The myth of the lone drone warrior is now well established and threatens to become as enduring as that of the lone lawman with a white horse and a silver bullet who rode out into the Wild West to find the bad guys. In a similar fashion, the unsung hero of Washington’s modern War on Terror in the wild backlands of the planet is sometimes portrayed as a mysterious Central Intelligence Agency officer. Via modern technology, he prowls Central Asian or Middle Eastern skies with his unmanned Predator drone, dispatching carefully placed Hellfire missiles to kill top Al Qaeda terrorists in their remote hideouts.
So much for the myth. In reality, there’s nothing “lone” about drone warfare. Think of the structure for carrying out Washington’s drone killing program as a multidimensional pyramid populated with hundreds of personnel and so complex that just about no one involved really grasps the full picture. Cian Westmoreland, a US Air Force veteran who helped set up the drone data communications system over southeastern Afghanistan back in 2009, puts the matter bluntly: “There are so many people in the chain of actions that it has become increasingly difficult to understand the true impact of what we do. The diffusion of responsibility distances people from the moral weight of their decisions.”
In addition, it’s a program under pressure, killing continually, and losing its own personnel at a startling and possibly unsustainable rate due to “wounds” that no one ever imagined as part of this war. There are, in fact, two groups feeling the greatest impact from Washington’s ongoing air campaigns: lowly drone intelligence “analysts,” often fresh out of high school, and women and children living in poverty on the other side of the world.
A Hyper-Manned Killing Machine
Here, then, as best it can be understood, is how the Air Force version of unmanned aerial warfare really works—and keep in mind that the CIA’s drone war operations are deeply integrated into this system.
The heart of drone war operations does indeed consist of a single pilot and a sensor (camera) operator, typically seated next to each other thousands of miles from the action at an Air Force base like Creech in Nevada or Cannon in New Mexico. There, they operate Predator or Reaper drones over countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, or Yemen. Either of them might have control over the onboard Hellfire missiles, but it would be wrong to assume that they are the modern day equivalent of the Lone Ranger and his sidekick, Tonto.