US drone pilots learn modern art of war at new bases

US drone pilots learn modern art of war at new bases

ISTANBUL - Reuters
US drone pilots learn modern art of war at new bases

The US has ramped up training of drone operators in the New Mexico desert. AFP photo

The tide of war may be receding, as President Barack Obama is fond of saying, but U.S. military demand for unmanned drones and their remote pilots is growing.

In the New Mexico desert, the U.S. Air Force has ramped up training of drone operators - even as the nation increasingly debates their use and U.S. forces prepare to leave Afghanistan.

“Every combatant commander in the world is asking for these things. Down in Southcom, Africom, Pacom, they’re all asking for these assets, so it is in very high demand,” said Lt. Col. Mike Weaver, 16th Training Squadron commander at Holloman Air Force Base, referring to the military’s Southern, Africa and Pacific commands.

Weaver is an example of a fighter jet pilot turned pilot of Remotely Piloted Aircraft, or RPA, as the Air Force insists on calling drones. “With the growth of the RPAs being what it is, a fast-growing industry in the Air Force really, you’ve got pilots coming from all different walks of life to fill the shoes,” Weaver said.

The use of drones to target and kill individuals has become increasingly controversial, and lawmakers have questioned Obama’s legal justifications for using them to kill militants overseas who are U.S. citizens.

678 pilots in 2013

Obama has promised more transparency and, officials say, he and CIA Director John Brennan are deciding whether to remove the spy agency from the drone business and leave it to the Pentagon.
At the Holloman base, there will be 678 pilot and sensor operator students for fiscal year 2013 that started in October, up from 136 in 2009, when training was done solely on the Reaper. About two years ago, the Air Force established a special category, 18x, for drone pilots who came into training having never flown a manned military aircraft.

‘Not like video games’

An 18x student gets over a year of training before flying a mission overseas, compared to two years training to become a fighter pilot. For already established military pilots the drone training is about 6 months, but it is not necessarily easier for them. “We’ve had guys with pilot wings wash out of this,” Weaver said.

It takes a two-member crew to operate a drone: a pilot, who is an officer, flies the plane and launches the missile, and a sensor operator, who is enlisted, directs the camera equipment. Crews work in shifts because the drones can fly for 14-24 hours.

Weaver said the job is definitely not like playing video games. “You see (targets) running and you can hear them sometimes, the fear in their voice. It’s not a video game.”

Training at Holloman started in 2009. Until 2009 all U.S. military drone operations were conducted from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, but now they have spread to Cannon, Ellsworth, and Whiteman Air Force bases, located in New Mexico, South Dakota and Missouri, respectively.