Hunter Killer: Inside America's Unmanned Air War

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9780525954439: Hunter Killer: Inside America's Unmanned Air War

The first-ever inside look at the US military’s secretive Remotely Piloted Aircraft program—equal parts techno-thriller, historical account, and war memoir

Remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), commonly referred to by the media as drones, are a mysterious and headline-making tool in the military’s counterterrorism arsenal. Their story has been pieced together by technology reporters, major newspapers, and on-the-ground accounts from the Middle East, but it has never been fully told by an insider.

In Hunter Killer, Air Force Lt. Col. T. Mark McCurley provides an unprecedented look at the aviators and aircraft that forever changed modern warfare. This is the first account by an RPA pilot, told from his unique-in-history vantage point supporting and executing Tier One counterterrorism missions. Only a handful of people know what it’s like to hunt terrorists from the sky, watching through the electronic eye of aircraft that can stay aloft for a day at a time, waiting to deploy their cutting-edge technology to neutralize threats to America’s national security.

Hunter Killer is the counterpoint to the stories from the battlefront told in books like No Easy Day and American Sniper: While special operators such as SEALs and Delta Force have received a lot of attention in recent years, no book has ever told the story of the unmanned air war. Until now.

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About the Author:

LT . COL. T. MARK McCURLEY is a retired Air Force pilot and former intelligence operator. In 2003, he volunteered for the secretive Predator program, deploying five times to Iraq,Afghanistan, and other locations, where he has flown the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, accruing more than one thousand combat hours in flight.

KEVIN MAURER is an award-winning journalist and the bestselling coauthor, with Mark Owen, of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden. He has covered special operations forces for a decade.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

AUTHOR’S NOTE

I am an operator.

I am not a door kicker. I do not fast rope, rappel, or jump out of airplanes. Never have I been called upon to assault any position, be it fixed or fluid, though I have been trained to do so. I do not claim to be like the SEALs or Special Forces. That wasn’t my career path.

But I am still an operator. A fighter.

In 2003, more than a decade into my Air Force career, I faced a third consecutive assignment to a noncombat unit. I volunteered for the only combat job available to me at the time—the RQ-1 Predator. Dog, my squadron commander, looked sidelong at me when I made my request. A crusty, old-school fighter pilot, he shared the same belief as the rest of the Air Force, and even myself.

Predators were for chumps.

“Mark, are you sure you want this?” he asked.

Dog deeply cared about his people and would cheerfully work any assignment for me if I truly desired it.

“This won’t be good for your career.”

Careerism had never been my goal. I had long ago elected to deviate from the normal, expected path and bounce from aircraft to aircraft with each assignment. The Air Force expected officers to stick with one aircraft their whole careers. Each community told me the same thing. A change would be bad for my promotion opportunities.

“Sir,” I said. “I just want to get into the fight. Do my part.”

I had felt that way since September 11. I had been leading a T-6A formation sortie over Valdosta, Georgia, when the Federal Aviation Administration directed us to land. The controller was both curt and professional, but it was unusual since military often were exempted from such directives.

After we’d landed, our engines had barely spun to a stop before the excited crew chief ran up to us, asking if we had heard the news. Someone had flown an airplane into the World Trade Center. At first, we had reacted skeptically. After all, inexperienced pilots flew their little aircraft perilously close to the towers all the time. Sightseers did stupid things like that.

But, when I’d gotten to the 3rd Flying Training Squadron duty desk, I joined two dozen instructor pilots and students huddled around the screen watching clips of an airliner barreling into the first tower.

The video repeated and repeated. And then it changed. It was subtle at first, then nightmarishly clear. The “LIVE” icon flashed as the airliner plunged again into the tower. Another aircraft thundered into the second tower. We all knew one hit was an accident. Two was intentional.

We were in a war unlike any other fought by the United States. And I wanted to do my part.

Dog sighed.

