POLITICS

Drone Strikes: A Candid, Chilling Conversation With Top U.S. Drone Pilot

05/15/2013 02:53 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013
US Air Force

He always watches for the kids.

Peering through cameras and sensors from his computer station thousands of miles away, he absorbs the details of daily life in the villages below. He develops an eerie intimacy with his targets. Which house these kids belong to. When that mom goes out to market. Who visits and why. He tries to ensure innocents are nowhere near. Then he yells "Rifle!" and fires the missile, watching until "Splash," the detonation of the missile warhead. Until the last few seconds, if kids suddenly do appear, he can yank the missile away.

Bill "Sweet" Tart is a drone pilot, one of the most experienced in the U.S. military. A decorated Air Force colonel, he sat down for a frank chat with The Huffington Post's David Wood, providing a rare glimpse into the secretive U.S. drone wars.

President Obama's use of unmanned armed drones to kill thousands of suspected insurgents, terrorists and, inevitably, innocent bystanders, has raised a furor at home and an anti-U.S. backlash abroad.

But even as the White House resists growing demands that it explain whom it decides to target and why, the president's use of armed drones has expanded.

Using nearly invisible drones to spy on and kill people thousands of miles away is new. But unmanned aerial drones are not. In 1849 the Austrians launched balloons loaded with explosives over the city of Venice (the attack backfired when the winds changed and the balloons drifted back over Austrian lines). Over a century ago, American drones were used for WWII target practice. A young woman discovered by a photographer in a Van Nuys, Calif., drone factory in 1944 turned out to be Marilyn Monroe.

Highly sophisticated drones today keep a constant watch over the Korean Peninsula, Iran, Syria, Northern Africa and other hotspots, and are poised to strike at human targets in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere. Both the CIA and the Pentagon maintain separate drone operations; the Pentagon alone operates 61 continuous combat air patrols over foreign soil with drones, a number that will grow to 65 in the coming months.

Col. Tart is currently director of the Air Force Remotely Piloted Aircraft Capabilities Division. A veteran flight commander, he's logged more than 1,600 hours on combat and combat support missions. He holds four graduate degrees and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army War College.

He talked about the skill needed for remote piloting, what it's like to watch a family compound for days and then conduct a strike, the debate about "killer drones," and why a drone doesn't go haywire when it loses the link to its controllers.

He began by reminding us of his crusade to get people to stop calling them "drones," and instead refer to them as Remotely Piloted Aircraft, or RPAs. He likes to demand a $5 fine from people using the word "drone."

So why not call them drones?

You owe me $5!

Ha ha. I meant, why call them RPAs?

The word drone is a negative with respect to the skill and effort that the men and women individually put into flying and executing a mission. A drone, whether you're talking about a drone bee that does no work, or a drone that uses artificial intelligence and does its mission without any human input, is not what we're talking about here.

Well, how hard is it to fly an RPA, anyway? It's like a computer game with a joystick and …

Ah … no. It's an immense mental task to build a three-dimensional picture of your aircraft, over a target or operating with other aircraft, using a camera, using chat and text, using dials and gauges, using both an overhead look and a side view of the world, and integrating all that in your mind.

So the pilot is not only flying the airplane, he or she is using all those sensors to watch a potential target, circling over it for hours or days at a time. What can you really see?

Okay, so in a village in, say, country X, where the houses are built together, there are adults who live in this house, and these children belong to those adults because we see them out in the fields together or we see them eating dinner. So you can start figuring out who is associated with who. Who is a stranger, who is it that's visiting this house? There's a dog and it barks at strangers, so if we needed to go in and free a hostage or conduct a raid, you'd want to tell the land forces there's a dog there and either it's an attack dog or it alerts the village that somebody's coming.

You must develop an emotional tie with the people on the ground that makes it hard if there is going to be a strike or a raid, people are going to be killed.

I would couch it not in terms of an emotional connection, but a … seriousness. I have watched this individual, and regardless of how many children he has, no matter how close his wife is, no matter what they do, that individual fired at Americans or coalition forces, or planted an IED -- did something that met the rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict, and I am tasked to strike that individual.

