Hunting the Taliban in Las Vegas

In trailers just minutes away from the slot machines, Air Force pilots control Predators over Iraq and Afghanistan. A case study in the marvels—and limits—of modern military technology
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To embed on some of the niftiest air missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, I had to fly to Las Vegas. I drove out of town past the MGM Grand, the Bellagio, and Caesar’s Palace and checked in at a low-end hotel-casino complex in Las Vegas for $59 a night. It was crowded with obese people in sweat suits and seniors driving motorized wheelchairs, yanking one-armed bandits in a masturbatory frenzy, and smelling of whiskey, cigarettes, and popcorn. Ten minutes away, at Nellis Air Force Base, I found a cluster of camouflaged trailers.

“Inside that trailer is Iraq; inside the other, Afghanistan,” explained Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Plamp, of Louisville, Kentucky. “Either way, you go in there and you enter the CENTCOM AOR [Area of Responsibility].”

That is, inside those trailers you leave North America, which falls under Northern Command, and enter the Middle East, the domain of Central Command. So much for the tyranny of geography.

The MQ-1B Predator drone, or the “Pred,” as its crews call it, is flown from here. Underground and underwater fiber-optic cables link these trailers—ground-control stations, really—to Europe, where a satellite dish makes the connection directly to every Predator in the air over Baghdad, and along the Afghan-Pakistani border, and wherever else they are needed. Local airfields get them into the air, then Las Vegas takes over.

The Predator is the most famous of several dozen UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that the military operates. It was first deployed in the 1990s in the Balkans, but made its bones in November 2002 in Yemen, when a Predator-fired AGM-114P armor-piercing Hellfire missile incinerated a car in which an al-Qaeda leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was traveling with five others through the desert. And a Predator tracked Iraqi insurgency leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi during the last days of his life.

Most people, when they hear of an unmanned drone, probably picture a model airplane. Actually, the Predator looks like a big glider. With its twenty-seven-foot length and an almost fifty-foot wingspan, it is comparable in size to a Cessna Skyhawk. Because the Predator’s outer skin is made of composites that contain almost no metal, it weighs only 1,130 pounds without fuel or bombs, and it can stay aloft for twenty-four hours on its four-cylinder engine. It is so light that I was able to lift the tail of a training model off the ground with one arm. Requiring no life support for a pilot and no redundant safety systems, it costs only $4.2 million: for the price of one F-22, you can build more than forty Predators. One-quarter of that $4.2 million is spent on “the ball,” a rotating sphere on the plane’s belly, where the optics, lasers, and video cameras are housed.

But the most impressive thing about the Predator is that it flies slow. That’s right, in counterinsurgency operations, where the goal is to hunt and kill individuals or small groups of fighters—rather than to attack mass infantry formations—the slower a plane flies, the better. Also, the slower it flies, the less wear and tear it sustains, which is why the Predator needs less maintenance than many other aircraft.

Slow-flying manned planes like the A-10 and the AC-130 have been particularly useful in places like Fallujah. Because these planes can hover over complex urban battle spaces, their pilots have “situational awareness”—they can see and understand the local facts on the ground—and are therefore trusted by Marine platoon commanders and Special Forces team sergeants engaged in tactical operations. But while those manned planes still must fly at 180 knots, the unmanned Predator can remain airborne at a mere 75 knots. And while many other UAVs have to fly low, drawing attention with their trademark lawn-mower or snowmobile sound, a Predator flies at 15,000 feet—almost three miles up—where no one on the ground can hear it or see it. Picture a satellite that does not need to remain in a fixed orbit, and is armed with two Hellfire missiles.

I’ve been traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan for a quarter century, and yet some of the most illuminating moments I’ve experienced in those countries occurred here in Las Vegas. Each day began with a pilots’ briefing, no different from those I’ve attended with Air Force pilots elsewhere, with a similar nervous edge to it. To wit, the brief began with “Motherhood”—that is, the idiot-proof basics. Then came an intelligence backgrounder, followed by a detailed weather report (for Iraq and Afghanistan, not Nevada), and concluding with the “Brevity,” or code words for the day. The wall clocks focused on three time zones: Iraq’s, Afghanistan’s, and Zulu. (Zulu Time, or Z Time, is Greenwich Mean Time not adjusted to daylight saving time; the U.S. military uses Z Time worldwide to prevent confusion.)

