One strike — Jonathan wouldn't say when or where — took place when coalition forces were surprised by the appearance of an "out of nowhere" ISIS truck with a gun mounted on the back. When the truck opened fire, the coalition troops needed air support right away.
As soon as Jonathan's Predator sighted the armed truck, they got a call from a joint terminal attack controller ordering them to take it out.
"We found out where the friendly [forces] were, and we obviously knew where [ISIS] was, so we got into our game plan of what we were going to do and where we were going to strike, and we ended up lining up and taking out that vehicle with a Hellfire missile," Jonathan said. "That stopped the firing against the coalition forces."
In another instance, Jonathan said his Predator was patrolling and scanning for ISIS mortar operations when they got word coalition forces were taking mortar fire. The Predator tracked down the origin of that fire and took out the position.
Capt. Chris, who flies the MQ-1 Predator, talks about the role he and his team play in the fight against the Islamic State terror group. Air Force Times agreed to omit his last name and only picture him from the side in order to protect his identity.
Photo Credit: Lars Schwetje/Staff
The Predator pilots regularly work hand-in-glove with joint terminal attack controllers, who use the MQ-1's feed to track and target an enemy. Sometimes, that involves using a technique called "buddy lasing," in which the JTAC uses the Predator's laser to home in on a target and direct a strike from a manned aircraft such as an F-16. But other times, the JTAC simply guides the Predator to conduct its own strike.
Many times, the Predator is called to provide air support for coalition forces under fire by ISIS. When asked if that included air support for special operations forces on the ground, Jonathan said yes.
Air Force Times visited the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing's base in the Middle East in early January to see how RPA missions were conducted and gain insight into the Air Force's secretive and deadly drone war against the Islamic State. As a precondition of the visit, Air Force Times agreed not to name the bases it visited, or identify the nation in which they were located, due to host nation sensitivities.
Air Force Times also took the unusual step of allowing the Air Force to review imagery it took of MQ-1 operations. At officials' request, Air Force Times deleted a handful of photos that inadvertently captured recognizable landmarks and the tail number of one Predator.
Keeping Predators in the air is, in many ways, a tag-team effort involving two sets of pilots and sensor operators with different responsibilities.
Stateside pilots like Jonathan handle most of the flying for the actual missions. But there's about a two-second delay while control signals get beamed from the U.S. to Iraq or Syria. And while Jonathan said that delay isn't a problem when conducting operations, it could lead to disaster when trying to take off or land.
So other pilots, like Capt. Chris of the 386th, are deployed to the area to handle "launch and recovery."
"It would be kind of like trying to drive your car, but you couldn't make any adjustments to the steering wheel for two-and-a-half seconds every time you wanted to turn," Chris said. "Because of that, we're required to be here and operate in 'line of sight,' which allows us to do those takeoffs and landings safely."
On-site pilots are especially important when engine or electronic malfunctions happen and the Predator must be brought in for a safe landing, he said.
"We're expected, once it gets back into the local area, to take control of it [in case of malfunction or other emergency], troubleshoot any kind of checklist that we have to run, and then land the airplane safely to have our maintenance folks correct any issues that they had," Chris said.
Jonathan said the short delay doesn't hamper the mission or introduce risks when conducting airstrikes.
"You don't really even notice it," he said.
An MQ-1 Predator sits in a hangar in Afghanistan. The unmanned aircraft has become a go-to weapon in the fight against ISIS.
Photo Credit: Tech Sgt. Robert Cloys/Air Force
When RPA pilots are going to open fire, Jonathan said, they use "tactical patience" to take their time and make sure they know where enemy forces, friendly forces and civilian noncombatants are — and use collateral damage assessments to gauge how much damage their weapons are going to cause — before they strike. Intelligence officials and judge advocates general are also involved in the decision to fire missiles to try to minimize the risk of killing civilians, he said.
"In my experience, there has always been a clear cut-and-dried line between good forces and the bad forces," Jonathan said. "Once you know where that line is, it is very easy to employ without any risk to friendly forces. Once you know the weapons system, and what you can employ, and what their effects are going to be, that is pretty much the way of mitigating that kind of scenario."
