Drones: America's new Air Force

"60 Minutes" reports on the increasing use of Predators and other UAVs in the battlefield--piloted from an airbase in Nevada.

CBS Interactive staff Special to CNET News
9 min read

Every so often in the history of war, a new weapon comes along that fundamentally rewrites the rules of battle. This is a story about a revolution in unmanned aviation that is doing just that.

Most people know them as drones; the Air Force calls them unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. And right now, there are dozens of them in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, hunting down insurgents, every minute of every day.

They've become one of the most important planes in the United States Air Force--and yet the pilot is nowhere near the aircraft or the battlefield. They are controlled by remote control, from thousands of miles away.

Many of the details of this weapons program are classified, but our "60 Minutes" team was given secret clearance and unprecedented access to bring you this story.

Forty-five miles north of Las Vegas, on the edge of the Mojave desert, is Creech Air Force base. It is home to the only wing in the Air Force where none of the pilots ever leave the ground.

Colonel Chris Chambliss was one of the top F-16 fighter pilots in the Air Force, a member of the legendary Thunderbirds. Now the unit he commands has no jets - just pilotless planes known as the Reaper and the Predator.

Creech is the first base in Air Force history that exclusively flies unmanned aircraft.

"Right now, sitting here at Creech, we are about 7,500 miles away from the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan. How close though is this base to the fight that's going on there?" correspondent Lara Logan asked Chambliss.

"I don't think we're 7,500 miles away at all," he replied. "I think if you walk out the hangar and you go into one of the ground control stations, you're in the fight."

The fight for the pilots is on a video screen. In one mission, a truck full of insurgents in Afghanistan was being tracked by the pilot. When the ground commander gave the order, a missile was fired, hitting its target.

The trigger is pulled in Nevada, inside cramped, single-wide trailers and small offices. Two hundred and fifty pilots work in shifts around the clock. Alongside each one of them is a crew member who operates the plane's onboard camera, and a behind-the-scenes team of intelligence analysts.

Real-time view from far, far away
The planes aren't launched at Creech Air Force Base. They take off from locations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and crews in Nevada take control by satellite once the aircraft is several thousand feet in the air.

What the pilots see is a real-time view of the battlefield from thousands of feet in the air, beamed back live from cameras mounted on the unmanned planes. It's what the soldiers on the ground call their "eyes in the sky."

"I'm living the same fight as those guys. Or at least I'm seeing the same fight," Lieutenant Colonel Chris Gough, who flew F-16 combat missions over Kosovo, explained.

Now he flies combat missions over Afghanistan, by remote control.

"There are arguments that we aren't as engaged in the war. I've heard those arguments. And I can tell you that--and I'm happy to tell ya--that I've never been more engaged in a conflict in my life," he told Logan.

And he's never been safer. Gough sits half a world away from the war zone.

"Physiologically, the stimulus and response, exactly the same. I'm not going 400 miles an hour, which means when I pull the stick, I don't get 5 G's on my body. I have much more ability to process and to comprehend what's going on on the battlefield and the information just conveyed to me, and better relay that information to who needs it," Gough explained.

Asked if it is stressful, he told Logan, "Terribly."

And terribly in demand--soldiers on the ground have come to depend on it.

"I've heard the guys say--you know, they don't want to step out the door without eyes in the sky," Logan remarked.

"Sure, I have a brother who's an Army Special Forces. And honestly I wouldn't want him stepping out the door without this thing over the top of him either," Gough replied.

The Air Force now has 28 Reapers, each one costing about $11 million. It can fly as high as 50,000 feet, sit over a target for 15 hours straight, and is as dangerous as a fighter jet.

The Reaper is the Air Force's newest and most lethal unmanned plane, carrying 500 lb. bombs and Hellfire missiles.

But the most important weapon is the aircraft's million-dollar camera. "I don't want them to know that I'm watching their every move. That unseen, unblinking eye is really the effect that I want to give the ground commander. The fact that they don't know that I'm watching them--that's really the magic," Gough said.

The Air Force also has 116 Predators. The Predator is smaller than the Reaper, but it can stay up in the air even longer, 24 hours at a time. It can be miles away from its target, flying undetected through the clouds, while zooming in on an unsuspecting enemy.

We saw that ourselves when the Air Force flew a Predator over our heads, about 2 miles high in the sky.

From 10,000 feet above, the Predator was able to zoom in and send back a very precise image of Logan and the "60 Minutes" team standing on the grounds of Creech Air Force Base. The Predator couldn't be heard or seen by the team, even though they knew the exact whereabouts of the drone.

The Predator's camera even followed the "60 Minutes" team as they drove off the base's flight line. It's this ability that makes it difficult for enemy fighters to escape.

Chambliss showed us exactly how these aircraft do that.

Tracking a "hot gun"
In one video declassified for "60 Minutes," a group of insurgents in Iraq had just ambushed a U.S. convoy. They were trying to get away, but the Predator was watching.

"This is a hot gun," he said, pointing on the screen to a moving human figure on the ground, carrying a gun-shaped object that looked white on the screen.

Asked what he meant by "hot gun," Chambliss explained, "Well it's literally, in this scene, white is hot--and that white spot that this guy is carrying is actually a hot gun. So it's been fired--and we already know it's been used. We've met positive identification criteria that these are bad guys, and so now we can go ahead and strike these targets."

