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Air Force to Train More on Drones

The Air Force will train more drone operators than fighter and bomber pilots combined for the first time this year, signaling a fundamental shift for the 61-year-old service, records and interviews with top officials show.

The growing ranks of drone operators mark a turning point for the Air Force as it looks to a future that relies increasingly on unmanned aircraft. Over the next few decades, the Air Force plans to develop drones that would serve as fighters, bombers and tankers, the heart of its manned fleet, according to its Unmanned System Update. The document says piloted aircraft will be used in concert with drones.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took over Monday as top commander in Afghanistan, told senators this month that he couldn't envision a day when he has enough surveillance assets. They allow for greater precision when using weapons and thus reduce civilian casualties, he said.

The Air Force will train 240 pilots to fly Predator and Reaper drones compared with 214 fighter and bomber pilots for the budget year that ends in September. Overall, there are 550 drone pilots compared with 3,700 fighter and 900 bomber pilots. The current emphasis for drones reflects the need for persistent, eye-in-the-sky surveillance to track and kill insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The capability provided by the unmanned aircraft is game-changing," Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told USA TODAY in an e-mailed statement. "We can have eyes 24/7 on our adversaries. The importance of that is clear in the feedback from the ground troops - this is a capability they don't want to be without."

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillances and reconnaissance missions, said intelligence gathering is key to counterinsurgency operations. An example, he said in an interview, was the tracking and killing in 2006 of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It took 600 hours of surveillance by a Predator drone to track Zarqawi and a matter of minutes for an F-16 to drop the bombs that killed him.

Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, said intelligence gathering has been a weakness for the Pentagon for years but has improved recently. "The Air Force has now gotten the message that's important to be responsive to the war fighters on the ground," he said.

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