“All right, I’ll work this for you.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Hunter Killer is the story of an extraordinary group of young men and women with whom I had the honor to serve from 2003 through 2012. It is also the story of the Predator and its evolution from an aviation backwater joke to the tip of the spear in the war against terrorism.

In this book, I use only tactical call signs (nicknames) or first names to protect the identities of the pilots and crew. Certain senior leaders whose identities are already in the public domain are mentioned by name. Radio call signs for aircraft, units, or persons have been documented as accurately as my memory can manage. Some tactical call signs have been modified to ensure security of those entities still in harm’s way.

I’ve taken great pains not to include details of any ongoing missions. I have also endeavored to protect specific tactics and procedures currently used by our crews as they continue to fight.

Hunter Killer is written from my point of view. This is a ground-level perspective of life in the remotely piloted aircraft community. I have strived to accurately portray events as they occurred, but the fog of war may have clouded how I perceived actions or remembered details. Any errors in the text are mine. Additionally, any opinions articulated here are also my own and do not represent the views of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or United States government. This story was written to honor the small cadre of aviators, the operators, who fought and continue to fight a war deep in the shadows.

Hunter Killer is their story.

PROLOGUE

Retribution

The phone rang in the squadron operations center and I snatched it after the first ring.

It was my private line direct to the Joint Task Force based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. We’d been tracking a high-profile target and I had a feeling this was the call we’d been waiting for, for weeks.

“Squirrel here,” I said.

On the line was the Predator liaison officer, or LNO. He worked for the Joint Operations Center (JOC) commander. His job was to coordinate Predator missions in the region. My squadron provided the Predators to keep watch and strike suspected terrorists and pirates.

“Launch,” the liaison officer said.

“How many?”

“All three,” he said.

Three Predators equipped with two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles each waited on the ramp. The planes were in alert status, ready to take off at a moment’s notice. The phone line wasn’t secure enough to confirm it, but I knew one thing as I hung up the phone.

Today, the wolf pack hunted.

It was September 30, 2011. I was the commander of the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron at Camp Lemonnier, which was built by the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti. The country was a former French colony with oppressively hot weather and few assets save its location northwest of Somalia and across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. It was prime strategic real estate for American counterterror operations.

Camp Lemonnier shares the single runway at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, on the outskirts of Djibouti City and close to the only major seaport servicing East Africa. Following the September 11 attacks, the United States leased it from the Djiboutian government for thirty-eight million dollars a year in order to establish a conduit for its humanitarian operations in the interior. The Marines were the first Americans at the base in 2002 and quickly established a small base capable of airlift operations. The mission of the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa quickly grew to include intelligence-gathering operations throughout East Africa. A few years later, the JOC stood up to address the growing terrorism threat in the region and across the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Peninsula.

I hung up the phone and gave the order to launch. My director of operations called the maintainers on the ramp and passed the word. The single props on the backs of the Predators started to hum as the pilots in the ground control station—a shipping container with cockpits containing everything needed to control the aircraft—started preflight checks. My pilots slowly maneuvered the Predators off the ramp and onto the runway. Three crews eight thousand miles away in the United States scrambled to their cockpits, sitting at consoles in air-conditioned quarters at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico waiting to take control of the birds. My pilots in Djibouti would perform the takeoff and turn over control of the Predators to pilots in the United States to fly the mission. As a ten-year veteran of the Predator program, I’d been on that end of these missions countless times before. No other aircraft in the Air Force used two crews—one to take off and the other to fly the mission. It wasn’t the only way our program was unique.

I went outside to watch the launch. The thermometer near the building hovered at ninety-five degrees as the three aircraft started to spin up. Heat was a worse enemy to the Predators than al Qaeda. The “heat window” was upon us. If it got any hotter, the delicate electronics within the Predators could overheat and melt before reaching the cooler temperatures at higher altitudes.

Back in the operations center, I could hear over the radio as the Djiboutian air traffic control tower cleared the Predators to take off. I watched from a concrete barrier as the Predators lumbered down the runway, barely able to lift off if not for the slight incline at the end of the tarmac. Once airborne, the Predators flew out to sea before turning for Yemen.