Keeping up with demand
With the Air Force growing increasingly reliant on the Predator's ISR capabilities, the pace of operations here is not letting up — and Chris said he and other pilots are feeling it.
Although the Air Force is training more airmen to become new RPA pilots — even opening a handful of RQ-4 Global Hawk pilot trainee positions to enlisted airmen — current pilots have to keep up with the demand and high operations tempo.
"Work tempo is pretty high," said Chris, who was a B-52 navigator before he became a Predator pilot three years ago. "Until they [new pilots] make it here, where they're operationally flying, we're having to pick up a lot of the load."
Pilots almost always work seven-day weeks, Chris said, but leaders understand if someone gets worn out and needs to blow off some steam at the gym or otherwise unwind.
"The squadron here is a family," Chris said. "If a guy is being worked a little bit too hard, we're pretty honest about saying, 'Hey, I need to have some down time.' And our leadership is good about giving us that time."
Deployment lengths vary. Chris was at the end of a four-month deployment — his sixth overall, and third flying MQ-1s — but others are here for six months.
Chris said he's on a 1:1 dwell-deploy ratio, meaning he's home for four months, deployed four months, and then back home for another four. That's much higher than the 1:2 dwell-deploy ratio that is the Air Force's goal. But Chris said that when he's home, he has a lot more flexibility to take leave and relax.
"Our squadron here runs 24 hour ops, seven days a week, out of this location," Chris said. "It's challenging, being gone from your family for so long. … Anyone with a wife and kid, it's hard to be gone eight months out of the year. … But you really get focused on the mission, you do your job, and then when you get home, you get to enjoy your time. … A lot of people would rather be doing this versus being on shift work."
The MQ-1 Predator has taken on a critical role in the fight against the Islamic State terror group, with U.S. Air Force crews flying the unmanned aircraft virtually around the clock in the region.
Photo Credit: Stephen Losey/Staff
Chris is starting to see some signs of progress in the production of new RPA pilots. The manning levels in his squadron have recently gotten to the point where they're on a "semi-normal schedule," he said, and members can even take leave from time to time. That wasn't the case a few years ago. And he's hopeful that as manning continues to improve, deployment ratios could fall to the desired 1:2 rate.
"Since I've been gone, I've heard we're getting a lot of new people," he said. "I expect not to recognize anyone when I get back."
Chris flies his Predators from a ground control station in a small metal shipping container on base, with his sensor operator sitting to his right, operating the camera. The station has multiple monitors displaying video, maps and aircraft information such as engine temperature, oil remaining and any warning signs. A second bank of controls and monitors could allow another pilot-sensor op pair to fly a second Predator, but Chris said the 386th usually only needs one pair to launch or recover a Predator at any given time.
The pilot and sensor op stations have the same controls, meaning they could be reversed, but rarely are, Chris said. For the pilot, the stick and the throttle lever controls the aircraft, but the sensor op uses those controls to aim the camera, zoom in and out, and adjust contrast and focus for a sharper image.
Other displays can sometimes be used by intelligence officers in the U.S. to show maps, pictures or other data, but that typically doesn't happen during the 386th's launch and recovery operations. The GCS is also climate-controlled to keep the computers cool — meaning when the desert heat hits 120 degrees Fahrenheit, Chris said, it's nice to come in and work in 60-degree temperatures.
Chris said he enjoys flying takeoffs and landings because it provides plenty of "stick and rudder time," which he said is more challenging — and fun.
"It's not flying autonomously," Chris said. "You're having a hand on the stick and your other hand on the throttle, and you're actually controlling the aircraft. If you had one airline pilot, that all he did was take off and land, and another airline pilot that got into the seat when they're already leveled off and just cruising, that guy would probably feel a little bit like he wanted to have more time to fly the airplane. Here, we actually get to do that."
Chris said the Islamic State's threats against RPA airmen are concerning but also reinforce his determination to help win the war against the group.
"They've made threats against a lot of people, and I think anybody involved in the fight takes that to heart," Chris said. "It's part of the reason why we're here, because they're really bad people, and we want to do our part in the OIR mission."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.