The intensity of warfare in the computer age is on display at a secret intelligence and surveillance installation at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, a massive, heavily air-conditioned warehouse where hundreds of TVs hang from black rafters. Every day across the Air Force’s $5 billion global surveillance network, cubicle warriors review 1,000 hours of video, 1,000 high-altitude spy photos and hundreds of hours of “signals intelligence” — usually cellphone calls.
At the Langley center, officially called Distributed Common Ground System-1, heavy multitasking is a daily routine for people like Josh, a 25-year-old first lieutenant (for security reasons, the Air Force would not release his full name). For 12 hours a day, he monitors an avalanche of images on 10 overhead television screens. They deliver what Josh and his colleagues have nicknamed “Death TV” — live video streams from drones above Afghanistan showing Taliban movements, suspected insurgent safehouses and American combat units headed into battle.
As he watches, Josh uses a classified instant-messaging system showing as many as 30 different chats with commanders at the front, troops in combat and headquarters at the rear. And he is hearing the voice of a pilot at the controls of a U-2 spy plane high in the stratosphere.
“I’ll have a phone in one ear, talking to a pilot on the headset in the other ear, typing in chat at the same time and watching screens,” Josh says. “It’s intense.”
The stress lingers when the shift is over. Josh works alongside Anthony, 23, an airman first class who says his brain hurts each night, the way feet ache after a long march.
“You have so much information coming in that when you go home — how do you take that away? Sometimes I work out,” Anthony said. “Actually, one of my things is just being able to enjoy a nice bowl of cereal with almond milk. I feel the tension is just gone and I can go back again.”
Video games don’t do the trick. “I need something real,” he said.