I checked my watch. We had several hours before the Predators would be across the Gulf of Aden and be on target. I returned to my other duties, but I made a mental note to head over to the Task Force in a couple of hours to watch the feed.

It was still hot as I walked into the Task Force’s facility. The thermometer at the door now read a balmy 120 degrees. There were no comforting sea breezes in the summer, only a constant fifteen- to twenty-knot wind coming from the desert that felt more like a hair dryer. A wall-mounted air conditioner whirred as I walked inside the metal prefab building. The small unit strained to keep up with the stifling temperatures outside.

Six fifty-inch plasma screens lined the walls around the JOC commander’s podium. Each showed the video feed from various Predators or Reapers flying around the region.

Some were in Africa.

Most were in Yemen.

The pilots and sensor operators flying the aircraft were based in numerous locations around the globe, digitally connected to our aircraft as if they were right down the hall.

The room buzzed with anticipation as I walked inside. The JOC commander was a short officer, standing on a central dais at the center of the room. From his position, he could see all six monitors. The Predator LNO stood at his desk a few paces to the right of the commander.

“That him?” I asked the Predator LNO, a tall Air Force major.

“Not sure,” the LNO said. “We confirmed he was active about five hours ago.”

The LNO didn’t look away from the monitors showing the Predators’ video feeds.

“We are still looking to get eyes on him right now.”

Not having “eyes on” meant we couldn’t see the target. The guys never said where the leads came from.

The target was Anwar al-Awlaki.

Born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, al-Awlaki, thirty-eight years old, had been in contact with two September 11 hijackers and was in contact with Major Nidal Malik Hasan via email before Hasan killed thirteen people in a shooting at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009. Al-Awlaki also inspired Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to attempt to use an underwear bomb to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.

After being investigated by the FBI for his connections to al Qaeda, al-Awlaki fled to London and then to Yemen, where he worked as editor in chief of al Qaeda’s English-language recruitment magazine, Inspire. The magazine featured an article on how to make bombs. The Boston Marathon bombers would eventually use the article to carry out their attack.

On the monitor, I saw the town of Khashef, a small village north of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. The village looked like a mix of mud-brick and cinder-block houses haphazardly thrown together. It was nondescript enough to serve as a hideout and close enough to the big city that conveniences were a short drive away.

“The target’s active,” said an analyst sitting nearby. “We are seeing indications he’s on the move.”

Two white Toyota HiLux trucks pulled up outside a house in the village. Both trucks had king cabs that sat about five people. The black-and-white Predator feed on the plasma screen locked onto the lead truck.

The officer gave al-Awlaki’s coordinates and I checked the feeds. The two trucks sat very near the coordinates. My Predators were close enough to consider themselves on target. We all watched closely as eight men spilled out of a nearby house and quickly climbed into the trucks. They wore garb traditional to the area, white robes and head scarves. One wore all white and climbed into the lead truck. The doors barely shut before the driver of the lead truck took off, trailing a plume of dust and exhaust. The trail vehicle followed a moment later.

“Stay on them,” the JOC commander said.

I watched the LNO type the command on his keyboard, sending the order through a secure Internet chat to the Predator crews in Nevada. Seconds later, the Predator’s sensor operator smoothly shifted its cross hairs onto the lead truck, setting the camera underneath the aircraft’s nose to track the truck. The crew was efficient, good. I knew a skilled team was important today.

“Sir,” the Army officer said. “Awlaki just announced he was moving.”

“Agreed, sir,” another officer said. “Call came from the lead vehicle.”

The JOC commander nodded.

“I want all eyes on.”

Within seconds, the other two Predator feeds shifted to the two vehicles picking their way through the village’s market. Vendors and shoppers clogged the road in the late morning, making final purchases before the noon heat made shopping unbearable. The crowd slowed the trucks as the drivers darted through breaks in the sea of people.

“Gordon is lead,” the JOC commander said.

