Drone technology

The age of remote-control warfare isn't coming--it's here, and not even the Air Force, which made it happen, is entirely prepared. Here, a firsthand look at the struggle to train thousands of drone pilots virtually overnight.
Without traffic, it takes Captain Adam Brockshus about 45 minutes to drive from his four-bedroom suburban home outside Las Vegas to Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. His commute follows Highway 95 northwest through a stretch of the Mojave freckled with Joshua trees and flanked by arid mountain ranges. He trains pilots for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet this desolate drive may be the most harrowing part of his job. Tall, blond and new-daddy doughy, Brockshus spends the rest of his day in a windowless room full of office chairs and computer monitors, teaching 20-somethings how to fly war drones 7,500 miles away. Although his is, for all intents, a desk job, it may be one of the most critical posts in today’s Air Force. The number of unmanned aircraft missions has more than tripled in the past two years, and the Air Force can’t train people fast enough to keep up with the demand. Brockshus’s responsibility is to churn out new drone pilots, and churn them out fast.

Until a few years ago, most of what he knew of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) came from whatever he might have read in magazines like this one. Operating killer drones wasn’t even an option in 2001, when he was accepted to Air Force flight school after graduating from South Dakota State University, because weaponized UAVs didn’t exist. Not that he necessarily would have gone that route. While some of his classmates were bent on flying F-16s, the competitiveness of such a career wasn’t for him. “For a fighter it makes absolute sense, but I’ve never been that aggressive type,” says Brockshus, whose serene brow could fit right alongside the granite faces of Mount Rushmore in his native South Dakota. “I felt more at home with the heavies.” And so it was that he wound up flying KC-135 refueling tankers, like his father.

As his first tanker tour in Mildenhall, England, wound down in 2007, he and his wife were discussing having a second child, and the prospect of another tour didn’t appeal to either of them. One of the problems with flying KC-135s is that the Eisenhower-era fleet is prone to breakdowns, and Brockshus was often diverted to any number of places to wait out repairs. So when the Air Force offered to reassign him to Nevada, Brockshus thought it sounded good.

In the short time since he arrived at Creech, Brockshus, now 30, has become one of the Air Force’s more experienced pilots of one of its most unexpectedly valuable weapons, the MQ-1 Predator. Along with its bigger and deadlier brother, the MQ-9 Reaper, these armed and remotely controlled spy planes have generated what Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz calls an “insatiable” demand among ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention special operations in Pakistan. It’s easy to see why. At this moment, dozens of armed drones circle miles above insurgents, watching everything in real time, with a resolution sharp enough to read a license plate. Every month they stream 18,000 hours of live video to commanders, intelligence officers and ground troops; they track vehicles, scan convoy routes for explosives, and fire missiles. Unlike the F-16, a Predator can remain above a target for 24 hours, while pilots like Brockshus spell each other in shifts, perhaps watching the sun rise over Afghanistan on their video monitors before driving home in the dark. “They give you a capability that you never had,” says retired Air Force Colonel Tom Ehrhard, a leading UAV expert. “And when you couple it with a lethal system, guess what? It’s magic.”

In the end, what lured Brockshus out of the heavies was not the “magic” of bombing targets each day from afar, but being able to tuck his kids in at night. It’s a lifestyle the Air Force hopes will attract new recruits to the job.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your Commenting...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...