The top drone pilot at the Springfield Air National Guard Base is confident that the controversial unmanned technology saves the lives of American combat troops, despite fears of domestic spying and questions of legality surrounding the CIA’s use of drones to kill as many as 3,350 people in Pakistan.
Col. Bryan Davis wanted to make clear that, despite the shroud of secrecy that has settled on the local base since crews began remotely flying the MQ-1B Predator in February 2012, his airmen can be proud of the job they’ve done for ground troops.
“Our contribution is when one more of our guys gets to come home and spend the rest of their lives with their family,” Davis said recently during a one-on-one interview with the Springfield News-Sun at the base.
Springfield-based Predator crews support overseas ground forces, he said, with constant surveillance of troops’ surroundings and, if necessary, air-to-ground missile strikes.
“We have employed weapons, for whatever reason they needed to be employed,” Davis said, unable to explain specifics.
The base’s 178th Fighter Wing, which traces its lineage in Springfield back to 1955, began training to fly the Predator in 2010. That was the year the Air National Guard base here, which generates $99.4 million annually for the local economy, saw the departure of its F-16 training program as mandated by the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment process.
Work got under way last fall at the base at a cost of nearly $5.9 million to renovate a 30,800-square-foot building into a permanent operations center for the Predator crews.
“In an F-16, your whole mission was to train to go to war,” Davis said. “In this mission, we go to war every day.”
A 44-year-old native Ohioan, Davis is keenly aware that unmanned aircraft systems — known in the Air Force as remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA, and in the general public as drones — have been viewed negatively since emerging as the Obama administration’s go-to weapon in the Global War on Terrorism.
“My crews will be unhappy I’m having this interview,” said Davis, a 1991 graduate of Miami University who flew the F-16 fighter jet for 14 years. “We are not popular among the American public. Every other base has been protested.”
“It doesn’t make you feel warm inside,” he added.
Davis doesn’t understand why unmanned aircraft such as the Predator are controversial.
“An F-16 can do way more damage than an RPA ever could,” he said. “But, the general populace looks at F-16s and goes, ‘Woo-hoo, that’s American power at its finest.’ ”
In a stinging editorial last month in The Guardian by Akbar Ahmed, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the two wrote that, “At one stroke, the drone has destroyed any positive image of the United States in the countries over which it operates.”
They argued that drone killings become “nothing less than murder when the soldier doing it is utterly invulnerable.”
However, in Amnesty International’s statement to the Senate judiciary committee in April condemning “targeted killings” by the U.S. outside of battle, the human rights organization conceded that the lethal use of drones in specific armed conflicts — particularly the one in Afghanistan — may not violate international law.
In part because of the debate, Davis, as commander of the local wing’s 178th Reconnaissance Group, is the only Predator crew member here who can be identified.
Flight suits worn by the local Predator crews, who are considered active duty, aren’t generally worn off base.
The son of a state highway patrolman who has a wife and children of his own, Davis is comfortable becoming the public face of a mission that, until now, could only be speculated about.
“Our pool of people come from this local community,” he explained. “If they don’t understand the importance of what we’re doing, then I’ve failed in my job.”
Davis, who came to Springfield in 2003 as an F-16 instructor pilot, said his 200 personnel fly “persistent surveillance” assigned to a ground force commander somewhere overseas.
He likened the job to what he’s seen in cop movies of stakeouts.
They’ll sometimes be asked to watch a trail or a house, or to follow a vehicle. He said they’ve spotted enemy fighters planting improvised explosive devices in the ground.
“That’s one of the misconceptions,” Davis said, “that we’re over there slinging lead like cowboys.”
The Predator can be armed with two laser-guided Hellfire missiles, but they often fly with just one missile or even none at all, he said, in order to gain time loitering in the air.
Davis remembers talking once early on to a young lieutenant on the ground abroad “who sounded like he was 12.”
“He asked, ‘Sir, how long are you going to be here?’ I said eight hours,” Davis said. “He said, ‘Sir, that’s great, because we get to sleep tonight.’ Those guys get to sleep because we’re on station.”
The Predator’s pod-like multispectral targeting system allows its ground-based crew of three — a rated pilot, a sensor operator and a mission coordinator — to see real-time video and heat signatures with only a two-second delay, Davis said.
“That, to me, is staggering,” he said. “It’s not as good as HD, but we can definitely tell if it’s a car or a donkey.”
Davis still isn’t at liberty to say where exactly in the world his crews are operating, but local crews have a Predator in the air somewhere in the world 24 hours a day.
A rare news release last year from Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia revealed that a Springfield-based crew with the 162nd Reconnaissance Squadron — the lead unit in Davis’ group — was ordered to crash a Predator, valued at $3.8 million, into the side of a mountain in Afghanistan on April 14, 2012, after it experienced irreversible engine failure.
The local operators weren’t faulted, but an Army recovery team destroyed what was left of the Predator and its guided missile, the report detailed.
Where else military drone crews based in the United States might be operating is something of an educated guess.
It’s believed the CIA conducts the classified drone program against suspected Islamic militants in Pakistan, which had an 11 percent civilian casualty rate in 2012, according to the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that maintains an online database of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen compiled from news reports.
The spy agency and the military are jointly responsible for the 70 drone strikes to date in Yemen that have killed as many as 819 people, including at least 35 key al-Qaida militants, according to the foundation.
The most well-known, and notorious, of those occurred on Sept. 30, 2011, when a U.S. drone strike killed radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen.
However, there’s no clear indication how many of the strikes in Yemen can be attributed to either the military or CIA, according to Clara Hogan, foundation spokeswoman.
Steven Bucci, director of foreign policy studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said it’s his understanding that Predators have been used in Africa as well, including Libya.
More recently, Bucci said, U.S. Predators provided the French with intelligence in their fight earlier this year with al-Qaida-linked militants in northern Mali.
Media reports in January also highlighted a U.S. agreement with Niger to host unarmed Predators in that West African nation, which just happens to border Mali.
“Everybody wants ’em and there’s not going to be enough of them for a long time,” said Bucci, a former Special Forces commander and former deputy assistant secretary of defense. “Every commander would like to have more.”
According to its public websites, the Air Force has an inventory of 164 Predators, compared to 1,018 F-16s.
“They’ve given our military advantages no military has ever had in the ability to see things,” Bucci said, calling the Predator “phenomenal.”
Bucci, who doesn’t foresee a role for Predators domestically except in special circumstances such as search and rescue, said he’s been asked if it’s “fair” for the U.S. to use drones in combat.
“That’s like saying, ‘The other guys don’t have artillery, so we shouldn’t use artillery,’ ” he said.
He thinks of his son, who’s serving in the Army.
“I’m kind of glad we don’t go into a fair fight too often,” Bucci said.
Springfield News-Sun reporter Andrew McGinn provides local military coverage you can’t find anywhere else, from developments at the Springfield Air National Guard Base and troop deployments as part of the War on Terror to profiles of area veterans.