Col. Scott Brenton, with the Air National Guard at a base in Syracuse, N.Y.,… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Strapped into the cockpit of an F-16 jet fighter, Air Force Col. Scott Brenton has dropped bombs over Bosnia, screamed over the desert in Iraq and strafed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. But on a recent morning, Brenton flew his combat mission from a leather easy chair in a low-slung cinder block building on the edge of Syracuse.
Brenton's unit, the 174th Fighter Wing of the New York Air National Guard, traded in its fleet of F-16s for unmanned Reaper drones two years ago. Since then, the reserve pilots have been flying nearly around-the-clock combat operations over Afghanistan from a base about five miles from this city's nearest Wal-Mart.
This is what the future of air power looks like.
The Air Force is pulling jet fighters from the flight lines by the hundreds and replacing them with Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks, all piloted from cockpits bolted firmly to the ground. As a result, more and more of war is being waged from home — thousands of miles from the snap of gunfire, shock waves and shrapnel.
"Ultimately, it is conceivable that the majority of aviators in our Air Force will be remotely piloted aircraft operators," Gen. Norton Schwartz, chief of staff of the Air Force, told reporters last week.
Critics say the shift blurs the boundaries of the battlefield and makes it too easy to decide to drop a bomb.
Brenton, the wing's full-time operations group commander, spent a recent morning here with his finger on the trigger of two 500-pound bombs and a rack of Hellfire missiles nearly 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan.
"I walked out of that building and put on my 'Syracuse hat' and just talked to my wife on the phone," said Brenton, 47, after his combat mission. "It's a different way of fighting a war." He would not say whether he had fired any weapons that day.
Because attack drones can be piloted from anywhere, the technology is beaming the war in Afghanistan into once-sleepy 9-to-5 airfields around the United States.
Air National Guard units based in New York, North Dakota, Texas, Arizona and California have traded some or all of their manned jets for drones, which are piloted here but take off and land on runways overseas.
Air Force reserve pilots are sometimes dismissively called "weekend warriors" because they are required to work only one weekend a month and two weeks a year. Now they're finding themselves stepping into heated combat — and firing live ammunition — for a few hours at a time.
The transition to robots is creating a major cultural shift for the Air National Guard. Weekend training exercises that used to take pilots 30,000 feet above their hometowns at 1,000 mph have been replaced by combat shifts on an air-conditioned base.
Last year, the Air Force trained more drone pilots than the total number of conventional bomber and fighter pilots combined. In the last decade, the Air Force has pulled more than 250 manned fighters off the flight line and plans to retire 123 more next year. During that time, the Air Force drone fleet has ballooned from 39 Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks to 280. When small drones in use by Army scouts and other services are included, the tally of unmanned aircraft in the military shoots to more than 7,000.
Older pilots refer to the newest crop as the "PlayStation generation" but will admit that they have an instinctual feel for the computers that run the drones. The cockpit has a keyboard, a joystick and up to six flat-screen monitors showing the altitude and pitch of the plane, the video feed, maps, navigation charts and mission plans.
"Let's be honest. I miss getting in an airplane," said Col. Greg "Gabby" Semmel, the wing commander for the 174th Fighter Wing. Semmel, 48, who has flown more than 3,000 miles in an F-16, said the remote-piloting technology allows the wing to do what it was trained to do — fly close air support for soldiers on the ground.
"But I can tell you that I get just as excited walking into the GCS [ground control station] to go fly a combat mission. I can tell you when things get busy — and they get busy very often during those missions — my adrenaline gets going just as much as it did sitting in the cockpit of an F-16. My heart gets pounding just as much," Semmel said.
Bringing Reapers to Syracuse saved hundreds of jobs on Hancock Field Air National Guard Base; those jobs would have left in March 2010 when the final F-16 was flown off the base to be mothballed in a boneyard of decommissioned jets in Arizona.
Many of the welders and machinists that patched the aluminum frames of the F-16s and kept the single-seat fighters fast and safe were retrained as imagery analysts and computer technicians. Keeping Reapers aloft and understanding the massive amount of video and radar data they collect requires dozens of technicians, intelligence analysts and sensor operators.