With British troops overstretched, fighting an elusive enemy who are almost impossible to pin down and sorely lacking in terms of man power and equipment; many people describe the war in Afghanistan as unwinnable. But as groups of Taliban fighters – clutching their Kalashnikov rifles - huddle together amidst the reeds and riverbanks of Helmand province, constantly displacing and regrouping, luring the British ever deeper into their country’s impenetrable heartland, they are finding themselves terrorised by a terrifying new weapon (cue the Airwolf theme tune).
The Unmanned MQ-9 Surveillance Vehicle
Originally the Predator B, the MQ-9 Reaper is a fully unmanned aerial surveillance vehicle (UAV). It is capable of carrying a payload of up to 14 AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles or 2 GBU – 12 (230kg) laser-guided bombs along with 4 hellfire missiles - developers are currently looking into its compatibility with the stinger missile. The Reaper is operated from base by a controller whose commands take approximately 1.2 seconds to reach the drone via a satellite link up. It is capable of flying for 14 hours whilst fully loaded and its onboard cameras are powerful enough to read a number plate from 2 miles away.
Insurgants Reap the Whirlwind
In 2007 the Reaper was deployed in the Middle East as part of the War on Terror and, on the 28th of October attained its first kill against ‘Afghanistan insurgents in the Deh Rawood region of the mountainous Oruzgan province’ according to Air Force Times. The strike was ‘successful’ they added i.e. we saw a load of people get vaporized via a TV set like we were playing Call of Duty, no doubt amidst the cheers, whistles and high fives of the controllers. But why, you might think, do we even bother to send soldiers in at all? Why don’t we just have a warehouse full of people – like some huge murderous call centre – all controlling their own Reaper, scrutinizing every inch of Afghanistan night and day, 24 hours, 7 days a week?
Real Soldiers Obsolete?
Why stop there? Why be restricted to the skies? Why not deploy entire legions of huge robotic walkers like something out of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back? Why not strap C4 to remote control cars and send them down Taliban burrows to ‘smoke out’ the terrorists without risking the life of a single Westerner? The terrain of Afghanistan might be tough, but I know for a fact it’s nothing the Tyco Rebound 4x4 couldn’t deal with. However according to the MOD, the main obstacle in getting more of these unmanned fighters deployed across Afghanistan is that there just aren’t enough fighter pilots available to operate them.
Drone Operators Over Qualified?
It might come as little surprise to learn that training fighter pilots requires more resources than almost any other soldier. They must undergo years of meticulous mental and physical training before they are ready to withstand the psychological and physiological rigors of air combat. They must be trained to control their fear during a critical system failure, cope with G-force, eject over hostile terrain, and evade enemy patrols. They must also have an intimate knowledge regarding the technical specifications of the immensely complex, multimillion pound aircraft which they pilot. But why, you might think, do drone aircraft operators need to be this qualified?
RAF Find New Candidate Pool
Well, it seems, the MOD are now inclined to agree. In fact, they reckon that if they find operators with the right potential, training for drone controllers could be cut down from years to hours – 30 in total. Although this might seem like a ridiculously short amount of time, this figure is misleading because throughout homes across the Western world there are people who already have years of training in just this kind of thing under their belt. These people are of course computer gamers - particularly the ones who have a real knack for flight simulator games. RAF chiefs even have studies to back up their claims that computer gamers are the most qualified and most capable individuals to lead the MQ-9 Reaper from the frontline in Afghanistan.
Your Country Needs YOU
Of course this is not going to be very popular with real fighter pilots, in fact some see it as a complete disgrace and insist that computer gamers are in no way up to the challenge. In response to a short news story posted on the issue one pilot wrote: ‘This story is a pile of crap. I’m in the RAF and on the squadron which fly these aircraft, and there is no way you will find some geeky gamer flying these aircraft. Utter shite’ Unfortunately, the RAF beg to differ, and given that one of the UK’s two MQ-9 Reapers crashed when it was coming into land at Kandahar airport, it’s not surprising the RAF are looking to recruit people who actually know what they're doing. So next time you’re cleaning up the skies on HAWX or landing a Boeing 747 on Microsoft Flight Simulator, bear in mind, one of these days you might be asked to do it for real…. (Thanks to Ben Emmett: Royal Anglians, Afghanistan 2007)