Air Force Squadron Fights in Iraq
and Afghanistan from Nevada Base
By Sally B. Donnelly, TIME, 12-24-05
Forwarded by Charles Spicka, Col, USAF (Ret.)
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE NV — Six days a week, Shannon Rogers kisses his wife and two young kids goodbye and wheels his battered 1989 Chevy Cavalier out of the driveway of his suburban Nevada home. The houses here are cookie cutter, done in beige stucco.
Like most of the other dads and some moms in this traditional middle-class community, Rogers heads down Interstate 215, toward his job near Las Vegas, using the 30-minute drive to make the mental transition from family man to workplace professional. But Rogers will end up in a place far different from that of his fellow commuters: when he arrives at work, he will be at war in Iraq.
Rogers, an Air Force major and experienced fighter pilot, is part of an elite group of U.S. troops playing a crucial role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the U.S.'s most notorious playground. From Nellis Air Force Base, outside Las Vegas, Rogers controls a Predator, a flimsy drone that has been transformed from a spy plane into one of the wars' most lethal weapons. Predators played a key part in catching Saddam Hussein and have killed al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan and Yemen. In September a Predator tracked 11 insurgents who had attacked a U.S. base in Iraq, then killed them as they fled.
What makes the Predator mission and Rogers' job so unusual is the 7,000 miles between pilot and plane. Basing the crew members at home rather than at the front keeps them out of harm's way and saves the military money. Still, “for us, it's combat,” says Rogers, 34, who has been deployed to battle zones twice, most, we're flying over Iraq. It feels real.”
Certainly the decisions they face are life and death, as TIME observed when it was recently granted exclusive access to operations of the Air Force's 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, which commands 25 Predators from Nellis. It was 10:30 p.m. in Nevada, 9:30 a.m. in Iraq, and after two hours of watching insurgents fire a pickup-truck-mounted 50-caliber machine gun at U.S. troops in western Iraq, Rogers and the sensor operator with whom he works were given the command to shoot the truck.
Both developed a case of what Rogers calls the “trembles” - the nervousness of wanting to kill the enemy but injure no one else, combined with the enormity of taking human lives. Just as Rogers pushed the button to let fly one of the Predator's Hellfire missiles, a car appeared and started to drive toward the pickup. His partner's job is to keep the missile locked on target or, if necessary, divert it to a place where it would cause as little damage as possible. “What do we do, sir?” the partner asked in a shaky voice. “Stay on the target and hope he drives fast,” said Rogers coolly. The car passed, and the truck exploded violently when the Hellfire struck. Rogers let out a whoop and exchanged high fives with his partner.
The Predator is an unlikely star. In military terms, it is an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. It was first flown a decade ago and for years was armed with only an unsophisticated camera for intelligence gathering. After the fall of 2000, when Osama bin Laden was spotted in Afghanistan by an unarmed Predator, the U.S. government sped up a program to fit each aircraft with two Hellfire missiles. Awesome sounding but benign looking, the 27-ft.-long Predator is painted a dull gray and shaped like an upside-down spoon with wings. The drone is made of lightweight composite plastic and metal and has a tiny, propeller-driven engine - adapted from a snowmobile's - with a decidedly unimpressive top speed of only 150 m.p.h. Rogers' previous craft, the supersonic F-15 jet fighter, can fly up to 900 m.p.h.
The Predators commanded by the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron are launched and landed by troops at the front, but while they are in the air, up to 24 hours straight every day, they are controlled by Air Force crews sitting in six grounded cockpits at Nellis. Each cockpit consists of two large armchairs set in front of banks of computer screens with keyboards, control joysticks and live video images. Video is relayed from a camera mounted on the bottom of the Predator not only to Nellis but also to troops on the ground, commanders in the region and the Pentagon.
The crew consists of a pilot who flies the plane and launches missiles and a sensor operator who controls the camera and the laser targeting device for the two Hellfires. The crew members communicate with troops and commanders in the war zone through secure instant-messaging systems as well as radio transmissions routed through a mission controller who sits in a command center at Nellis and issues
orders to the crew.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved the worth of unmanned aircraft - which are cheaper and, because there is no pilot to be shot down, politically more palatable than traditional airplanes. The thousand-plus UAVs in the military's arsenal range from tiny craft that can fit in a soldier's palm to ones the size of business jets. Military analysts are predicting that within two decades, UAVs may even take over the jobs of pilots flying fighter jets. It makes economic sense; the $4 million Predator is a bargain compared with the Air Force's newest fighter, the $354 million F-22.
The effectiveness of the Predator in war zones, however, has translated into stresses in an unlikely place: back home. The operational tempo puts intense pressure on the small group of men and women who deliver death from a distance. The 180-person Nellis unit runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays. The unit has logged more flight hours than any other squadron in the Air Force, yet is only 65% staffed.
Crew members are so tightly scheduled that when on duty, they have to ask permission to go to the bathroom and cannot leave their chairs unless there is someone to replace them. The troops call the Predator compound Shawshank because it reminds them of a prison.
The schedule demands that the men and women change shifts - days, evenings and overnights - every three weeks, which makes fitting into normal civilian life off base nearly impossible. Morale, say many crew members, is suffering. Crew members are experiencing more problems in their personal lives, including separation and divorce.
One may expect that being home would be a plus for the troops, but actually it's often a complication. Soldiers in the field have to cope with danger, but at least they live in one world, whereas their counterparts at Nellis commute daily from war to civilian life. “How many people can say they went to work today and killed or captured a few terrorists?” says Lieut. Colonel John Harris, commander of the 15th.
“Our people are proud they contribute to the war from home. But being at home brings some additional stresses. We're very close to a crisis.”
Rogers says he feels pulled in two directions, between spending more time helping with the war effort and being an integral part of his family. He rushes home after his day shift to jump in the pool with his kids. “At least I get to sleep in my own bed,” says Rogers. But he says being deployed in Iraq was easier because he was isolated from the daily errands and the emotional demands of family life.
His wife Laura feels differently about his being home. “It takes the edge off being a pilot's wife,” she says, “that at least I know I won't be getting that phone call in the middle of the night telling me my husband has been shot down.”