In America’s war against the Islamic State, many of those fighting sit in a dark, cold room and stare at computer screens for 12 hours at a stretch.
Dozens of them, men and women, each wearing camouflage, are looking for suspected Iraqi and Syrian jihadis scurrying across the screen. If something changes on the screen — a group of dark figures crossing a street, a string of vehicles racing down a road — they pass the information to another pilot, who might decide to open fire with a Hellfire missile or an electronically guided bomb.
The greatest combat hazard they face is the Red Bull and other sugary drinks they swill to stay awake. Their unit has the worst rate of cavities in the Air Force.
“I would rather be deployed,” said Capt. Jennifer, a reservist and intelligence analyst whose full name the Air Force withheld for security reasons. “My daughter calls me because she is sick, and I have to pick her up from school. When I am deployed forward, I am deployed. I don’t have to worry about the day to day.”
The Obama administration’s strategy consists of “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State without putting American combat troops — “boots on the ground” — at risk. So much of the war depends on remotely piloted aircraft with names such as Predator and Reaper that are guided from rooms like this one, at a base three hours south of Washington, D.C.
The way the administration now talks about war is changing the nature of war itself.
Drones used in previous conflicts to provide support to ground troops have now become a vital form of fighting. But with no one on the ground to corroborate what pilots think they see, the certainty of what’s happening is limited. Air Force and U.S. Central Command officials concede that’s delayed the response to some Islamic State activity.
The airmen — the title applies to female pilots, too — can’t agree among themselves whether they’re at war. Some think they should qualify for a coveted combat patch — right now they don’t — while others say it’s harder to fight a war when one is not actually there.
They say they must resist thinking they’re playing a video game.
“We are not going to get a perfect answer in the theater we are operating in,” Col. Timothy Haugh, commander of the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, said about the uncertainty with which the pilots operate. “Without a commander on the ground, that puts the responsibility on us.”
“The closest thing to human intelligence capability we have is the U.S. Embassy. They are on the ground,” said Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer, another reservist whose last name wasn’t revealed.
The Air Force won’t say how many of the bombing raids over Iraq and Syria have been handled from control centers such as this one.
Whether the flights are piloted from a stateside control room or the cockpit of a manned aircraft, the decision to depend so heavily on the air campaign to defeat ground forces changes the possible outcome, experts say.
“If you want to defeat a dismounted light-infantry terrorist organization, the best tool is to use a dismounted light-infantry force, like more special forces,” said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Institute for the Study of War.
“Right now, what we are doing in reality is a strategy of containment. But when we say we are out to degrade and destroy ISIS but then we practice containment, there is a disconnect between the rhetoric and the policy.”
With no major ground force present, many analysts depend on intelligence gleaned from the eight-year occupation of Iraq, which ended in 2011. The treasure-trove of intelligence was built up by a million troops, and it’s still valuable, albeit dated.
But in Syria, where U.S. troops have had no presence, little historical intelligence is available.
Even Iraq intelligence is of little value to the men and women trying to fight a war in which the only illumination comes from a computer monitor. Few of those here, with an average age in the mid-20s, have been to Iraq.
That lack of firsthand knowledge makes their job much harder. “I think it is something we are still grappling with,” said Staff Sgt. James, an analyst whose last name the Air Force withheld.