Drones emerge from shadows to become key cog in US war machine
A U.S. airman guides a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it taxis to the runway at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File photo
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone flies over Creech Air Force Base in Nevada during a training mission May 19, 2016. Picture taken May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Josh Smith
U.S. airmen control a U.S. Air Force drone from a command trailer at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. Picture taken March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Josh Smith
Three 500-pound bombs wait to be loaded on U.S. Air Force drones at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo
A U.S. airman controls the sensors on a U.S. Air Force drone from a command trailer at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone sits armed with Hellfire missiles and a 500-pound bomb in a hanger at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Air Force ground crew secure weapons and other components of an MQ-9 Reaper drone after it returned from a mission, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File photo
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo
A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa November 13, 2014. Yemeni authorities have paid out tens of thousands of dollars to victims of drone strikes using U.S.-supplied funds, a source close to Yemen's presidency said, echoing accounts by legal sources and a family that lost two members in a 2012 raid. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah (YEMEN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST MILITARY POLITICS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Various U.S. military drones are seen at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington September 1, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
The Navmar Applied Sciences Corp. TigerShark is escorted off the runway after landing during "Black Dart", a live-fly, live fire demonstration of 55 unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, at Naval Base Ventura County Sea Range, Point Mugu, near Oxnard, California July 31, 2015. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Soldiers stand behind of a camera by Unmanned Aerial System 'Shadow' during an official presentation by the German and U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) at the U.S. military base in Vilseck-Grafenwoehr October 8, 2013. The drone has a wing-spread of 6.90 metre, an aircraft speed of about 177 km/h and it's mainly used in Afghanistan. Picture taken October 8. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle (GERMANYMILITARY - Tags: POLITICS) MILITARY)
People gather near the wreckage of a car destroyed by a U.S. drone air strike that targeted suspected al Qaeda militants in August 2012, in the al-Qatn district of the southeastern Yemeni province of Hadhramout February 5, 2013. U.S. drones have launched almost daily raids on suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen during the past two weeks, and air strikes have aggravated discontent among Yemenis, who say the strikes pose a threat to civilians. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah (YEMEN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY SOCIETY)
An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft is launched for the first time off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia, May 14, 2013. The U.S. Navy made aviation history on Tuesday by catapulting an unmanned jet off an aircraft carrier for the first time, testing a long-range, stealthy, bat-winged plane that represents a jump forward in drone technology. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A U.S. Navy serviceman (L) prepares to launch an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with Philippine Navy servicemen aboard a patrol boat during a joint annual military exercise called "Carat" at former U.S. military base Sangley Point in Cavite city, west of Manila June 28, 2013. REUTERS/Erik De Castro (PHILIPPINES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Paxton Force, of Fox Co, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines Regiment checks T-Hawk, a surveillance drone camera at the Landing Zone of Combat Outpost Musa Qal-Ah in Helmand province, southwestern Afghanistan November 5, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan/CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada, June 7 (Reuters) - W hen U.S. drones obliterated a car carrying Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour last month, it was the kind of targeted killing that unmanned aircraft are best known for.
But 15 years after a drone first fired missiles in combat, the U.S. military's drone program has expanded far beyond specific strikes to become an everyday part of the war machine.
Now, from control booths in the United States and bases around the Middle East, Afghanistan and parts of Africa, drone crews are flying surveillance missions and providing close air support for troops on the ground.
"In the wars we fight, this is the future," said drone pilot Lieutenant Shaw, as he stood in a hangar at the Air Force's drone base in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
Crews spoke to Reuters on condition that only their first names and rank be used to identify them.
The increased use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in a wide range of battle applications comes as the United States looks to reduce the number of soldiers fighting abroad.
The U.S. military declined to provide statistics breaking down drone activity into types of missions, but dozens of interviews with people working in the secretive programs show UAVs have become an integral tool on the battlefield.
That is likely to raise further objections from critics who say drones often miss their intended targets, can only partly relay what is happening on the ground and encourage warfare with impunity waged by people at computer screens far from danger.