Those who “fly” Predators are indeed pilots, not operators, even though they don’t have to leave the ground. They wear flight suits. Each is a veteran of an A-10, an F-15, a B-1 bomber, a B-52, or any of a host of other aerial platforms. The scrappy, lumbering, low-tech A-10 Warthog may give pilots the best preparation for flying the high-tech Pred. Both Warthogs and Predators are about hitting small targets and gunning down individuals in confined spaces. “If you want to pull the trigger and take out bad guys, you fly a Predator,” one Pred pilot told me.

Air Force pilots usually work in twenty-month cycles—sixteen months of training followed by four months on deployment. Here, it’s twenty months of combat. The fact that pilots need no new training means enormous savings for the taxpayer. For the pilots, the gruelingly long combat cycle affords enough time to build up high levels of visual familiarity and expertise. Predator pilots know the telltale signs of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), they can read the wadis (dry riverbeds) and other egresses, and they recognize the entrances to the mud-walled compounds and the look of the Afghan “jingle” trucks (the colorfully decorated trucks one sees all over the Indian subcontinent and its environs). They talk to troops on the ground throughout the day and can offer them advice.

Yet despite their part in directing warfare, Predator pilots face absolutely no danger. In fact, as one pilot told me, the Predator raises a moral issue, by enabling you to kill someone without ever putting yourself at risk. Inside the trailers, crews don’t get even the sensation of flying that one gets in a flight simulator. The real tension for these pilots comes from the clash with everything outside the trailers.

Nellis Air Force Base is full of the same stuffy regulations—on driving, dress codes, inspections, saluting, and so forth—that are common to other bases far removed from war zones. (In war zones—inside those trailers—informality reigns because the mission is everything.) But beyond Nellis is the banal world of spouses, kids, homework, and soccer games—not to mention the absurdity of a city where even the gas stations have slot machines. Simply entering or leaving one of the trailers is tremendously disorienting.

In preparing to embed with Predator pilots, I obtained a “secret” clearance, but not a “top-secret” one. Thus, I was barred from the best or “high-side” missions, and had to settle for the “low-side” ones. The first trailer I went into was working in Afghanistan. I felt as if I was back in a submarine, where I had spent several weeks the year before. There were grim, colorless computer bays in freezing, pulsing darkness—a three-dimensional world of flashing digits from light-emitting diodes. Like sub drivers, Pred pilots fly blind, using only the visual depiction of their location on a map and math—numerical readouts indicating latitude, longitude, height, wind speeds, ground elevation, nearby planes, and so forth. The camera in the rotating ball focuses only on the object under surveillance. The crew’s situational awareness is restricted to the enemy on the ground. Much of the time during a stakeout, the Pred flies a preprogrammed hexagon, racetrack, bow tie, or some other circular-type holding pattern.

Each trailer holds a two-person crew: a pilot and a “sensor,” who operates the ball. Both face half a dozen computer screens, including map displays and close-up shots of the object under surveillance. As in any plane, the pilot uses a flight stick with various buttons. Though it was nighttime in Afghanistan, two small mud-walled compounds near Kandahar were easily visible thanks to infrared sensors, which rendered the image on the pilot’s screen in the darker and lighter tones of a photographic negative.

Nevertheless, the screens swept me back into a familiar world: of dramatic, wind-carved hillsides terraced with fields of rice, alfalfa, and cannabis, and sectioned by poplar trees on raised banks; and of courtyarded compounds where, in the intense heat and dust of late spring in southern Afghanistan, people sleep on roofs under magnificent starscapes. The alley between these two compounds, I knew from experience, would be just wide enough for a pickup truck.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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