The seriousness of it is that I am going to do this and it will affect his family. But that individual is the one that brought it on himself. He became a combatant the minute he took up arms.

Let's say as an RPV pilot you have watched this compound for hours or days and you are confident the target is a bad guy. You can put a laser beam on the target; the missile will home in on that. How does that all work?

Okay. Sitting beside me in the cockpit [at Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, Nev.] is the sensor operator, who takes direction on what target we are going to strike. In the sequence of events, I will say, 'Okay, sensor, I see your crosshairs, and to clarify the aimpoint, put your finger on the place where the laser will be, at the base of that motorcycle, at the corner of the house, five feet in front of that person. Move it up there, okay? That checks, any questions in your mind what we are targeting? Did you copy the ROE [rules of engagement]? I think ground forces are clear, do you see it differently?'

Then I'll read back our clearance to the ground forces and I'll let them know when to expect the impact. We continue to run the checklists together until I call, "Lase the target."

Concentrating on exact weapon placement, the sensor operator keeps the laser spot where it needs to be. Then the pilot who is the "trigger puller," says "Three, two, one, Rifle!" Off comes the weapon. "Okay, sensor, that looks good, keep the cross-hair right there, a little off to the left, good," and all the way to splash or impact. Then the sensor operator and I rapidly assess if we have created the right effect for the guys on the ground.

Why are you watching all the way to "splash," the impact of the weapon?

There's a short time of flight for the weapon, 30-40 seconds, and if anything changes -- a child walks into the picture, your guy goes into a house and you don't know who's in the house -- then you no longer meet the Rules of Engagement. You have the ability, more importantly you have the moral obligation, to move the weapon. And because it's a laser beam rider I can move the weapon.

That's important -- I have a man in the loop all the way to the last couple of seconds. And people take that responsibility very, very seriously. That man or woman, our airmen are in the loop. They understand the rule of engagement, all the nuances, all the laws of armed conflict.

Does that actually happen, that a kid walks into the target area and you make the missile to go somewhere else?

It does. There are a number of cases where that happened and people lived because of that. Not only was it the right thing to do from a legal and moral and ethical standpoint, at the end of the day those are the kinds of actions that send a message to that country that this is not just indiscriminate targeting.

So a drone flying over Afghanistan, say, is actually controlled by you guys sitting thousands of miles away in Nevada. What happens if you lose the link to the aircraft?

I get an indication in the cockpit that says "Loss of data" and the picture freezes.

Not good.

Well, you know your airplane is stable. It does exactly what it was programmed to do. It remains at the same speed, same altitude, same heading, and at some point, acting on an internal clock, it begins to loiter in the area while it tries to reacquire the link. And if it can't, it proceeds on a pre-programmed route, and it comes back the way it came and holds near to an airfield where a launch and recovery team would attempt to recapture it.

Could it land by itself?

That's something we're looking into.

But you could program it to go out to sea.

Absolutely.

And how often does this happen?

It depends on how you define "lost link." If I bank the aircraft as hard as I can to the left, it will lose the link for about half a second, as the satellite tracker tries to stay on the the satellite. So there are probably 10 or 15 of those a month. I think we calculated that during a year we lost the link all the way home approximately seven one-hundredths of a percent of all flying hours.

You must listen to the debate about "killer drones" and the anger about the secret drone wars. What do you make of it?

Look, an RPA is like any other airplane. It is enabled with long loiter capability, and that's really the difference. It has skilled men and women in charge of it, doing a task assigned by their leadership. Period, dot. Once you go beyond that, you start talking about the legality of that assigned task, and that's where the argument really needs to focus.

Since the beginning of time, or the beginning of warfare, man has been trying to put distance between himself and the enemy. The RPA is just another way to look at that. I don't have airmen at risk over top of the enemy, but I have airmen making decisions. That's the best of all worlds right there.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CORRECTION: After publication, Col. Tart clarified that calculations put "lost link" drones at seven one-hundredths of a percent of all flying hours a year, rather than 7 percent.

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