Gordon was the lead Predator’s call sign. The aircraft was named after the Army Delta Force operator who was killed in Somalia defending a downed UH-60 Black Hawk crew in 1993. It was the only Predator call sign not based on an Air Force legend.

The goal was to hit al-Awlaki while in transit between the villages of Khashef and Marib. An isolated strike meant no witnesses and low collateral damage. It also kept civilians out of harm’s way. Al-Awlaki simply wouldn’t show up at the meeting.

“LNO, running ROE now,” the JOC commander said. “Have the crews spin up their missiles.”

The ROE, or rules of engagement, are a set of criteria that must be met to legally take a shot in combat. No Predator crew could strike until the ROE were satisfied. I knew we had to be careful and make sure the target was in fact al-Awlaki. We were not drones, but professional pilots and planners who scrutinized every target to make sure the shot was legal and just.

We couldn’t shoot until he cleared the village. A Hellfire missile would obliterate his truck, but also send deadly shrapnel into the surrounding buildings. A miss in the village would be catastrophic.

This would be the biggest operation since the mission that had taken Osama bin Laden nearly five months prior. We were going after Washington’s new number one target. This would be a high-profile strike, a signature mission that would likely cement Predator and the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) community as one of the United States’ premier counterterrorism weapons.

When I started flying Predators in 2003, we mostly watched and listened. We were looked at as second-class citizens next to the fighter squadrons. But over the decadelong war, we’d become hunters. Predators and Reapers were responsible for a significant number of air strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. By 2013, policy makers no longer needed to risk boots on the ground in exhaustive and costly expeditions. Predators and Reapers could slip silently across lines on the map to track and, if necessary, kill terrorists. The RPA gave US officials a long arm to directly a...

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Descrizione libro Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Hardback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. The first-ever inside look at the US military s secretive Remotely Piloted Aircraft program equal parts techno-thriller, historical account, and war memoir Remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), commonly referred to by the media as drones, are a mysterious and headline-making tool in the military s counterterrorism arsenal. Their story has been pieced together by technology reporters, major newspapers, and on-the-ground accounts from the Middle East, but it has never been fully told by an insider. In Hunter Killer, Air Force Lt. Col. T. Mark McCurley provides an unprecedented look at the aviators and aircraft that forever changed modern warfare. This is the first account by an RPA pilot, told from his unique-in-history vantage point supporting and executing Tier One counterterrorism missions. Only a handful of people know what it s like to hunt terrorists from the sky, watching through the electronic eye of aircraft that can stay aloft for a day at a time, waiting to deploy their cutting-edge technology to neutralize threats to America s national security. Hunter Killer is the counterpoint to the stories from the battlefront told in books like No Easy Day and American Sniper While special operators such as SEALs and Delta Force have received a lot of attention in recent years, no book has ever told the story of the unmanned air war. Until now. Codice libro della libreria BRD9780525954439

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Descrizione libro Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Hardback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. The first-ever inside look at the US military s secretive Remotely Piloted Aircraft program equal parts techno-thriller, historical account, and war memoir Remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), commonly referred to by the media as drones, are a mysterious and headline-making tool in the military s counterterrorism arsenal. Their story has been pieced together by technology reporters, major newspapers, and on-the-ground accounts from the Middle East, but it has never been fully told by an insider. In Hunter Killer, Air Force Lt. Col. T. Mark McCurley provides an unprecedented look at the aviators and aircraft that forever changed modern warfare. This is the first account by an RPA pilot, told from his unique-in-history vantage point supporting and executing Tier One counterterrorism missions. Only a handful of people know what it s like to hunt terrorists from the sky, watching through the electronic eye of aircraft that can stay aloft for a day at a time, waiting to deploy their cutting-edge technology to neutralize threats to America s national security. Hunter Killer is the counterpoint to the stories from the battlefront told in books like No Easy Day and American Sniper While special operators such as SEALs and Delta Force have received a lot of attention in recent years, no book has ever told the story of the unmanned air war. Until now. Codice libro della libreria BRD9780525954439

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