Inside the Predator's War on Terror

On Victory over Japan Day, also known as V-J Day, General Henry "Hap" Arnold told the world that “the next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all.” He was off by two and a half wars.

Last week, after passing a federal security clearance, I was privileged to visit Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, where the 432nd Wing currently flies airplanes without men over Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The drones, called the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, fly above the conflict zones while their pilots sit in chairs 50 miles outside Las Vegas. It was from there that I, wearing a business suit and suede shoes, witnessed live action on the battlefield from over the drone pilot’s shoulder.

“Take everything you’ve learned about aviation in war, throw it out of the window, and let’s go to work on tomorrow’s aviation,” General Arnold told his men. “It will be different from anything the world has ever seen.” How true were the general’s words.

Chances are as a 42-year-old mother of two young boys, I would never have witnessed live action in a war zone were this World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. And while drones have been in battle since World War II (Joe Kennedy died on a drone mission), only in the war on terror have they taken center stage. At Creech, Hap Arnold’s prediction of war unlike anything the world has ever seen before unfolded in front of my eyes. There I was, watching Afghan sheep slumber outside a building that had suspected enemy combatants inside -- in real time.

The drones are remarkable to watch in action. Video screens in front of the pilot display satellite images of what is going on down on the ground in varying degrees of close-up. The best resolution is such that in addition to seeing those black sheep on the ground, I could see shrubs and concrete blocks. The Predator relaying this real-time video feed was flying at 20,150 feet above the scene. While some Predators are equipped with Hellfire missiles, others are not. Those without missiles have maximum surveillance capabilities and carry a camera equipped with synthetic aperture radar, or SAR. (Predators can’t currently carry both SAR systems and Hellfire missiles.)