WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered the Air Force to put nearly all its Predator aircraft into the skies over the Middle East, forcing the service to take steps that officers worry could hobble already stressed drone squadrons.
Many of the Air Force's roughly 100 operational Predator spy planes plus a half dozen MQ-9 Reapers, the Predator's more heavily armed big brother, are assigned to Creech Air Force Base at Indian Springs, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Pressure from the Defense secretary in recent months has nearly doubled the number of Predators available to help hunt insurgents and find deadly roadside bombs in Iraq. But it has forced air commanders into a scramble for crews that could hurt morale and harm the long-term viability of the Predator program, officers said.
As tension has deepened, some officers have said pressure from Gates resulted in one plan that could have driven the Air Force down a path similar to the German Luftwaffe, which cut back on training in World War II to get more pilots in the air.
"That was the end of their air force," said Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the Air Force's Predator wing. The Air Force plan, presented to the military leadership in January, was scaled back.
The surge in drone flights is Gates' latest push for short-term measures to win the Iraq war that will have long-term implications for the U.S. military.
In recent months, Gates also has campaigned to increase the size of the Army and to ship new, heavily armored troop transporters, known as MRAPs, to Iraq.
Because of the far-reaching implications of the Predator debate, it has spurred an internal Pentagon fight, pitting the Army against the Air Force for control of one of the most widely heralded technological successes of the Iraq war.
Some Predators are used for training at Creech but others are sometimes launched from bases in or near war zones over Iraq and Afghanistan and controlled remotely by pilots and sensor operators in ground stations there and in Nevada.
This month, Creech commanders activated a small but important squadron, the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron, to troubleshoot any problems that might surface with the fleets of remotely piloted Predators and Reapers.
The Army has argued that more overhead drones will save soldiers' lives, a position largely adopted by Gates. But the Air Force has complained that simply demanding more, with no end in sight, would severely strain the service -- just as repeated deployments of ground troops has strained the Army.
"The leadership has to be careful," said one senior Air Force official, who, like several others, spoke on condition of anonymity when describing internal debates. "If you keep on pushing them and pushing them and pushing them, and they say, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes,' at some point, they're going to break. Because they ain't going to say no until they break. No one wants to say 'uncle.' "
Gates set up a team to examine ways to increase Predator flights last year, when 12 were continuously flying combat patrols. Now there are 22, and Gates is pressing for more.
His push to expand the use of drones grew out of a conviction last year that many agencies within the Pentagon were not on full war footing. By then, Gates had taken aim at a pair of high-profile problems: failures that led to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal, and MRAPs.
Gates said the lack of spy planes, known as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, aircraft, was his third major complaint with the military leadership he inherited.
The Air Force has stepped up training.
Next year, commanders will train 200 two-man crews to remotely fly a growing fleet of Predators as well the larger, faster Reaper, mostly out of the spartan, Creech Air Force Base on the edge of the Nellis Air Force range that sprawls across an expanse of the Mojave Desert.
All told, trainers will turn out more airmen for Predators next year than for all other Air Force fighter planes combined.
Air Force officials are aware that their concerns might seem minor compared with Army counterparts who serve 15-month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, Predator crews have been working 13-hour days, sometimes six days a week, for three years with no end in sight.