A U.S. Air Force Predator unmanned aircraft. The decision to fire a missile… (Handout, Reuters )
Reporting from Washington — On the evening of April 5, a pilot settled into a leather captain's chair at Creech Air Force Base in southern Nevada and took the controls of a Predator drone flying over one of the most violent areas of southwestern Afghanistan. Minutes later, his radio crackled.
A firefight had broken out. Taliban insurgents had ambushed about two dozen Marines patrolling a bitterly contested road.
The Air Force captain angled his joystick and the drone veered toward the fighting taking place half a world away, where it was already morning. He powered up two Hellfire missiles under its wings and ordered a crew member responsible for operating the drone's cameras to search for enemy fighters.
It didn't take long to find something. Three figures, fuzzy blobs on the pilot's small black-and-white screen, lay in a poppy field a couple of hundred yards from the road.
"Hey now, wait. Standby on these," the pilot cautioned. "They could be animals in the field." Seconds later, tiny white flashes appeared by the figures — the heat signature of gunfire. "There they are," he said, now sure he was looking at the enemy.
At an Air National Guard base in Terre Haute, Ind., an intelligence analyst whose job it was to monitor the video to help prevent mistakes on the mission also observed the muzzle flashes — but noticed that they were firing away from the embattled Marines.
Marines at Patrol Base Alcatraz, 12 miles from the firefight, watched their screens too, as they kept in contact with both the drone crew and the platoon members, who had set out from the base just an hour earlier. It would be their decision whether to call in a missile strike.
Thirty-one seconds after the pilot reported muzzle flashes, the Marines at Alcatraz ordered that the Predator be prepared to strike if the shooters could be confirmed as hostile. At 8:49 a.m., 29 minutes after the ambush began, they authorized the pilot to fire.
In minutes, two Americans would be dead.
The decision to fire a missile from one of the growing fleet of U.S. unmanned aircraft is the result of work by ground commanders, pilots and analysts at far-flung military installations, who analyze video and data feeds and communicate by a system of voice and text messages.
In addition to the platoon taking fire that morning in Helmand province's Upper Sangin Valley, the mission involved Marine Corps and Air Force personnel at four locations: Marines of the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion at Alcatraz, the drone crew in Nevada, the analyst in Indiana and a mission intelligence coordinator at March Air Reserve Base in California.
Senior officers say drone technology has vastly improved their ability to tell friend from foe in the confusion of battle. But the video can also prompt commanders to make decisions before they fully understand what they're seeing.
In February 2009, a crew operating a drone over Afghanistan misidentified a civilian convoy as an enemy force. The Predator pilot and the Army captain who called in the airstrike disregarded warnings from Air Force analysts who had observed children in the convoy. At least 15 people were killed.
Adding layers of personnel like the analyst in Indiana to cut down on errors also comes at a price: It may slow down the decision to strike when American lives are at risk.
The 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion operated in one of the most violent parts of Afghanistan, an area where drones patrolled virtually nonstop. It had recently revised its procedures to speed up Predator strikes, seeking to prevent "delay of missions by injection of comments" from the Distributed Ground System — military terminology for analysts like the one in Indiana.
The embattled platoon was part of the Lone Star Battalion, a reserve unit based in Houston. The unit hadn't seen combat for five years when orders came last year to prepare for a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
Like any reserve unit, the battalion was a pickup team. Some Marines had combat experience, others had none at all.
It arrived in Afghanistan in early March of this year. Its 2nd Platoon was sent to Patrol Base Alcatraz.
Befitting its name, Alcatraz is a bleak outpost of mud buildings and tents, frigid in winter, sweltering in summer. "There are no showers, laundry facilities, chow hall or pretty much anything else," said a Marine who spent months there.
The platoon was put under the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, an elite unit whose motto was "Swift Silent Deadly." Its Alpha company, which had arrived in Alcatraz five months earlier, engaged in near-daily gun battles with insurgents.
Lt. Christopher Huff, a 24-year-old on his first combat tour, and his Texas reservists were given dangerous duty: patrol Route 611, one of the country's most heavily mined roads. The road cuts north-south through opium fields laced with irrigation ditches and mud walls.