Drones: America's New Air Force

60 Minutes' Lara Logan Reports On The Increasing Use Of Drones In The Battlefield

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This story was first published on May 10, 2009. It was updated on Aug. 14, 2009.

Every so often in the history of war, a new weapon comes along that fundamentally rewrites the rules of battle. This is a story about a revolution in unmanned aviation that is doing just that.

Most people know them as drones; the Air Force calls them "unmanned aerial vehicles." And right now, there are dozens of them in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, hunting down insurgents, every minute of every day.

They've become one of the most important planes in the United States Air Force - and yet, the pilot is nowhere near the aircraft or the battlefield. They are controlled by remote control, from thousands of miles away.

As we first reported in May, many of the details of this weapons program are classified, but our 60 Minutes team was given secret clearance and unprecedented access to bring you this story.

Forty-five miles north of Las Vegas, on the edge of the Mojave desert, is Creech Air Force base. It is home to the only wing in the Air Force where none of the pilots ever leave the ground.

Colonel Chris Chambliss was one of the top F-16 fighter pilots in the Air Force, a member of the legendary Thunderbirds. Now the unit he commands has no jets - just pilotless planes known as the Reaper and the Predator.

Creech is the first base in Air Force history that exclusively flies unmanned aircraft.

"Right now, sitting here at Creech, we are about 7,500 miles away from the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan. How close though is this base to the fight that's going on there?" correspondent Lara Logan asked Col. Chambliss.

"I don't think we're 7,500 miles away at all," he replied. "I think if you walk out the hangar and you go into one of the ground control stations, you're in the fight."

The fight for the pilots is on a video screen. In one mission, a truck full of insurgents in Afghanistan was being tracked by the pilot. When the ground commander gave the order, a missile was fired, hitting its target.

The trigger is pulled in Nevada, inside cramped, single-wide trailers and small offices. Two hundred and fifty pilots work in shifts around the clock. Alongside each one of them is a crew member who operates the plane's onboard camera, and a behind-the-scenes team of intelligence analysts.

The planes aren't launched at Creech Air Force Base. They take off from locations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and crews in Nevada take control by satellite once the aircraft is several thousand feet in the air.

What the pilots see is a real-time view of the battlefield from thousands of feet in the air, beamed back live from cameras mounted on the unmanned planes. It's what the soldiers on the ground call their "eyes in the sky."

"I'm living the same fight as those guys. Or at least I'm seeing the same fight," Lieutenant Colonel Chris Gough, who flew F-16 combat missions over Kosovo, explained.

Now he flies combat missions over Afghanistan, by remote control.

"There are arguments that we aren't as engaged in the war. I've heard those arguments. And I can tell you that - and I'm happy to tell ya - that I've never been more engaged in a conflict in my life," he told Logan.

And he's never been safer. Lt. Col. Gough sits half a world away from the war zone.

"Physiologically, the stimulus and response, exactly the same. I'm not going 400 miles an hour, which means when I pull the stick, I don't get 5 G's on my body. I have much more ability to process and to comprehend what's going on on the battlefield and the information just conveyed to me, and better relay that information to who needs it," Gough explained.

Asked if it is stressful, he told Logan, "Terribly."

And terribly in demand - soldiers on the ground have come to depend on it.

"I've heard the guys say - you know, they don't want to step out the door without eyes in the sky," Logan remarked.

"Sure, I have a brother who's an Army Special Forces. And honestly I wouldn't want him stepping out the door without this thing over the top of him either," Gough replied.

The Air Force now has 28 Reapers, each one costing about $11 million. It can fly as high as 50,000 feet, sit over a target for 15 hours straight, and is as dangerous as a fighter jet.

The Reaper is the Air Force's newest and most lethal unmanned plane, carrying 500 lb. bombs and Hellfire missiles.