In Afghanistan, the United States has around 9,800 troops left and plans to cut the level to 5,500 by early 2017.
At its peak a few years ago, the U.S. military had around 100,000 soldiers there, yet the dramatic decrease does not mean the conflict is winding down. In fact, the Taliban insurgency is as potent now as at any time since 2001.
Related: See how drones are used to cover sporting events:
Drones in Sports
Drones emerge from shadows to become key cog in US war machine
In this photo taken on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, police officers investigate the southwest corner of Louis Armstrong Stadium after a drone flew over the court, buzzing the players during a match between Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, and Monica Niculescu, of Romania, during the second round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York. The drone crash-landed in the seats and can be seen to the right of the police officer on his phone. Whether they're crashing into the bleachers or simply hovering above stadiums to get a cool picture of the action down below, drones have become semi-regular guests at the ballparks these days. That has put the federal government, local police forces and security think tanks on alert, trying to catch up to the technology and figure out how to prevent the hard-to-stop devices from doing major damage. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Britain's Mohamed Farah operates a drone during a break in a training session for the upcoming World Athletic Championships at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
BEIJING, CHINA - AUGUST 21: Mo Farah of Great Britain looks on as he flies a drone during a practice session ahead of the 15th IAAF World Athletics Championships Beijing 2015 at the Beijing National Stadium on August 21, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
A drone flies an Albanian flag at the national league match in Vlora, 140 kilometers (85 miles) southwest of capital Tirana, between local Flamurtari FC vs. KF Skenderbeu, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. The game ended 1-1. Earlier this week a drone that flew an Albanian nationalist banner over a soccer stadium in Belgrade, Serbia ignited a brawl when Albanian players who tried to protect it were attacked by Serb counterparts, fans and security staff on the pitch, forcing the referee to abandon the match. (AP Photo/str)
A drone with an Albanian flag flies over Partizan stadium during the Euro 2016 Group I qualifying match between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
FILE - This is a Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014 file photo of a drone with an Albanian flag banner flies over Partizan stadium during the Euro 2016 Group I qualifying match between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade, Serbia. The match was abandoned due to crowd trouble. Albania was awarded a victory over Serbia by the top sports court on Friday July 10, 2015 in a reversal of a UEFA sanction over a soccer game that was abandoned when a drone with a political banner flew into the stadium. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - MAY 14: A drone remote-controlled carrying a cloth simulating a ghost with the letter B on it is seen during a second leg match between Boca Juniors and River Plate as part of round of sixteen of Copa Bridgestone Libertadores 2015 at Alberto J. Armando Stadium on May 14, 2015 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Amilcar Orfali/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Players of ASM Clermont Auvergne rugby club take part in a training session on February 19, 2015 at the Marcel Michelin stadium in Clermont-Ferrand, central France, as a drone films them for training analysis. AFP PHOTO / THIERRY ZOCCOLAN (Photo credit should read THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/AFP/Getty Images)
DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 25: A camera-equipped flying drone is seen prior to a game between the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 25, 2014 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke defeated Virginia Tech 66-48. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 7: A drone flies above the scoreboard at Wrigley Field during the seventh inning of the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game on September 7, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jeffrey Phelps/Getty Images)
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DRONES TAKING OVER
As part of its expanding program, the Air Force aims to double the number of drone squadrons over the next five years.
Even some proponents, like retired Lieutenant Colonel T. Mark McCurley, a former Air Force drone pilot, say over reliance on remote killing and electronic intelligence has hurt efforts on the ground.
"Too often, remotely piloted aircraft are being used as a tool to wantonly kill individuals, rather than as one of many tools to capture and shut down whole terrorist networks," he said.
Central to the shift towards remote operations is Afghanistan, where weak local forces, a dwindling troop presence and rugged terrain have made it something of a testing ground.
Drones there log up to eight times as many flight hours as the few remaining manned fighter aircraft. They also release more weapons than conventional aircraft, Reuters reported in April.
