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Deskbound warriors in Nevada deliver death in the Afghan theatre

What happens in Creech, stays in Creech.

The 40-minute drive home on Nevada 95, a desert highway, flanked by mountains half a world away from equally stark mountains of Central Asia, must be the world's oddest commute, as 21st-century warriors head home to take their children to soccer and deal with the minutiae of suburban life.

"This is something so new that never in 5,000 years of human conflict has there been anything like it,'" says Wired for War author P.W. Singer. "War used to mean going away to a place so dangerous you might not come back.''

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Now the biggest physical risk is falling asleep on the lonely drive home.

Creech is a dusty Air Force base where pilots pull long shifts flying Predators and Reapers - the drones dealing death and destruction half a world away - in nondescript trailers crammed with digital cockpits and huge flat-screen displays. These are the new deskbound warriors fighting an unprecedented, asymmetrical war.

America's drone war - deliberately shrouded in secrecy to obscure forays to and perhaps beyond the edge of legality and to foster fear among Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders - has been massively escalated by President Barack Obama.

Not since Richard Nixon ordered secret but massive air strikes on Cambodia during the Vietnam war has such a clandestine, "deniable" and "out of area" bombing campaign played such a central and controversial role in war.

For drone pilots, there's none of the Top Gun swagger that goes with flying fast warplanes. For Pentagon planners, there's none of the nightmare of a pilot becoming a hostage and dying as proof that the United States is waging an active war in the hinterlands of Pakistan, without congressional, Security Council or Islamabad's approval.

Persistence, stealth and deniability are the troika propping up the drone war. Together they have made Predators and Reapers the President's preferred killing machines.

Predators - and the bigger Reaper with longer loiter time and a much bigger payload of bombs and Hellfire missiles - circle endlessly over Afghanistan. But it is high above the remote and lawless tribal areas of Pakistan where they have killed hundreds, maybe thousands, in scores of supposedly pinpoint attacks. Pilots and weapons specialists in Naugahyde chairs, gripping control sticks not so different from those used in video games, shadow individuals, select targets and deliver death, all from a drone flying three kilometres above the earth.

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In the testosterone-fuelled Air Force world, where fighter jocks trump everyone, including the transport pilots and rotorheads (helicopter pilots) there's nothing elite about drone drivers.

Few volunteer to pilot drones but the need for remote flyers is so critical that the Pentagon has blocked transfers out. "You'll pick up less chicks at a bar," Captain Ted Schultz told drone flyers trainees, according to Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. "But you'll never be irrelevant in any future battle the Air Force fights," the former F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot said.

In fact, stress levels among drone pilots are higher than those who fly fast jets in combat zones, and psychological problems are cropping up as the military copes with a whole new set of complications among faraway warriors.

"On the drive out here, you get yourself ready to enter the compartment of your life that is flying combat," retired Colonel Chris Chambliss told the Los Angeles Times. The colonel previously commanded drone operations at Creech Air Force Base. `'And on the drive home, you get ready for that part of your life that's going to be the soccer game."

Mr. Singer says the disconnect issues are huge and still not fully understood. There is no band of brothers, no squadron mess to return to after a mission, to blow off steam. "Yet they are experiencing stress levels equal to those deployed … they have to be warrior and father and husband all in the same day.''

Among the grimmer tasks: Counting body parts in images delivered from the powerful probing cameras and sensors in the Predator's roving eye pod, to prepare after-action reports.

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Most drone flying - like most soldiering - is tedious: Flying for hours peering at ghostly infra-red images at night, looking for Taliban roadside-bomb planters, or riding aerial shotgun on lonely convoys. Often the drone pilots call in manned bombers to deliver heavier strikes. But in the wild lands of Pakistan, the drones deliver the air strikes. Those missions - reportedly - are flown by Central Intelligence Agency pilots rather than Air Force personnel although, like much about the new era of unmanned warplanes delivering unaccountable missile strikes in undeclared wars, it's a deliberately camouflaged truth.

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About the Author
International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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