WASHINGTON: In gruelling conflicts in Pakistan and now Libya, the spotlight is being thrust on America's use of pilotless drones.But US military officials insist they are far from faceless machines.
Behind each drone is a team of specialists helping to pilot the aircraft — capable of unleashing deadly missiles against targets on the ground — to their destinations. And the military says they are desperately short-staffed.
In the conflicts triggered in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, the drones came increasingly to the fore in Iraq and Afghanistan as the US military —now strapped by fighting on three fronts — wages war on Al Qaeda.
If the Tomahawk cruise missile was America's much-touted precision weapon in the first Gulf War two decades ago, then Predator and Reaper drones are among the machines of choice in the 21st century.
On Friday, Libyan rebels welcomed a US decision to deploy armed drones to help them in their bloody bid to oust veteran leader Muammar Qadhafi.
But the increasing use of drones has also been mired in controversy, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they have been blamed for inadvertent strikes on civilians, inflaming anti-US sentiment.
US military officials say that even if there is no pilot in the cockpit, the drones can still only function thanks to an army of specialists.
“There is really nothing unmanned about the system at all, except for that little piece of fiberglass at the front end of the system,” said retired Lieutenant General David Deptula, former US Air Force deputy chief of staff.
“They are very human. We believe we have more people in the loop regarding these remotely piloted systems than we do in manned systems,” he told a conference organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
One drone combat air patrol (CAP) can involve as many as 180 people — once you count the pilots on the ground, the mechanics, the intelligence analysts.
They are also in charge of four actual drone machines and maintain cover 24 hours a day, seven days a week over their given zone.
One patrol dedicated to the Global Hawk, a drone which focuses on surveillance and intelligence gathering, counts at least 400 people, according to Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Black, Predator and Reaper functional manager in the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Task Force.
In 1999 there were only 150 pilots trained to “fly” drones. But the hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda means there will be 10 times more by 2013.
Some 82 US Air Force Predators and 26 Reapers are currently deployed in combat zones, Black said. And that is not counting those deployed by the CIA in Pakistan.
“We have most of our assets in the fight. They stay in the fight, they don't rotate back out because I don't have to pull my people in and out to give them breaks,” Black added.
Drone operations are run from the Creech Air Force base, close to Las Vegas in the western state of Nevada. Being able to keep the human task force close to home has definite advantages in helping the missions run smoothly abroad.
“I leave a very small footprint forward and everything is back here in the States. Here's the big plus: almost 90 per cent of our people are in the fight and always in the fight,” Black said.
“I go in the box, I do my mission, I go home to mama, I wash the car on Saturday and then I come back out and I get right back in the fight.” But even with the flexibility afforded by the drone system, the Air Force still doesn't have enough personnel.
“The requirement is so fastly emerging that we need 500 crews,” said Colonel Dean Bushey, deputy director of the Joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence.
And at the current rate of operations, it's even difficult to keep one drone back for training purposes.
“I can not take a MQ-1 Predator to the National Training Centre in San Diego because we don't have it, they're all in the theatre right now. And every time we produce one we send it on the theater,” Bushey said.
“As we increase our CAPs overseas, we reduce the assets available to train new pilots.” The manpower shortage is not going to ease up any time soon, as the Air Force plans to step up combat patrols from 50 in 2011 to 65 in 2013 — involving almost 12,000 personnel and around 250 drones at any given time.
One solution would be to automate the operations even further, but military officials believe that would be difficult.
“Autonomy to do the mission itself is going to be tough,” according to Colonel James Sculerati, chief of intelligence systems requirements, US Special Operations Command.
He said today's technology helps users “reliably recognise targets” and distinguish different targets from one another, but drones still need a human to make the call about which targets to hit.
“In essence it's about making decisions, and making decisions is something that humans do reasonably well, machines do by force and that doesn't necessarily work so well.”—AFP