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Drone pilots go to war in the Nevada desert, staring at video screens

'Every single day this base is at war. These kids are not playing video games out of their mothers' basements'

The pilots sit in dimly lit, air-conditioned trailers, each staring at glowing video and data screens and toggling a joystick that controls an armed drone flying somewhere in the world.

With more than 100 Predator and Reaper drones aloft every day, this sun-scorched desert outpost is the hub of America's growing drone fleet around the globe.

The 500 or so pilots here help launch missiles at Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, provide overwatch of U.S. special forces raids in Afghanistan, and scour the rugged Horn of Africa and elsewhere for wanted militants.

“Every single day this base is at war,” Col. James R. Cluff, commander of Creech, said Tuesday. “These kids are not playing video games out of their mothers' basements.”

But the Pentagon's increasing demand for real-time surveillance over hot spots, and the growing role of unmanned aircraft in the modern military, has created a problem: The Air Force has too few drone pilots.

Some 1,066 pilots fly drones from Creech and other bases, fewer than the 1,281 that the Air Force says it needs to fulfill a Pentagon mandate of 65 daily missions, called combat air patrols. A patrol has one to four aircraft.

As a result, pilots here work up to 12 hours a day. Some are clocking 1,100 flight hours a year, four times the number flown by traditional pilots, according to Pentagon data.

“It does get eye-glazing, there's no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said a drone pilot who was not authorized to speak on the record. “If it's 4 o'clock in the morning and you're sitting there watching a compound waiting for something to happen, you're going to get tired."

To help the pilots cope with stress, a chaplain at Creech has a top-secret security clearance so he can counsel them about troubles related to classified work.

Commanders also have sought to reduce the number of missions, increase monthly flight pay, and hire civilian contractors to help share the workload.

Last year, as the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan wound down, the Pentagon tried to cut back on the daily missions. But then Islamic State militants swept out of Syria and seized vast parts of Iraq, sparking a new U.S. intervention in the region.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, suddenly needed eyes above the war zone to zero in on strongholds, hunt for potential targets and generate fresh intelligence.

“From our perspective, we never saw a lull,” Cluff said. “Now we’re engaged in almost every facet” of the war against Islamic State.

Drone strikes grab the headlines, including one in Yemen that the White House said Tuesday had killed Nasir al-Wahishi, head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and second in command of Al Qaeda’s global network.

But most of the time, the pilots here say, they provide video surveillance, flying endless hours over deserts, mountains and towns in what one official has called “death TV.” Drones often fly hundreds of hours or more before commanders feel confident enough to launch a missile at a target.

MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones have flown 3,300 flights in Iraq and Syria, for example, but have launched just 875 strikes, according to the Air Force.

“It’s not always glamorous work,” said Col. Julian C. Cheater, a former F-16 fighter pilot who is commander of the largest drone operations group in the Air Force. “You may not drop more bombs or fire more missiles than anyone in the Air Force. But you are in the fight every day.”

Less than an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, Creech is carved out of the desert and ringed by craggy red mountain ranges. The 3,325 military and civilian personnel are commuters since no one lives on base. The only drones are used for training, and the air buzzes as they take off and land in the baking heat.

In the distance, pilots fly their missions in low-slung trailers scattered in the desert. They handle the joystick beside an operator who controls cameras and sensors.

Six computer screens allow them to exchange messages with spotters on the ground, see their location on various maps, and view data on how the drone is flying. They also have an encrypted phone line.

“The skill set here is managing information,” Cheater said. “It can be tough at times.”

So is finding enough pilots. In fiscal year 2014, the most recent data available, the Air Force recruited and trained 180 new drone pilots, far below its goal of 300.  

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently approved a plan to reduce the number of daily drone patrols from 65 to 60 by October to ease the pressure. He also agreed to hire contractors to help with training.

Contractors also will play a more active role in combat missions, conducting takeoffs and landings. These launch and recovery operations take place at overseas bases before they’re handed over to pilots here, who remotely control the drone on its flight.

Many of the contractors are former active-duty pilots who left the Air Force and now earn twice as much in the private sector.

“That can be rather enticing to a young pilot who’s looking toward the future,” Maj. Lou Pine, a Predator and Reaper pilot who has studied the drone pilot problem for the Air Force, said by phone from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.

The Air Force recently increased monthly bonuses for drone pilots from $650 to $1,500 if they keep flying unmanned aircraft beyond a six-year commitment. But a Government Accountability Office report in May found few pilots eligible for the extra bonuses.

David A. Deptula, a retired three-star general and former Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, said the new measures were not likely to fix the pilot shortage.

“They will not solve the overarching problem of the insatiable demand for ISR,” he said.

“This is a problem of our own making,” agreed Peter W. Singer, fellow at the nonprofit New America Foundation in Washington and author of “Wired for War,” a book about robotic warfare. “It reflects years of failing to recognize that this is the new normal of the Air Force.”

Twitter: @wjhenn

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