Hunter Killer: Inside America’s Unmanned Air War
Lt. Col. T. Mark McCurley
“They also serve who only stand and wait."
–John Milton, "On His Blindness"
In 2003 the U.S. military was fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan. T. Mark McCurley found himself wearing a U.S. Air Force officer’s uniform but not flying a fighter jet or bomber. He was a pilot with years of experience and certified to fly multiple types of planes, including the AWAC, but in the Air Force only the best of the best fly fighters and bombers, and engage the enemy directly. Men and women in any branch of the military want to make a contribution that will end their country’s war honorably, and bring their brothers in arms home safely. He felt he was not making a difference.
The men and women who fly fighters and bombers must maintain constant control of their plane and weapons. Even a slight error could result in death or friendly fire. The Fokker Dr1 triplane that the bloody Red Baron flew in World War I has been replaced by the F-16 Falcon, the F-15 Eagle, and the B-1 Lancer, but the ‘knight of the air’ mentality remains unchanged. For McCurley, this mentality was summed up by popular Air Force T-shirt: “Pi-lot: n. The highest form of life on earth.”
In a decision that smacked of desperation, McCurley volunteered for the RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) program. In order to make a more direct contribution to the war on terror, he abandoned the dream of flying a fighter or a bomber over enemy territory for the reality of controlling a drone from an air-conditioned box planted firmly in the Nevada desert.
When he joined the RPA program, the Air Force wasn’t necessarily even looking for the best, or most experienced, pilots for this new program. Remotely controlled planes were not flown by Tom Cruise. In fact, most didn’t even have weapons. The drone was, like its ancestor the early bi-plane, seen as useful only for observing the enemy. Many of his fellow classmates were rejects from fighter pilot school. The fact that he had volunteered for the program was viewed by his instructors as a bonus.
McCurley was introduced to the drone craft via the Predator at Creech Air Force base located 45 minutes from the Las Vegas strip. The Predators were not armed, but they “could reach altitudes of up to twenty-five thousand feet and fly for more than 20 hours without refueling.” They were unarmed, but compared to a conventional bomber or fighter plane, they possessed almost mystical optical equipment. Infrared, night vision, and photographic lenses sensitive enough to secretly identify the face of a terrorist were capabilities that made the new aircraft ideal for surveillance missions in the war on terror.
At first, McCurley found the very basics of flying a drone frustrating. Despite his many flight certificates and hours in multiple types of U.S. Air Force planes, he found himself experiencing extreme difficulty simply flying and landing the two-thousand-pound craft. He had been taught to use all his senses to successfully fly a plane. Behind the keyboard of a drone, a pilot senses little. There is no engine noise, no buffeting from air pockets. A drone pilot is cocooned thousands of miles from his craft, reacting to colored cursors on a monitor. Embedded in this distance is a latency of three to seven seconds. In other words, the pilot can move the stick, pedals, or push buttons on the keyboard, but must wait for the aircraft to react. Three to seven seconds can be an eternity for a pilot trained to fly a traditional aircraft. A Predator, or Reaper, pilot must anticipate the craft’s response without actually being in the craft.
After training, he began to fly surveillance missions from his converted Sea-Land container in the Nevada desert. Airmen located on forward bases in the Middle East would launch the fragile and ungainly craft locally. McCurley and a sensor operator would take control via satellite once the machines were airborne. Flying 25,000 feet above an oblivious target was hardly breathtaking. At one point, they tracked a courier for 60 consecutive days, 24-seven. These were called “pattern of life” missions and frequently led to other couriers or cell leaders. “Do that for weeks on end and flying the Predator was more like working in a factory. All of the sexiness of being a pilot was gone.”
McCurley was providing invaluable intelligence for ground troops. He was helping his fellow Americans, but he was shadowing, not fighting, the enemy. That would soon change dramatically.
Military and civilian commanders realized that the drones’ ability to pinpoint individuals also made the craft ideal as a weapons delivery system. The Reapers were soon armed with Hellfire missiles, and their crews trained for combat. McCurley not only found himself dropping ordinance on enemy combatants, but also training his fellow pilots on the finer points of targeting terrorists. Commanders were demanding more hunt and kill missions. “More pilots were learning to fly the Predator and Reaper than any other aircraft in the Air Force. The RPA community was slowly climbing out the basement of the Air Force fleet.”
But actively serving can have a downside. The near magical optics of the drone sometimes reveals too much. Unlike fighter or bomber pilots, the killing of high profile targets can require stalking, much as a hunter stalks his prey. Sometimes the set-up for the kill can take weeks or even months. As a result, the drone pilots become extremely familiar with the targets, their habits and possibly even their family. They are no longer simply standing and waiting, they see the face of the enemy as the missiles fall. At one point McCurley is stopped at a red light outside of Las Vegas. Just hours before he had remotely killed a terrorist thousands of miles away. He’s haunted by the man’s “sightless eyes” and asked himself “what greater sin could I have committed?” He is no longer standing and waiting, he is most definitely serving.
Hunter Killer, by Lt. Col. T. Mark McCurley, is not Rumor of War for the War on Terror, but it is an important book because McCurley’s time behind the controls of a drone spans the years 2003 to 2011. This is a period that saw not only the growth of the RPA program, but an innovative use of drones that changed the way America wages war.
Business, Science and Technology/Social Sciences Department