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Drone Pilots as the 21st Century Warrior. By Caroline Varin

The age of automation, which Martin Van Creveld dates from 1945[1], has reduced human intervention to a minimum. This is particularly disconcerting in warfare, which Thucydides called ‘the human thing’. Indeed, asides from ants, we are the only creatures who exercise violence on a massive scale and in a collective manner. Automation however has created new opportunities to progressively mechanize war in a way that has made human combatants increasingly remote and arguably unnecessary. The sheer appellation of ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’ (UAV) suggests that this role will be further eroded in the future: Christopher Coker argues that in 15 years time, robots won’t even require pilots and joysticks: “the future of war is autonomous systems, not semi-autonomous, certainly not people on the loop or in the loop”[2].

 

This does not mean that humans will be entirely factored out of the military equation of course. Boots on the ground will always be required for certain jobs that the machines cannot do. This was a big part of the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign in Iraq for example, in which military personnel were mandated to broker transactions with local communities to win their support for the American mission. Likewise, US Air Force personnel still feel secure in their jobs: their unique selling point is the human ability to perform tasks for which they are not programmed, leading to new intelligence beyond what a drone might be asked to gather. In effect, because they cannot improvise nor can they communicate on a humane level, machines will continue to have their limitations in warfare for the foreseeable future.

 

Meanwhile, in January 2015 the US Air Force reported a shortage of drone pilots, crucial for monitoring the ‘hot spots’ in Afghanistan, Yemen, North Africa, and now Syria and Iraq. Indeed, more men are needed to operate the robots of war – an estimated 30 people are necessary to operate a Predator or Reaper drone for instance, with another 80 people required to analyze the data[3]. The difficulties in recruiting drone pilots are derived from the perceived “boring” and “ungrateful” job that these men are performing. This disenchantment of the twenty-first century warrior is evidence that the automation of war has changed the role of our combatants. This paper analyses how drone pilots have been affected by the age of automation. It argues that while war, and particularly the warrior, have changed critically in the ‘Western’ world, blood loss is still politically decisive, ensuing that humans remain the targets for the machines and the men behind them.

 

 

Twenty-first century warriors

 

The demand for drone pilots has exploded since the war in Afghanistan: “the Air Force has increased the number of its pilots flying RPAs (remotely piloted aircrafts) from approximately 400 in 2008 to about 1,350 in 2013” [4]. These drone pilots, who are contributing significantly to the war effort, are finding the adjustment of becoming America’s next generation of warriors rather challenging. The perception of an ‘easy’ job operated from the base has led to split mil-civ identities, under-appreciated missions, and subsequently obstacles to military advancement. This has inevitably affected the recruitment efforts for drone pilots, with the US Air Force increasingly considering a pool of recruits made up of adolescent hackers and gamers. According to a 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Headquarters Air Force officials have “considered the use of enlisted or civilian personnel but have not initiated formal efforts”.

 

Currently, both the US Air Force and the Navy assign officers to fly RPAs, while enlisted personnel operate the aircraft[5]. The Air Force has also created an RPA career track for officers not qualified to fly manned aircrafts. These pilots work in eight active-duty bases around the United States and undertake a 10-month long specialized training to fly the UAVs. Revealingly, RPA training costs a fraction of the expenses that go into instruction for manned aircrafts, which is $65,000: $557,000 for each pilot. Most of the men operating UAVs – and they are nearly all men despite the egalitarian access to video games – are between the ages of 19 and 21[6].

 

America’s young ‘warriors’ have reported that, while they find their mission as RPA pilots rewarding, they are often treated like robots and suffer from the stressful and unappreciated conditions of their work[7]: Drone pilots are often expected to work 12-hour shifts, six days a week, without being fully briefed about the purpose of their mission. They clock in around 900 to 1,100 flight hours per year, compared to an average 200 to 300 flight hours for the average pilot in manned aircrafts[8]. These demanding work conditions have the inadvertent result of jeopardizing the pilots’ ability to perform their task: According to MIT professor Mary Cummings, drone pilots who operate behind a screen for eight to twelve hours a day can easily become bored, especially as “90 percent of the time nothing is happening”[9]. Professor Cumming’s study concludes that gamers would make the best drone pilots because of their ability to concentrate over prolonged periods of time. She also suggests that operations resemble more the world of video games in order to stimulate these young pilots throughout the mission. This idea has had its critics of course, who maintain that war is not and should not resemble a game.

 

This new ‘warrior’ prototype is a dramatic shift from Plato’s ideal warrior class, a breed of citizens he called ‘Auxiliaries’ who exhibit characteristics such as “temperance and courage”. Today’s drone pilots operate remotely and take no risks with their lives in the performance of their tasks. They require a ‘retention bonus’ to keep doing their job even though numbers are low and their skills are in high demand[10]. In this context, courage seems irrelevant and national service is self-serving. Furthermore, drone pilots exhibit alarmingly high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, equal to the pilots of manned vehicles[11]. This may be because the average age of drone pilots is younger than 23 years, which is supposedly the ideal age for coping with stress on the battlefield[12]. The lack of separation between home and the stage of war has also been cited as a cause for increased PTSD: “because pilots are able to operate RPAs from Air Force bases in the United States and are thus able to live at home – what is known as being deployed on-station – their dual role juxtaposes stress related to supporting combat operations with the strains that can occur in their personal lives”[13]. This may explain why Plato prescribed that soldiers be kept separate from other citizens so as to devote themselves entirely to the military effort. In addition, drone pilots are part of a generation that, research suggests, finds it difficult to cope with stress and is sensitive to what it sees on screens, whether this be a violent movie or a video game[14].

