and throttle, as his partner, the “sensor operator,” focuses on the grainy images moving across a video screen, directing missiles to their targets with a laser.
Holloman sits on almost 60,000 acres of desert badlands, near jagged hills that are frosted with snow for several months of the year — a perfect training ground for pilots who will fly Predators and Reapers over the similarly hostile terrain of Afghanistan. When I visited the base earlier this year with a small group of reporters, we were taken into a command post where a large flat-screen television was broadcasting a video feed from a drone flying overhead. It took a few seconds to figure out exactly what we were looking at. A white S.U.V. traveling along a highway adjacent to the base came into the cross hairs in the center of the screen and was tracked as it headed south along the desert road. When the S.U.V. drove out of the picture, the drone began following another car.
“Wait, you guys practice tracking enemies by using civilian cars?” a reporter asked. One Air Force officer responded that this was only a training mission, and then the group was quickly hustled out of the room.
Though the Pentagon is increasing its fleet of drones by 30 percent and military leaders estimate that, within a year or so, the number of Air Force pilots flying unmanned planes could be higher than the number who actually leave the ground, much about how and where the U.S. government operates drones remains a secret. Even the pilots we interviewed wore black tape over their nametags. The Air Force, citing concerns for the pilots’ safety, forbids them to reveal their last names.
It is widely known that the United States has three different drone programs. The first is the publicly acknowledged program run by the Pentagon that has been operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other two are classified programs run separately by the C.I.A. and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which maintain separate lists of people targeted for killing.
Over the years, details have trickled out about lethal drone operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere. But the drone war has been even more extensive. According to three current and former intelligence officials I spoke to, in 2006, a barrage of Hellfire missiles from a Predator hit a suspected militant camp in the jungles of the Philippines, in an attempt to kill the Indonesian terrorist Umar Patek. The strike, which was reported at the time as a “Philippine military operation,” missed Patek but killed others at the camp.
The increased use of drones in warfare has led the Air Force to re-engineer its training program for drone pilots. Trainees are now sent to Holloman just months after they join the military, instead of first undergoing traditional pilot training as they did in the past. The Air Force can now produce certified Predator and Reaper pilots in less than two years.
But the accelerated training has created its own problems. When I visited Holloman in February, there had been five drone accidents at the base since 2009. Most of them occurred during landing, when pilots have the most difficulty judging where the plane is in relation to the runway. As much as the military has tried to make drone pilots feel as if they are sitting in a cockpit, they are still flying a plane from a screen with a narrow field of vision.
Then there is the fact that the movement shown on a drone pilot’s video screen has over the years been seconds behind what the drone sees — a delay caused by the time it takes to bounce a signal off a satellite in space. This problem, called “latency,” has long bedeviled drone pilots, making it difficult to hit a moving target. Last year senior operatives with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula told a Yemeni reporter that if they hear an American drone overhead, they move around as much as possible. (Military officials said that they have made progress in recent years in addressing the latency problem but declined to provide details.)
Stationing pilots in the United States has saved the Air Force money, and pilots at Holloman who have flown drone combat missions speak glowingly about a lifestyle that allows them to fight a war without going to war. Craig, an Air Force captain who is a trainer at the base, volunteered to fly Predators while in flight school. He calls his job “the perfect balance of mission and family.”
And yet this balance comes at a cost. Pilots have flown missions over Afghanistan in the morning, stopped for lunch, fought the Iraq war in the afternoon and then driven home in time for dinner. Lt. Col Matt Martin, formerly a trainer at Holloman, wrote about the disorienting experience of toggling among different war zones in a memoir, “Predator,” calling the experience “enough to make a Predator pilot schizophrenic.”
It’s disorienting in other ways too. Can a pilot who flies planes remotely ever be as heroic as the aces who flew behind enemy lines or as Colonel Stapp, whose stunt in the New Mexico desert won him a prestigious medal for valor and put him on the cover of Time magazine?
Luther (Trey) Turner III, a retired colonel who flew combat missions during the gulf war before he switched to flying Predators in 2003, said that he doesn’t view his combat experience flying drones as “valorous.” “My understanding of the term is that you are faced with danger. And, when I am sitting in a ground-control station thousands of miles away from the battlefield, that’s just not the case.” But, he said, “I firmly believe it takes bravery to fly a U.A.V.” — unmanned aerial vehicle — “particularly when you’re called upon to take someone’s life. In some cases, you are watching it play out live and in color.” As more than one pilot at Holloman told me, a bit defensively, “We’re not just playing video games here.”