In 2011 manned US Air Force combat aircraft flew a total of 48,000 hours total. In the same year their Predator remotely piloted aircraft flew 500,000 combat hours. Think about that, remotely piloted aircraft make up over 90% of the flying hours of the US Air Force. Introduced in just 1994, the Predator has gone from new concept to the workhouse of the US Air Force in fewer than 20 years.
- Lt. Col. T. Mark McCurley
Lt Col McCurley joined the USAF wanting to fight. Downsizing denied him a fast jet position so he spent some time in Intelligence before becoming an E3 Sentry pilot. An opportunity to join the Predator programme came up and for a combination of personal and career reasons he grabbed it arriving in 2003, just as the Predator programme was expanding. This book is his memoir of that experience.
The tale is told more or less chronologically We start with the challenges faced by an experienced pilot in learning to fly without any physical feedback from the airframe and a three second communication delay (it’s a long way to and from a satellite). Having passed we the author then moved to an operational squadron engaged in the hunt for bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives. The author conveys the almost surreal world of a pilot who commutes daily from a house in Las Vegas to a container on a nearby USAF base to spend 12 hour shifts flying a Predator on the other side of the world.
The book ends with the author as commander of a new Predator Squadron based near Djibouti, responsible for launching and recovering aircraft before handing their control on to others. For non-aviators this period opens one’s eyes to the challenges of operating sophisticated aircraft in hot and humid conditions.
The text is frank, but discrete – which is unsurprising given the author’s time in intelligence. In spite of this restraint it is clear that the Predator world was not always a happy one. The creation of “Predator porn” through wide sharing of outputs inevitably created problems of over-supervision. Sometimes these combined with weak leadership to circumvent processes and systems. Joint commands do not seem to have always worked well. There are some interesting reflections on career structure and management within the USAF.
There is also the human problem; as the author points out a fast jet or attack helicopter pilot is unlikely to see the faces of his target. A Predator operator, who may have spent weeks observing the target building up a pattern of life, will probably know it well. He (or she) will also be likely to have to do the post-strike assessment, zooming in on body parts. I suspect that PTSD looms for many, in a way that the USAF probably has not had to confront before.
This is a well-written, dry and authoritative account (Lt Col McCCurley did actually create the Predator tactical manual). Anyone with an interest in air power or recent and current operations should read it. They will enjoy it.