 

Drone pilots also suffer from a lack of recognition, exemplified by low promotion rates and the army’s attitudes to rewarding their military contribution. A Brookings Institution report found that long work shifts hinder RPA pilots from pursuing educational and training opportunities, “resulting in a 13 percent lower promotion rate to the rank of Major over the last five years”[15]. Furthermore when defense secretary Leon Panetta unveiled the Distinguished Warfare Medal (DWM) in 2013 to recognize military achievement in cyber warfare and drone operations, US war veterans and infantrymen were outraged. Several combat units criticized the medal – which only survived for two months – for undermining the values of heroism and sacrifice among their warriors[16]. Indeed, the perception of drone pilots as ‘armchair warriors’ who commute between their homes and their cubicles omits the importance of their contribution to war – with or without a demonstration of physical courage.

 

According to Shannon French, soldiers have a psychological need to have the “profundity of their sacrifice” acknowledged. She explains that soldiers “are not mere tools; they are complex, sentient being with fears, loves, hopes, dreams, talents and ambitions”[17]. If they are regarded as “mere means to an end”, they risk losing faith in the society they are protecting and their performance on the battlefield (or in the cubicle in this case) will be adversely affected. This has already been exemplified in the elevated attrition rates, which are three times higher for RPA pilots than for traditional pilots. But drone pilots also make sacrifices; they operate long hours, aware that their actions are killing people, and are expected to go home at the end of the day to a life of normality and anonymity, with little empathy from their loved ones or specialized psychological institutional support. In an increasingly automatized age, drone pilots are not (yet) recognized in terms of the warrior values praised by their societies, and their unacknowledged human suffering is evidence, says Christopher Coker, that war does remain ‘the human thing’.

 

 

Legitimacy and Collateral Damage

 

Drone pilots have been fighting for recognition and legitimacy both within the armed forces and in the eyes of the public. They face an uphill battle, however, as accusations by activists of “untenable” collateral damage amounting to “war crimes”[18] are contrasted to the perception of a risk-free military career. In addition, the alleged practices of follow-up strikes suggest that drone warfare is not only cowardly it is also dishonorable.

 

Part of the debate lies in the alleged lack of precision of the drones. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “the United States has conducted 500 targeted killings (approximately 98 percent of them with drones), which have killed an estimated 3,674 people, including 473 civilians[19]. The human rights organization Reprieve adds that 1,147 people have been killed “during attempts to kill just 41 men”[20]. If these numbers are accurate, they represent a very high tolerance for collateral damage from attacks led by risk-free warriors. Collateral damage is of course a part of military activities, and the United States Department of Defense legitimizes this type of damage “so long as it is no excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack”[21].

 

A significant proportion of drone attacks however take place in countries that are not in a declared war with the United States: of the 500 above-mentioned drone attacks, 238 strikes, nearly half, have taken place in Pakistan. Yemen and Somalia, two other countries that have internal dilemmas but no conflict with the US, are also the scene of multiples drone attacks. This is particularly problematic from the warrior’s perspective: Society’s mandate to go to war legitimizes the murderous actions of soldiers and puts a moral stamp on killing. Coker argues that “to be legitimate, killing has to be programmed, disciplined and directed and it must above all conform to the social construction of an enemy. For it is society which determines when a soldier kills, whom he kills, and even how he kills”[22]. The approval of civil society therefore absolves the soldier of his actions. Only 52% of US citizens however support the drone programs in the three above-mentioned countries, according to a Pew poll. This number drops to 3% if you ask people in Pakistan[23].

 

Finally, the follow-up strikes – also known as ‘double-tap’ – reported by Amnesty International undermine the warrior tradition of a code of honor, reinforcing the perception that drone pilots are not conventional ‘combatants’. The human rights group stated in 2013 that it was “deeply concerned about reported incidents of drones carrying out follow-up strikes on wounded survivors of initial strikes, killing not only the intended targets but also anyone attempting to rescue the injured”[24]. International humanitarian law clearly stipulates that attacking persons who are injured and hors combat constitutes a war crime. Public perception and military tradition put it at the height of cowardice.

