Drone pilots have a front-row seat on war, from half a world away

The Pentagon has adapted consumer-driven technology such as satellite television and digital video to give pilots, combat troops and commanders at headquarters a real-time look at the enemy on computer screens. For the first time in warfare, troops on the ground can see the enemy miles away on live video feeds.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Sam NelsonU.S. Air Force Capt. Sam Nelson, on the left console, looks to his sensor operator while the team flies its drone on a mission over Afghanistan. The two men operate from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada as part of the 432d Air Expeditionary Wing. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times /)By David Zucchino Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Reporting from Creech Air Force Base, Nev. — From his apartment in Las Vegas, Sam Nelson drove to work through the desert along wind-whipped Highway 95 toward Indian Springs. Along the way, he tuned in to XM radio and tried to put aside the distractions of daily life — bills, rent, laundry — and get ready for work.Nelson, an Air Force captain, was heading for his day shift on a new kind of job, one that could require him to kill another human being 7,500 miles away.Seated in a padded chair inside a low, tan building, he controlled a heavily armed drone aircraft soaring over Afghanistan. When his shift ended, he drove 40 minutes back through the desert to the hustle and neon of Las Vegas.

Drone pilots and crews are the vanguard of a revolution in warfare, one that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have bet on heavily. The first Predator carrying weapons was rushed to Afghanistan just four days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Today, the Air Force is spending nearly $3 billion a year buying and operating drones, and is training pilots to fly more unmanned than manned aircraft. Demand is so strong that even non-pilots such as civil engineers and military police are being trained.

More than 7,000 drones of all types are in use over Iraq and Afghanistan. The planes have played an integral part in the offensive now being carried out in Marja, Afghanistan, by U.S. Marines and British and Afghan troops.

The Pentagon has adapted consumer-driven technology such as satellite television and digital video to give pilots, combat troops and commanders at headquarters a real-time look at the enemy on computer screens. For the first time in warfare, troops on the ground can see the enemy miles away on live video feeds.

Drone strikes in Pakistan are part of a separate CIA program that has killed more than two dozen senior Al Qaeda and Taliban figures, including two leaders of the Pakistani Taliban in the last six months.

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