Predators Fight the War From Vegas

May 2, 2006 — -- Las Vegas is as far away from the war in Iraq as you can get, you may think. You're wrong.

"Nightline" anchor Terry Moran visited Nellis Air Force Base on the outskirts of Las Vegas, just off the runways where there's a small group of camouflaged containers. They may not look like much, but inside -- where no TV cameras have been allowed to go until now -- you'll find the front lines of the war.

Watch "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 ET.

"There's a truck where the people are. Yeah, it's a truck -- your standard Haji truck," said Maj. Shannon Rogers.

On a screen in their cramped quarters in Vegas, Air Force pilots determine their targets 7,500 miles away in Iraq by remote control.

They are controlling one of the country's most cutting-edge weapons of warfare -- the unmanned Predator drone.

The drones are 27 feet long, with a 49-foot wingspan. Their top speed is about 135 mph. They may not be the biggest or the fastest out there, but they are deadly and have become indispensable.

"It's very lethal," said Lt. Col. John Harris. "I mean, it, we go, it's just amazing, for me, that I can hit a 2-foot-by-2-foot square from 7,500 miles away. It's just -- it's an amazing piece of equipment."

Harris is the commander of the Predator squadron in Vegas. For the last three years, he has led his pilots and Predators on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, and helped open a door into a new kind of warfare where foot soldiers in combat, pilots in Nevada, theater commanders in the Middle East, and generals in the Pentagon are all linked.

"The Predator is the definition of global, 'netcentric' warfare," Harris said. "We fly the airplane, yet we're connected globally to multiple places on different continents, every day. It's a normal course of action."

From the air base in Nevada, the pilots' commands are sent along secure undersea cables to a U.S. facility in Europe then bounced off a satellite down to the Predator, as it hovers over the battlefield. The plane sends its pictures back up to the satellite, which gets them down to the troops on the ground and back to Las Vegas.

Even though the planes are launched and landed at air bases in the war zone, they are controlled from Las Vegas, and the action begins the moment pilots start their six-hour shifts -- heading into those innocuous-looking containers.

When they step into the "ground control station" as it's called, Predator pilots really step into the battle space in Iraq or Afghanistan. U.S. ground forces overseas depend on what they do in Nevada.

"It can feel a little bit like that [a video game] at times," Rogers said. "But when things really start to get interesting or bad things happen, it feels pretty darn real."

On this shift, Rogers is the pilot of a Predator stealthily circling a group of buildings north of Baghdad, Iraq. U.S. intelligence on the ground believes it is the home of an insurgent leader.

Before the Predators, the military used strike eagle drivers, which go about 50 times faster and carry a lot more power. The Predator can be plenty lethal, though.

Soldiers in Nevada talk to mission coordinators overseas to tell them what they see in the area. The current Predator is armed with two Hellfire missiles and they have been fired scores of times in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. A new model will carry 14 missiles.

In January, there was an unsuccessful attempt in Pakistan to kill al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by CIA Predators. Eighteen people were killed, showing how powerful the weapon can be.

For Predator pilots who often see their human targets with striking immediacy, firing their Hellfires is intense.

"You go home and if you are religious, you pray or do whatever it is that you need to do," said Staff Sgt. Kimberly Farrell. "I go home, pray. I think about it. That's really what I do. I think, OK, what did I do? What happened? We need to save the lives of our soldiers on the ground, and that is important. That's the most important thing. And so I'll do what I have to do to make sure that the job is done."

The Predator's job is more than firepower. In fact, the plane's most valuable capability is what the Air Force calls "persistence."

Fighter jets can project tremendous power. Because they burn so much fuel, their time in battle is limited. That's not so with Predators, which can fly for 20 hours at a stretch.

"For the first time, and really, at a tactical level, on a everyday level, we have the ability to put something over the battlefield and keep an eye on a target, 24/7," Harris said. "We go out and we're there forever. So we can literally just outwait the enemy."

For the pilots, the cycle of hours in action here followed by home life in Las Vegas can be weird, especially compared to deployment in the area of operations -- Iraq.

"It's a different kind of pressure [being stationed in Las Vegas]," Rogers said. "The reason I say that is because in a fighter wing, you deploy to the AOR. Once you deploy, you can kind of cut away a lot of your home life because now your home life is associated all around your squadron. So you can kind of compartmentalize your personal life and just focus on your squadron life."

"We don't usually talk a whole lot about what we do at work but, you know, it's a very real part of your life," Harris said. "You come in. You're a warrior. You're going to go kill somebody and then you're going to go home and go to dinner. That's different. But that's what we do."

For all the dedication of the men and women here -- and the technological wizardry the United States brings to the battlefield -- the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan remain tenacious and undefeated.

Can you imagine what it would be like without the Predator?

"It'd be a lot tougher than with it. That's for sure," Harris said. "What the Predator brings to the fight is our ability to see on the other side of that building, on the other side of that hill. What we bring with us with Hellfire is the ability to just take out that one point, little target there, some of these insurgents go out there and they'll hug up against, near a mosque, and think that, 'No. They're not gonna, you know, drop a big bomb on me here.' Well, I can go in with a small one. Take ya out."