 

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

Aristotle explained that a soldier must be “motivated by a sense of duty which drives him to avoid disgrace, pursue honor and sacrifice himself for his country”[25]. Honor and glory are important to the warrior as it is the hope of being welcomed home after the war that enables him to fight as his country requires: “it is important for them to conduct themselves in such a way that they will be honored and esteemed by their communities, not reviled and rejected by them”[26]. The soldier’s craving for honour and glory has been manipulated by governments and military institutions and is used to drive these combatants to risk their lives on the battlefields. When drone pilots not only exercise violence from the safety of a cubicle thousands of kilometers away from conflict, but are also given mandates from their government that are historically paradoxical to the warrior code, it inevitably delegitimizes the role this warrior plays in contemporary warfare, and consequently affects his own self-image.

 

War in the age of automation is mainly a ‘Western’ experience, while most conflicts are still fought among citizens in developing countries. Seventy-six countries are presently investing in drone technology, and even non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas have been known to use drones in a military context[27]. These drones however continue to depend on human agency, and only the United States has really developed an effective program for drone warfare, ensuing that the drone pilot will remain an American warrior for while to come. Nonetheless, the mental state of this twenty-first century warrior is not unimportant, especially considering the armed drones they are flying around the world. The well-being, self-image and training of drone pilots will continue to be issues for the armed forces, most significantly because of the growing demand for their skills. The ability to exercise self-restraint will depend largely on the context in which drone pilots find themselves and the support and recognition they receive from the army and from the public.

 

The US government, the main engineer of drone warfare, has hailed the drone program as ‘unobtrusive’, ‘surgical’, and an effective strategy in their war on terror[28]. With a limited casualty-tolerance from the American people since the Vietnam War, drones appear to be a godsend, enabling the government to carry out foreign policy without risking the lives of their soldiers. Former director of SIPRI Frank Barnaby once stated that drone-on-drone warfare would be “absolutely marvelous” but unlikely as society is unlikely to abide “by the results of the battle without the loss of blood”[29]. War may be automatized, reducing the physical role of the warrior in battlefield and sanitizing the conflict for the American public. On the other side of the war however, human victims remain necessary to ensure the eventual surrender of one warring party. The automatized theatre of war will require an adaptation of the role of the combatant(s) – including the drone pilot and the machine – and their relationship vis-à-vis the human victims in the field. It is likely that this will require a review of the warrior code and the laws of war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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[1] Van Creveld, M. (1989). Technology and war. New York: Free Press.

[2] Coker, C. (2013). Drones: The Future of War?. 1st ed. [ebook] London: Chatham House.

[3] Brannen, K. (2015). Air Force’s Lack of Drone Pilots Reaching ‘Crisis’ Levels. [online] Foreign Policy

[4] United States Government Accountability Office. (2014). Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of Unmanned Aerial System Pilots.

[5] This includes operating the sensors that provide intelligence, security and reconnaissance capabilities.

[6] Coker, C. (2013). Warrior geeks. New York: Columbia University Press.

[7] Medium. (2014). Air Force Drone Crews Got So Demoralized That They Booed Their Commander.; United States Government Accountability Office. (2014). Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of Unmanned Aerial System Pilots.

[8] Defense.gov, (2015). Defense.gov Transcript: State of the Air Force press briefing by Secretary James and General Welsh in the Pentagon Briefing Room.

[9] Cummings, M. (2014). Task Versus Vehicle-Based Control Paradigms in Multiple Unmanned Vehicle Supervision by a Single Operator. IEEE Trans. Human-Mach. Syst., 44(3), pp.353-361.

[10] Defense.gov, (2015). Defense.gov Transcript: State of the Air Force press briefing by Secretary James and General Welsh in the Pentagon Briefing Room.

[11] Otto, J. and Webber, B. (2013). March 2013 Vol. 20 No. 3 MSMR Page 3 Mental Health Diagnoses and Counseling Among Pilots of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the United States Air Force.

[12] Coker, C. (2013). Warrior geeks. New York: Columbia University Press.

[13] United States Government Accountability Office. (2014). Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of Unmanned Aerial System Pilots.

[14] Coker, C. (2013). Warrior geeks. New York: Columbia University Press.

[15] Hoagland, B. (2013). Manning the Next Unmanned Air Force Developing RPA Pilots of the Future. [online] Brookings.edu.

[16] The Economist, (2014). Medals for drone pilots?.

[17] French, S. (2003). The code of the warrior. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

[18] Amnesty International. (2013). “Will I Be Next?” US Drone Strikes in Pakistan.

[19] Zenko, M. (2014). America Just Launched Its 500th Drone Strike.

[20] Reprieve, (2014). You Never Die Twice Multiple Kills in the US Drone Program

[21] Gortney, W. (2010). Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms

[22] Coker, C. (2007). The warrior ethos.

[23] Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, (2010). Global Indicators Database.

[24] Amnesty International. (2013). “Will I Be Next?” US Drone Strikes in Pakistan.

[25] Aristotle., Ross, W., Ackrill, J. and Urmson, J. (1998). The Nicomachean ethics

[26] French, S. (2003). The code of the warrior

[27] Hoenig, M. (2014). Hezbollah and the Use of Drones as a Weapon of Terrorism

[28] National Strategy for Counterterrorism. (2011). 1st ed. [ebook] The White House.

[29] Coker, C. (2013). Drones: The Future of War?

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