CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada — The tasking order came in over one of the several computer screens in the extremely cold, air-conditioned metal hut in the middle of the Nevada desert.
Reaper 27, an MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft with its crew of pilot Maj. Bert and sensor operator Senior Airman Shontae, is tasked with "route sanitation," protecting a friendly convoy as it attempts to locate and apprehend a high-value target. The threats are outlined: IEDs, ambush points, several enemy fighters along the route.
"Fight on," Bert says into his headset as he takes the reigns of the MQ-9, the Air Force's next generation workhorse of a remotely piloted aircraft that is exceedingly busy in fights abroad.
For Bert and Shontae, this recent training mission is the one they fly per month, on average. The RPA operator and sensor operator career field is so busy that they fly operational missions more than six hours every day, with an opportunity to train just once per month. (Fore security reasons the Air Force requested that RPA crews be identified by their first names.)
The Reaper's cameras zoom in on an insurgent down the road from the "friendly convoy." The contracted actor stands in the road, firing a fake AK-47 as the Reaper team targets a mock Hellfire missile.
"Splash," Bert radios as the missile hits, setting off small scale pyrotechnics on the ground to signify a missile hit. .
Air Force leadership recently decided that there has been so much disinformation about its remotely piloted aircraft — the service is battling against the use of the word "drone." To address this, the service invited a small group of reporters to Creech Air Force Base to watch RPA training, speak with operators and see how the service is addressing morale issues among its RPA operators.
Creech officials repeatedly remind visitors that even though the base sits 45 minutes north of Las Vegas, it is constantly at war. RPA pilots and sensor operators make the drive from their homes, and enter the mobile sheds on base to take control of an aircraft with live weapons over an active battlefield across the globe.
"These aren't kids flying video games out of their mothers' basement. These are professional airmen," Col. Jim Cluff, commander of the 432nd Wing at Creech, said. "The mission our government has given them has said you will fly your wartime mission from the USA. I want them to have a warrior mentality when they walk through that gate."
The base is responsible for providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance across four combatant commands, those controlling special operations, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Ninety-nine percent of what the wing does doesn't include airstrikes, Cluff said. For the remaining part of the mission, the unit follows the same rules of engagement as other aircraft.
"Our targeting is very deliberate," Col. Julian Cheater, commander of the 432nd Operations Group at Creech, said. "For close air support, we receive information through a secret phone, radio or secret chat. Our targeting is a lot more refined. The clearance is given through a ground commander, be it a first lieutenant right up through the president of the United States, on the authority to engage those targets."
The men and women of the wing have continued to see high operational requirements in the battle against the Islamic State group, with MQ-1 Predators and Reapers responsible for 3,300 sorties and 875 airstrikes.
"We are engaged in every facet of (Operation Inherent Resolve)," Cluff said. "We're involved because of our persistence, because of what we bring to the fight, we are involved in every engagement."
This continued operation means very limited training opportunities for the airmen responsible for flying the aircraft. This means limited chances to address common issues, such as a pilot's ability to control the aircraft on the correct approach for a strike, or the best crosshair placement for airstrikes, to the biggest problem facing RPA aircrews: undermanning. The service simply does not have enough RPA pilots, and will not see enough in the foreseeable future. The service is trying efforts such as increased incentive pay to keep pilots around, while the Defense Department has approved a drop in the constant requirement for RPA "combat air patrols" from 65 to 60 to ease the burden on airmen.
The Air Force has said it needs to train 300 pilots per year to keep up with demand, though it was only able to train 180 in fiscal 2014 when it lost 240 pilots.
But even with the demands facing RPA pilots, Bert said he wants to be clear that most airmen tasked with the job do enjoy their work, despite what some have said in media and pop culture.
"I love the mission," he said. "We are the silent warriors. You know what you do and you know what effect you have.
"It's not mindless robots. There's an enormous amount of people behind each mission working really, really hard to get each mission done. It has a huge impact on the theater. Don't call me a drone. Don't think I'm mindless. Don't think I'm sad. I love my job."
For Shontae, becoming a sensor operator was her first job in the Air Force, fresh from delivering pizza before she enlisted.
"It's humbling, especially when you can see what you do save others' lives and the importance of life," she said. "It's my first job, I had to grow up quickly. I'm happy to be here, I chose to be here."
Creech officials have, however, recognized the challenges airmen in the RPA career field face, and have followed Air Force Special Operations Command's lead in trying to help airmen out. The base, like AFSOC, set up "Human Performance Teams" made up of operational physiologists, operational psychologists, flight medicine and chaplains all with top secret clearances to be able to go out and talk to airmen about issues they may face.
"We want these experts in and among airmen," Cluff said. "Talking to airmen where they are doing their jobs."
In 2014, these airmen were responsible for 13 suicide saves on the base, Cluff said.
The team's goal is to help airmen dealing with challenges such as overwork due to undermanning, shift work problems and fatigue, which have grown to be the biggest problems facing Creech airmen. In a 2012 survey, airmen said their sources of extreme stress were unit manning, extra duties, shift schedule, long hours and a lack of sleep. The biggest problems caused by these issues manifested in relationships, with about 30 percent of the airmen saying their relationships worsened after being assigned to Creech.
To work on this, the Human Performance Team at Creech wants to change the culture at the base so airmen can realize it is OK to come forward and request time off if they are not able to do their job.
"We want to change the culture here," Lt. Col. James Senechal, a flight doctor with the 99th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, said. "We want to change to a mindset of being proactive, of being preventative … so you are around for the long haul."