For the first time, the top Air Force general in the country was trained as a drone pilot before he deployed, a move he said reflected the importance of unmanned aircraft in the broader military mission.
"Our airmen are flying persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike missions all across Afghanistan," Major General Jeff Taliaferro told Reuters in Kabul, referring to the drone program.
"They're performing everything from counterterrorism to base defense, and really it's a capability a lot of our missions have come to rely on."
The latest generation of drones carries more and bigger weapons and an expanding payload of hi-tech sensors designed to handle a wider range of missions for the conventional military.
The number of hours flown by the Air Force's newest attack drone, the MQ-9 Reaper, more than doubled globally between 2010 and 2015, to nearly as many hours as F-16 fighter jets, according to statistics from the Air Force Safety Center.
In a plan announced late last year, the Air Force proposed roughly $3 billion in funding to expand its attack drone force further, adding 75 of the latest Reaper aircraft.
It already fields at least 93 Reapers and 150 of the older MQ-1 Predators, both built by General Atomics, as well as 33 much larger Global Hawk surveillance UAVs, manufactured by Northrop Grumman.
The U.S. Army also operates a fleet of roughly 130 MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft, an upgraded version of the Predator, and all military services have thousands of smaller, mostly unarmed surveillance drones.
One challenge for the U.S. military is recruiting enough staff to operate a growing fleet and expanding range of roles.
As many as 3,500 new personnel may be added to a workforce of roughly 1,700 pilots and sensor operators in a bid to expand the program and relieve stress and overwork, according to proposals released by the Air Force's Air Combat Command.
While Afghan missions are flown via satellite link by pilots at bases in the United States, aircraft take off and land under the control of crews deployed to the airfields in Afghanistan.
As a steady procession of Reapers rolled down the runways and into the bright Afghan sky, operators at Kandahar described life in on of the fastest-changing sectors of the military.
"My old job was going away, while this field is rapidly expanding," said Captain Bryan, a pilot who used to fly KC-135 refueling aircraft.
Kandahar's role as a drone center in Afghanistan brings the drone full circle.
Fifteen years ago, a U.S. drone made history over Kandahar when it fired the first weapon deployed by unmanned aircraft in combat, during a failed attempt to kill then-Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the first days of the U.S.-led operation that ousted the hardline Islamists from power.
On its way back to base, the drone fired its second missile at Kandahar airfield, then suspected of being occupied by Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
At the height of the NATO coalition mission, Kandahar, which is also a civilian airport, hosted a range of military aircraft including F-16 fighter jets and C-130 cargo planes. Now, the only attack aircraft deployed here are about two dozen drones.
Squeezed into sand-colored shipping containers just off the tarmac, pilots and sensor operators flip through checklists amid an array of monitors, touch screens, radio consoles and a secret chat system with which they talk to pilots in the United States.
At the beginning of the year, the squadron at Kandahar began flying new, extended-range Reapers, usually carrying four Hellfire missiles, one 500 lb GBU-12 bomb and an external fuel tank under the wings.
That load has allowed the aircraft to be used for more than just hunting individuals, including close air support for troops fighting on the ground.
"ANYTHING BUT A VIDEO GAME"
Almost 8,000 miles away, pilots sitting at another sun-bleached desert base, this time in the United States, are among the crews that take over a few minutes after takeoff and guide the aircraft during the mission.
Sitting in dark, air-conditioned booths at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, pilots and sensor operators work closely with large teams of intelligence analysts who sift streams of real-time data transmitted by the drones on the other side of the planet.
While air strikes often grab the headlines, the vast majority of missions in Afghanistan involve hours of mind-numbing surveillance and intelligence gathering, crews say.
The most revolutionary aspect of unmanned aircraft, crews add, is the combination of weapons and surveillance capabilities, which often provide more information than analysts can process.
At Creech, crews handle nearly half of all the Air Force's 60 global drone flights on any given day.
"For us it's anything but a video game," said Captain Tim, a pilot based at Creech, addressing one of the main criticisms leveled at the drone program. "From here you're having an impact on the battlefield."