Fourteen years later, the drone is the quintessential weapon of the American military, which now boasts roughly a thousand Predator pilots. At any given moment, scores of them sit in darkened trailers around the country, staring at the bright infrared camera feeds from drones that might be flying over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, or Somalia. Between August 2014 and August 2015, a single Predator squadron—the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Nevada—flew 4,300 sorties and dropped 1,000 warheads on ISIS targets. By enabling the White House to intervene without committing troops to battle, the drone has transformed US foreign policy. ... The Predator as we know it—with its capacity to be piloted from thousands of miles away and its complement of Hellfire missiles—wasn’t developed with the expectation that entire wars might one day be fought by pilots sitting in trailers. As a matter of fact, most military planners at the time regarded the Predator as pretty much a technological dead end. ... The lethal Predator wasn’t a production vehicle. It was a hot rod, built for one all-out race against the clock. Of course, in those months before September 11, 2001, none of its designers knew the nature of the clock they were racing against. And most Americans have no idea quite how close they came to beating it.
Drones—or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), as they are known in the military—have quickly become one of the Pentagon’s tools of choice for precision surveillance and attack, and Holloman is responsible for training new pilots and sensor operators in order to meet swelling demand. This year the base will produce 818 RPA operators, more than double the number of projected F-16 trainees. All told, over 20,000 military and civilian personnel are currently assigned to the RPA program, representing nearly 5% of the Air Force's total capability. ... Base and squadron commanders say the RPA program is on track to become one of the Air Force’s largest divisions. In fact, for the first time ever, drones were responsible for more than half of the weapons dropped by the U.S. on Afghanistan last year. New recruits and pilots transferring to the drone program from other aircraft all pass through Holloman, sooner or later. ... If the pilot of popular mythology is intuitive and independent, the pilot of the RPA era must be analytical and collaborative. He (or sometimes she) must be comfortable multitasking, effective at communicating within and across teams, and capable of continually learning on the job. He or she may have a family to support, and the desire to be present at Little League games and piano recitals. ... Indeed, the daily reality for RPA pilots, as well as sensors, stands in stark contrast to the Maverick of myth. ... The new Maverick represents the future of work in a fully global world dominated by complex machines, complex communications, and fluid, remote teams.
The ambition to create the version of the F-35 that I watched on the tarmac at Patuxent River—one that can make short takeoffs and vertical landings—was what got the fighter jet’s development under way in the 1980s. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Pentagon’s tech arm, began working at the Marine Corps’ behest on an improved version of the Harrier, a crash-prone vertical-landing jet of British design. According to a Pentagon history of the F-35, Darpa quietly sought assistance from a research and development arm of Lockheed Martin known as the Skunk Works. By the early 1990s, the Darpa-Skunk Works collaboration had produced preliminary concepts, and the Marine Corps began pressing Congress for funding. The Air Force and Navy insisted that they, too, needed stealthy, supersonic fighters to replace aging Cold War-era models. Out of this clamoring grew a consensus that the only way to afford thousands of cutting-edge fighters was to build a basic model that could be customized for each service. ... The degree of commonality among the three versions of the F-35—the shared features—turned out to be not the anticipated 70 percent but a mere 25 percent, meaning that hoped-for economies of scale never materialized. A pattern of continual reengineering resulted in billions of dollars in cost overruns and yearslong delays.