RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Those unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan we just heard about, say something about the future of air warfare. Traditionally, Americas' fighter pilots have dominated the skies. They fly U.S. Air Force jets that are so fast and have weapons so powerful no enemy that can challenge them. Since the 1970s, these fighter pilots have flocked to Nellis Air Force Base on the outskirts of Las Vegas to hone their skills in war games called Red Flag.
NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman traveled to Red Flag to discover whether dogfights are becoming a thing of the past.
Captain SHANE SULLIVAN (U.S. Air Force): Guys come from all over, and especially during this red flag. You have Britain…
BOWMAN: Captain Shane Sullivan steps outside the low sand-colored building that houses his squadron, the 64th Aggressors.
(Soundbite of plane flying)
BOWMAN: F-16s occasionally course through the sharp blue sky. He gestures toward a relic in the parking lot: a Soviet jet.
Capt. SULLIVAN: So that signifies who we are. Kind of, we can tell people, hey if you're looking for the Aggressor Building, you know, follow the MiG-21.
BOWMAN: Captain Sullivan's squadron plays the enemy in the training exercise. In their minds, the only enemy worth playing these days is the Soviet Union. Across the street, sits an old armored vehicle.
Capt. SULLIVAN: You can see its track. It almost looks like a tank, except there's a couple of missiles onboard there.
BOWMAN: So, who would've used that?
Capt. SULLIVAN: The former Soviet Union this as well, and of course…
BOWMAN: The Cold War seems to be everywhere at this desert base; no matter that the Soviet Union came to an end when Sullivan was 10 years old. In the squadron's small bar, called a Heritage Room, bullet-riddled pieces of Soviet planes hang on the wall. Even the bar stools are painted with Russian red stars.
Any Russian vodka up there?
Capt. SULLIVAN: There's plenty of Russian vodka to be had, and we welcome you to the bar on Friday nights.
BOWMAN: Sullivan's short, stocky and affable; a 30-year-old Air Force Academy graduate from Massachusetts. He points to his battlefield off in the distance, just on the other side of a snow-covered peak.
Capt. SULLIVAN: Beyond that range is actually where all the fighting happens. Once we flew over those ranges, at that point it's pretty much fight's on.
BOWMAN: The fight's on when Sullivan climbs into his F-16 Falcon. His job is to shoot down — in a virtual way — the American pilots who come here to train: jamming their radar, locking on to shoot a missile. On his uniform is the red star patch of the enemy.
(Soundbite of roll call)
BOWMAN: Dozens of fighter pilots assemble for a briefing in a large theater, answering to their call signs. Nearly all are square-jawed young men. There are a few women among them. Nearly everyone in the room has that fighter-pilot swagger.
The Air Force created Red Flag just after the Vietnam War. Too many pilots were getting shot down in Vietnam, and top officers said their skills were getting rusty. The Air Force found that 10 training runs at Red Flag helped fix that problem.
(Soundbite of papers ruffling)
BOWMAN: Lieutenant Colonel Dan Digger Hawkins spreads out a map of the training site - some 12,000 square miles of mountains, lakes and high desert. It's roughly the size of Maryland.
Lieutenant Colonel DAN DIGGER HAWKINS (U.S. Air Force, Deputy Commander, Red Flag): Typically, in a mission, you'll have about 40 to 60, maybe even 80, blue aircraft players - the friendly forces; and then about a dozen of what we call the Red Players, the enemy aircraft that are defending.
BOWMAN: Hawkins is the deputy commander here. He points out the U.S. has what's called air dominance — no country can match its fighters and bombers, so American ground troops don't have to worry about being killed from the sky.
So, why is there such an emphasis on training fighter pilots?
Lt. Col. HAWKINS: None of us, I think, can really say with a surety who it is that we may end up having to fight next or what weapon systems they'll have. And so that's why we keep our skills honed with exercises like Red Flag — so that we can be ready to defend the country at a moment's notice against whoever it is may try to attack us.
BOWMAN: But no one who's training here now has ever been in a dogfight, is that right?
Lt. Col. HAWKINS: Right now, out in the airspace, go on some very realistic dogfights. As far as actual live combat, I believe some of the last air-to-air kills that the U.S. Air Force has had was in Bosnia during the '90s.
BOWMAN: The 1990s, before these students were even pilots - like Captain Brock Stevens. He's a 32-year-old weapons officer from Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. He flies aboard a F-15 Strike Eagle, an Air Force fighter bomber. What he faces in the skies above Nellis is like nothing he's seen in the real world.
Captain BROCK STEVENS (U.S. Air Force, Weapons Officer, Mountain Home Air Force Base): It's the only time that we've put this many planes airborne, and it's the only time we seen this big of a threat facing us.
BOWMAN: Without any real threats, Stevens and others talk of possible threats. Russia is still cranking out top-notch fighter jets - not only flying them but selling them to China. The Chinese are also building more sophisticated missiles that could challenge the F-16.
Americans are answering with new aircraft, like the Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 Raptor, all of which puts the Obama administration in something of a bind. Does it spend billions of dollars to combat a theoretical threat? Which is why the Air Force is rethinking how it uses its fighters — less for dogfights than for targeting enemy troops on the ground - what's called close air support.
Capt. STEVENS: Our sister squadron at Mountain Home just got back from Afghanistan, and about 90 percent of their sorties over there were close air support.
BOWMAN: So for the first time in its history, Red Flag has added an extra week of training to focus on helping ground troops.
(Soundbite of plane flying)
BOWMAN: Pilots practice striking suspected roadside bomb emplacements or enemy vehicles. But increasingly, the job of protecting ground troops falls to another attack aircraft that sounds more like a lawn mower — it doesn't even have a pilot. A single drone, like the new one called the Reaper, can carry up to 14 Hellfire missiles.
Just 45 minutes up the road, pilots sit inside a building at Creech Air Force Base and tug at a joystick. They fly a Reaper 8,000 miles away in Afghanistan. The pilot watches its progress on a computer screen. Captain Stevens has 10 friends flying drones. He doesn't plan on joining them.
Capt. STEVENS: I mean the job they're doing is effective, but it's not like sitting in an airplane flying it. It's sitting on the ground at one G, instead of actually being in the fight. You'd rather drive a race car than a remote-control car.
BOWMAN: The Air Force isn't laughing at his joke. It's buying hundreds more Reapers and just opened a new school to train these remote-control pilots. So, could a drone ever replace a fighter jet? That's doubtful, says Colonel Eric Matthewson, who oversees drone aircraft from the Pentagon.
Colonel ERIC MATTHEWSON (U.S. Air Force): Reaper lacks the flexibility that a fighter would have.
BOWMAN: Like speed and maneuverability. Take a quick turn in a Reaper, he says, and you would lose that satellite link. The computer screen would go blank. And watching a computer screen, says Matthewson, is nothing like being in the sky above a battlefield, having a wide view of friend and foe alike.
Col. MATTHEWSON: The ability just to be able to look out your cockpit and in a split second take in the whole scene is something you just cannot do in an unmanned aircraft system today.
BOWMAN: So, until the drone turns him into a relic, fighter pilots like Captain Sullivan will keep flying. On this night, he pulls on his flight suit…
Capt. SULLIVAN: All right. I'll see you guys.
BOWMAN: …climbs into his F-16…
(Soundbite of plane flying)
BOWMAN: …then roars above the tinsel and glitter of Las Vegas, arching toward the mountains in search of an enemy.
Tom Bowman, NPR News.
(Soundbite of plane flying)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.