Drone warfare: life on the new frontline

Chris Woods writes: ust a three-hour drive from Washington DC on the scenic Virginia coast, Langley Air Force Base is home to one of the most crucial components of the US armed drone programme. Alongside a couple of squadrons of the F-22 stealth fighter, the inhabitants of a large, nondescript brick building deep within the base had been on a permanent war footing for more than a decade. Visitors without the necessary security clearance needed to be escorted front and rear by chaperones waving red glowsticks, a warning to any intelligence analysts who might walk by not to discuss classified operations within earshot. These men and women were part of Distributed Ground System One (DGS-1), a unit that traced its mission back to the 1990s and the earliest days of the Predator programme. A soundproofed viewing window revealed hundreds of intelligence experts working away in a cavernous darkened room, each small cluster of screens indicating an ongoing mission. Their job was to process vast quantities of data from the many aerial platforms (among them Predators and Reapers) now operating above conventional US battlefields. “When you come on shift you go up to your IMS, your imagery mission supervisor, and he will task you out to what bird you’re assigned to,” explained Airman Ray, a young enlisted geospatial analyst.

Some days Ray might pore over feeds from a U2 or an MC-12 Liberty, both manned surveillance aircraft. Other times, he could find himself assigned to a team analysing images from an armed drone. Like everyone else here, Ray was waging war – though in a few hours he would return home. “It’s not something a lot of folk necessarily understand, that our airmen that you’re seeing downtown really are doing a very important national security mission day to day. But they’re kind of incognito in terms of blending in,” said Colonel Lourdes Duvall, vice commander of the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing – home to most of the conventional air force’s 3,500 analysts.

Historically, intelligence analysts had been emotionally distanced from the battlefield images they were seeing. Even in the late 1990s, it might take days for stills photographs from a U2 mission to be processed and analysed. “We were used to looking at photographs, listening in to enemy transmissions which, you know – abstractly lives are on the line and you never handle it cavalierly, but you didn’t get that intimate contact,” said one former senior air force commander.

Now, intelligence analysts were being remotely exposed to combat on the frontline all the time, and were expected to deliver real-time assistance. Airman Ray described a recent counter-narcotics mission in Afghanistan he had participated in, already in progress when he took over. As pro-government troops on the ground destroyed 1,500lb of drugs, Ray had spotted, while sitting at his desk in Virginia, a group of armed men approaching the location: “They set up and started firing – AK-47s, RPGs, the whole works. Watching this live on a feed is pretty hairy. Luckily none of our guys got injured or killed or anything.”

An airstrike was then called in on the attackers: “The threat to our forces on the ground was too great. So the airstrike was conducted, it was a success, the insurgents were eliminated, and we provided BDA [Battle Damage Assessment] to determine the success of the strike.” Ray’s team continued to watch over the mission in preparation for a helicopter extraction. But then disaster struck. [Continue reading…]

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