Learning how to drop bombs and fire Hellfire missiles is more like sitting in a regular college classroom than you might expect. There are hundreds of pages of text to digest, continual testing of knowledge, and nervous, eager students anxious to please their instructors. I know, because I spent a week at the Air Force’s drone pilot training school last year.
We were sitting in a cramped briefing room in the 9th Attack Squadron’s new headquarters at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, across the parking lot from its former, dingier quarters. The furniture was a motley assortment of old and new chairs, tables, and couches that had been scavenged from across the base. Like every building at Holloman, the headquarters was tan, mirroring the surrounding desert landscape. In the briefing room, the walls and ceiling tiles were white; a large whiteboard adorned the south wall. Only a hanging video screen disrupted the color scheme.
Patrick, a senior instructor who spent years piloting drones and engaging in “super secret squirrel stuff” in Afghanistan, led the class. Tall, angular, and pale, with a jutting nose and a wide, quick smile, he was relentlessly energetic, alternately instructing and cajoling the students. “The first thing to think about,” Patrick told the class’ two students—Paul, a pilot, and Justin, a sensor operator—“is the intent of the attack: what does the attack controller, or whoever’s in charge, want to happen on the ground?” The Air Force requested that I use first names only in exchange for weeklong access at Holloman as part of my research for a book on the future of warfare.