National Security

Use of drones against Islamic State changes the meaning of warfare

A drone flies over Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Nov. 26, 2013
A drone flies over Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Nov. 26, 2013 MCT

In America’s war against the Islamic State, many of those fighting sit in a dark, cold room and stare at computer screens for 12 hours at a stretch.

There are dozens of them, men and women, each wearing camouflage, looking for suspected Iraqi and Syrian jihadists scurrying across the screen. If something changes on the screen – a group of dark figures crossing a street, a string of vehicles racing down a road – they pass the information to another pilot, who might decide to open fire with a Hellfire missile or an electronically guided bomb.

The greatest combat hazard they face is from the Red Bull and other sugary drinks they devour to stay awake; their unit has the worst rate of cavities in the Air Force.

“I would rather be deployed,” said Capt. Jennifer, a reservist and intelligence analyst whose full name the Air Force withheld for security reasons. “My daughter calls me because she is sick and I have to pick her up from school. When I am deployed forward I am deployed. I don’t have to worry about the day-to-day.”

With the Obama administration’s strategy of “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State without putting American combat troops – “boots on the ground” – at risk, much of the war against the group depends on remotely piloted aircraft with names such as Predator and Reaper that are guided from rooms like this one, at a base three hours south of Washington. The way the administration now talks about war is changing the nature of war itself.

Drones that in previous conflicts had been used to provide support to troops on the ground now have become a vital form of fighting. But with no one on the ground to corroborate what pilots think they see from the drones, the certainty of what’s happening is limited. Air Force and U.S. Central Command officials concede that’s delayed the response to some Islamic State activity.

The airmen – the title applies to female pilots, too – can’t agree among themselves whether they’re at war. Some think they should qualify for a coveted combat patch – right now they don’t – while others say it’s harder to fight a war when one is not actually there. They say they must resist thinking they’re playing a video game.

“We are not going to get a perfect answer in the theater we are operating in,” Col. Timothy Haugh, the commander of the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, said about the uncertainty with which they operate. “Without a commander on the ground, that puts the responsibility on us.”

“The closest thing to human intelligence capability we have is the U.S. Embassy. They are on the ground,” said Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer, another reservist whose last name wasn’t revealed.

The Air Force won’t say how many of the bombing raids over Iraq and Syria have been handled from control centers such as this one. As of Sunday, the Air Force had conducted 60 percent of the strikes in Iraq and Syria since operations began Aug. 8, including 63.7 percent of Syria strikes. There are more than 160 Air Force fighter, bomber, ISR, tanker and other types of aircraft in the region at any given time, according to the Air Force, and the number of sorties, an individual plane flying an individual mission, now numbers in the thousands, including 1,400 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Whether the flights are piloted from a stateside control room or the cockpit of a manned aircraft, the decision to depend so heavily on the air campaign to defeat ground forces changes the possible outcome, experts say.

“If you want to defeat a dismounted light-infantry terrorist organization, the best tool is to use a dismounted light infantry force, like more special forces,” said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Institute for the Study of War. “Right now, what we are doing in reality is a strategy of containment. But when we say we are out to degrade and destroy ISIS but then we practice containment there is a disconnect between the rhetoric and the policy.”

With no major ground force present, many analysts depend on intelligence gleaned from the eight-year occupation of Iraq that ended in 2011. It’s a treasure trove of intelligence built up by a million troops, and it’s still valuable, albeit dated.

But in Syria, where U.S. troops have had no presence, there’s little historical intelligence available.

Even Iraq intelligence is of little value to the men and women who are trying to fight a war in which the only illumination comes from a computer monitor, and the fluorescent glow of a lamp lights the edge of an American flag hung on the wall. Few of those here, whose average age is the mid-20s, have been to Iraq.

That lack of firsthand knowledge makes their job much harder. “I think it is something we are still grappling with,” said Staff Sgt. James, an analyst whose last name the Air Force withheld for his security.