2 August 2012
"There's not a lot of time for emotion here. There's a war going on and we have a job to do," says Weaver, a veteran F15 fighter pilot.
The only sound is the whirr from multiple computers, their entrails exposed, and the occasional murmur from a pilot into an earpiece.
"I've flown manned aircraft and believe me this, in terms of combat, is more up close and personal."
Weaver is speaking from Holloman air force base in New Mexico, about 8,000 miles from the scenes depicted on the screens, but he and the crews embody not only the "war on terror" but the future of US military force.
The missions, in fact, are simulations. The crews are students yet to earn their wings. But this vast base, covering 24,000 hectares of scorched desert, is fast becoming a type of Top Gun academy for a new generation of airmen and women who operate not from cockpits but trailers wedged in the sand.
A fleet of F-22 Raptors, state-of-the-art, manned fighter jets, are to be moved to another base to let Holloman focus on training crews for unmanned MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers – drones, in common parlance.
The base has rapidly expanded and accelerated training to meet booming Pentagon demand. This year it will graduate 360 crews, products of a new, drone-specialised syllabus that has halved the year-long period to train conventional fighter pilots. A crew comprises a pilot, a sensory operator and, in some cases, a mission co-ordinator. Around 95% stay in the US.
"We're getting the best and brightest," says Major Jason, 35, an instructor pilot who, like several colleagues, withheld his surname for security reasons. "There's a bright future for RPAs so we're getting motivated, sharp guys."
Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), not so long ago they were scorned by many in the military. "It wasn't the sexy thing to be seated in a ground control station. But we're changing a lot of minds," says Captain Chad, 29, another instructor. "People are seeing our capabilities and what we're doing."
What the burgeoning RPA fleet is doing, above all, is enabling the Obama administration's tracking and lethal targeting of Islamist radicals in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, a campaign estimated to have killed at least 2,000 people.
To critics including the former president Jimmy Carter, legal scholars and human rights groups, the strikes are extrajudicial executions that violate nations' sovereignty, stain US moral standing and fuel extremism.
Such critics may consider it apt that Holloman straddles the Jornada del Muerto – Journey of the Dead Man – the macabre Spanish name for the perilous, water-less shortcut through the wilderness once used by Billy the Kid. Situated on a high desert plain, the base bakes by day, shivers by night and witnesses spectacular lightning storms. It has evocative neighbours. To the east, Roswell, which the conspiratorially minded already associate with human-less aircraft; to the west, Truth or Consequences, a town named after a 1950s radio quiz show.
At a time of cutbacks, Barack Obama has set aside around $5bn for Predators and Reapers, signalling their growing importance and ubiquity as a policy instrument. The air force has struggled to supply enough crews for the multiplying hardware.
Hence Holloman's transition to running a dedicated RPA-only training programme that supplements military instructors with civilian contractors such as Keith Vraa, a retired air force lieutenant colonel, nicknamed Hoo, who runs simulations at the 16th training squadron.
"So many pilots are on operations there aren't always enough left to instruct. We're here to fill the gap."
The course strips away the need for mastering cockpits and G-forces. Instead, trainees, after basic flight training, plunge straight into nuances such as multi-spectral targeting systems that integrate infrared sensors, enhanced TV cameras and laser designators and illuminators into single packages.
They learn that a Predator's relatively slow cruising speed – 84mph – is an advantage while "loitering" over targets. And that the much faster and larger Reaper, armed with Paveway II and GBU-38 joint direct attack munitions in addition to Hellfire missiles, "provides a unique capability to autonomously execute the kill chain against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets".
They train in simulators inside windowless, one-storey buildings as well as ground control stations, camouflage-painted trailers from which they control real RPAs over New Mexico's skies.
An increasing number of students are teenagers straight from high school. Others are veteran flyers of fighters, bombers and cargo planes who have been reassigned or are here by choice because of the dwindling number of available cockpits. "F16 pilots used to say they were coming from a Ferrari to a Ford Festiva but you hear less of that now," says Chris, a sensory operator instructor.
"A lot of the higher-up ranks are here because they know this is the future. And who wouldn't want to be at the forefront of that?" He indicated a Predator on a runway.
Instructors are keen to correct two misconceptions. They are not all good at video games. And it is incorrect to call the aircraft drones – the word makes teeth grind – because they are at all times controlled by humans. Crews prefer the term RPA to UAV because "unmanned" diminishes their input.
All agree that RPAs are vital to protecting the US. Many say their primary task is protecting comrades by sharing real-time information about boobytraps or hidden gunmen, or preventing attacks by disrupting terror networks.
Doing so can require greater skill than being in a cockpit, they say, because they must multitask and hold multiple conversations through different media, in some cases while senior officers, intelligence analysts and military lawyers peer over their shoulders. They must stay focused for long stretches of surveillance, when not much happens, and be ready for sudden engagements.
"It's real. Sometimes you can hear gunfire and stress in the voice of the guys on the ground. There's no video game in the world that makes the difference between life and death," says Chad, the pilot, who used to fly missions from Creech air force base outside Las Vegas.
"On the drive home I would decompress. Listen to music, take a deep breath, compartmentalise so I could make the transition to husband, father, family man."
A certain defensiveness mingles with the pride. Asked about accusations that drone strikes are extrajudicial executions, or assassinations, Weaver stiffens. "That's for the politicians to consider. We follow the orders of our civilian leaders."
All bristle at any suggestion that waging war by remote control requires less bravery than traditional combat.
"There are different types of courage," says Jon, a lieutenant
colonel, standing in an officers' bar adorned with a replica medieval
suit of armour, a framed tomahawk and oil paintings of John Wayne and
Clint Eastwood. "Ours requires moral courage. We take moral and legal
risks. If I pull the trigger and I'm wrong I have to live with the