"Do you believe that Predators and Reapers are changing the face of war?" Logan asked.

"When we can take 34 airplanes, and we can have them airborne all the time, and they can look at whatever we need them to look at, that's a huge capability and so because of that, the enemy has to do things differently now. They have to hide more. They don't know when we're looking at 'em. They don't know where we are," Chambliss replied.

The pilots' aerial view of the battlefield often allows them to see the enemy before the soldiers on the ground can. Gough gave "60 Minutes" an example of how he once used this advantage to expose a suspected sniper.

"We called down to the convoy and said, 'Hey how about if you start your engines and just move 10 meters for me,'" he recalled. "And as soon as they did that this individual reached down and pulled a rifle out."

"We were in short order able to engage that individual successfully," Gough told Logan.

The target was hit with a Hellfire missile.

"What if you get it wrong?" Logan asked.

"We don't," Gough replied.

"Ever?" Logan asked.

"That's a tough question," Gough said after a pause. "Yeah. We have the resources to make sure we're right. In battle, in combat, in the fog and friction of war, there are always gonna be times that your judgment isn't with hindsight, you can see things with more clarity."

"But you're not there in the fog and friction of war. You're sitting here in your cockpit in Nevada," Logan remarked.

"And that's what makes us more powerful and have that clarity, because I'm able to distance myself from the fight and use resources that are otherwise unattainable to the combatants," Gough replied.

In spite of that clarity, unmanned planes and Air Force jets are criticized in Afghanistan for killing innocent civilians, including an incident just this week that is under military investigation.

Across the border in Pakistan, where the CIA operates, they're blamed for even more deaths. The CIA wouldn't talk to "60 Minutes" about their operations. But, the Air Force argues that the ability of these planes to sit over a target for extended periods makes them more precise than piloted planes.

We got a sense of that when the Air Force let us sit with Predator pilots in Nevada while they kept a close watch on U.S. soldiers along the Afghan-Pakistan border. What one could see, through the Predator's infrared camera, was a Chinook helicopter offloading troops.

This was happening in the dead of night, so on the ground it was pitch-black. The Predator crew in Nevada was tasked to watch over the soldiers as they got some rest--pulling guard duty from half a world away.

Large white spots seen on the screen in Nevada were the soldiers' sleeping bags, thousands of miles away. The infrared image is so sensitive that once the soldiers are inside the bags, the image can distinguish between the cool sleeping bag and the soldier's warm heads, shown as black circles poking out of the white sleeping bags.

Telecommuting to the battlefield
The crews spent hours studying suspected insurgents. They had just seen a group of men ambush U.S. troops. The pilot can take them out and still make it home in time for dinner.

Logan joined Gough one morning as he headed to work to ask him what that's like.

"To go and work and do bad things to bad people is, and then when I go home and I go to church and try to be a productive member of society, those don't necessarily mesh well," Gough told Logan.

"Does it feel strange compared to being deployed?" Logan asked.

"Yeah, when you drive past Las Vegas and look down to the Strip, and turn the corner and head north to the base, you're leaving one world and you're going to the other. You know we go from being parents and spouses to being warriors," he replied.

Chambliss and his wife, Linda, have been juggling that lifestyle for two years.

"It's sort of like being in a movie that you can, you know, you'll wake up at home and have breakfast with the wife and then head to war," Logan remarked.

Linda Chambliss agreed, and her husband said, "It is a bit. Once you pull the cockpit out of the airplane, then whether you are 50 miles away from the airplane or 5,000 miles away, it really doesn't matter anymore."

"Do you think that distance makes it--it's kind of like a video game and not like real life?" Logan asked.

"No, no, not at all," Chambliss said. "Because you know that there's no reset button. When you let a missile go and it's flying over the head of friendly forces and it's flying toward the enemy to kill somebody or to break something, you know that that's real life--and there's no take back there."

"It has become central to the way we operate," General Norton Schwartz, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and its top military officer, told Logan.

"As a system, do you see anything that has done more damage to al Qaeda?" Logan asked.

"This is probably at the head of the line," he replied.

In 2006, the Predator played a crucial role in hunting down the most wanted al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"Here's the way it goes. You had 600 hours of Predator time over a lengthy period...following Zarqawi. And then you had maybe 6 minutes of F-16 time to finish the target. It reflects again the power of the unmanned systems to produce the kind of intelligence that leads you to a guy like Zarqawi, who was very good at maintaining his anonymity," Schwartz explained.

Chambliss told Logan he thinks the power of these unmanned planes is just beginning to be tapped. "Next year is gonna be a watershed year. We'll actually buy more unmanned aircraft than we buy manned aircraft for the first time in the Air Force's history," he explained.

The Air Force has had to call on their National Guard and Reserve crews to meet the growing demand for these planes. And they're looking for a new generation of pilots who are willing to give up flying at the speed of sound.

"Once you get over the fact that you're not climbing up the ladder and getting into a cockpit, this is so much more satisfying because, you know, every time you fly, every single day, you're having an impact on the ground," Chambliss said.

Asked if he wouldn't go back to flying fighter jets, he replied, "I'll be honest with you, I wouldn't."