Today, only experienced Air Force pilots are allowed to remotely-operate the American fleet of killer drones. Tomorrow, the heavily-armed robotic planes could be flown by 19 year-olds, barely out of basic training.
The Army and Marine Corps use Shadow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to spy on suspected militants. Not only are they smaller, cheaper, lighter, and lower-flying than the Air Force’s array of missile-laden Predator and Reaper drones. But Shadows are considered a “tactical assets,” meant to watch over relatively small patches of ground, for relatively small units. Predators, on the other hand, are “theater” or “operational-level” assets — controlled by generals, and sent all over.
As a result, ground forces often use the most junior of noncommissioned officers to fly their Shadows — teenagers who’ve sometimes never even been in combat. In contrast, the Air Force only allows rated pilots — guys trained to operate a B-52 or an F-15 — to fly their Predators. “You have to understand flight, know how to talk to a controller,” then Air Force Colonel Tom Ehrhard told me a few years back. “It takes an aviator to do that.”