DeM Banter: Always interesting and still pondering what this will looking like in 5 to 10 years. If the architecture gets exploited…think of the investment lost? Where will technology take these aircraft? What about the continuing moral implications?
August 2, 2012
‘PlayStation pilots’ are taking over from the Top Guns as Air Force switches priorities
More US Air Force crews are being trained to kill with drones remotely from the “office” in America than from the cockpit of conventional aircraft for the first time.
The growth of a rapidly expanding drone force that has qualified pilots operating unmanned aircraft thousands of miles away has underlined the dramatic change in the way that wars of the future will be fought.
General Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force until his retirement last week, disclosed the shift from using Top Gun fighter pilots to deploying drones. “It is conceivable that the majority of aviators in our Air Force will be remotely piloted aircraft operators.
We’re [already] training more [drone] aviators than we are bomber and fighter pilots,” he said.
There are about 1,300 drone pilots in the US Air Force, all of them officers, and most of them operating Predators, Reapers and the longer-range Global Hawks over Afghanistan. The drones take off and land from bases in Afghanistan but their operators sit in comfort 7,000 miles away with a joystick, a laptop and several flat-screen monitors that show the altitude and speed of the drones, maps and potential targets.
Last year 350 drone pilots were recruited compared with a combined total of 250 fighter and bomber pilots. Many of them are former pilots of F16s, giving up the excitement of enduring G-force flying and joining what some veteran flyers are calling the “Play-Station” force. As more manned fighter aircraft are retired — 123 next year — the fleet of Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones has risen to nearly 300.
The US Air Force hopes to have 2,500 drone pilots and support crew personnel, such as sensor operators, by May 2014, which will enable America to have in the air 24 hours of the day, anywhere in the world, a total of 65 Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones, the first two of which are armed with Hellfire missiles and precision-guided bombs.
To meet this ambitious target, the network of drone operational and training bases throughout the US has proliferated.
There are now 16 sites with one under development at Eglin Air Force base in Florida. They spread from Creech in Nevada — which opened in March 2008 and has the largest number of aircraft — to locations in California, New Mexico, New York State, Arizona, North Dakota and Ohio.
“I miss getting in an airplane, but I can tell you when things get busy my adrenaline gets going just as much as it did sitting in the cockpit of an F16. My heart gets pounding just as much,” Colonel Greg Semmel, 48, now flying Reapers from Hancock Field drone base, near Syracuse in New York State, told the Los Angeles Times last week. The airbase used to be home to the F16s of the Air National Guard but they have all been replaced by Reapers.
Attacking targets with armed remotely piloted aircraft that cost a fraction of the price of a fully equipped fighter jet will also help to reduce the pressure on the Pentagon budget. The price of a Reaper is about $40 million (£26 million). The Joint Strike Fighter F35, the fifth-generation stealth aircraft still under development, will cost about $200 million.
The traditional role of the US Air Force nonetheless remains crucial to the military, with just over 4,000 US fighter and bomber pilots still in service.
According to General Schwartz, they will have a role to play in war for maybe another three decades because they are essential for defending the territory of the US or its allies.
“Manned aircraft will be a part of the chemistry here because at least for the near term, the remotely piloted aircraft capability is not for contested airspace. It is a benign airspace capability,” he said.
“So when and if we’re challenged, manned aviation — F35s are a case in point and B2s [stealth bombers] — will be part of our force structure, I would estimate at least for a generation and a half, 30 years probably, maybe more, probably not less.”
A nation’s principles and a ‘private war’ Analysis Alexandra Frean The use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia by the Obama Administration to kill designated terrorists has tested the nation’s principles and its tolerance for a policy commonly referred to as “killing by remote control”.
Recent revelations that the President personally authorises lethal drone strikes after secret “Terror Tuesday” teleconferences “Death by drone” has troubled many people finalise the “kill list”, have raised fears of a programme of extrajudicial killing.
The remote-control killing of the US-born radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last year troubled many who noted that there was nothing in the Constitution that allowed the President to wage a private war on individuals. Other critics question the method used to assess civilian casualties from drone attacks, which specifically excludes from the body count any military-age males in the strike zone. John Brennan, President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, cites the “just war” theory, arguing that drone strikes are consistent with America’s “inherent right of national self-defence”.
Surveys suggest that drone strikes do not appear to trouble the majority of the US public too much, or indeed the Republican opposition.
According to research published by the Pew Centre in June, 62 per cent of US citizens approve of the strikes. That rises to 74 per cent among Republicans. Even among Democrats, it gets the approval of 58 per cent.