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.
The pilot and sensor were waiting for a vehicle to emerge, which they would then follow. At least, that’s what the “customer” had told them. The customer, in this case, was the Canadian military, which now has a significant presence in southern Afghanistan. Because the Predator is in such demand, its crews take for granted that every mission assigned is important. Often, the more high-value the target, the duller the aerial stakeout: the top echelons of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Iraqi insurgents are the most likely to practice good operational security (or OPSEC), and thus go to extreme lengths not to be observed. Predators can go days watching one compound where nothing seems to be happening. This vigil was like going on a reconnaissance mission with a sniper unit, except that the boredom here was not worsened by heat or cold or the need to hide behind a rock.
Of the two keyboards in front of the pilot, the one he used most was the chat keyboard. He was writing messages to others involved in the mission, while talking into his mouthpiece to the JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller), usually a staff sergeant near the site under surveillance.
The Pred that was now watching the two compounds had only one remaining Hellfire missile. The other had been fired some hours earlier, taking out a nearby vehicle that turned out to be loaded with explosives; the immense blast had filled the screen.
The pilot beside me remarked, “Sometimes you get spun up, you fly to a site, you wait for the A-10s to arrive on scene, ready for a kill. Then the whole thing gets called off, and you wind up watching a house for hours, and all you see is a guy walk into the courtyard at night to take a crap, registered by the heat signature picked up on the ground after he gets up from his squat.”
I walked into the trailer next door and entered Iraq. An African American woman—an Army brat from Texas—was operating the ball over a big oil complex west of Kirkuk. Insurgents were thought to be laying IEDs or larger bombs inside it during the night. She saw three suspicious trucks and zoomed in. But there was no heat signature, so she knew that the vehicles had been there for many hours without using their engines, and she rotated the ball elsewhere. As she explained to me, the heat signature allows you a view back in time several hours—information that a good sensor can use to establish a narrative.