Drone War Pushes Pilots to Breaking Point

By Jeremy Hsu | January 5, 2015 4:58 pm
Airman 1st Class Steven (left) and Airman 1st Class Taylor prepare an MQ-9 Reaper for flight during exercise Combat Hammer, May 15, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nadine Barclay

Airman 1st Class Steven (left) and Airman 1st Class Taylor prepare an MQ-9 Reaper for flight during exercise Combat Hammer, May 15, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nadine Barclay

Drone pilots represent one of the most crucial and under-appreciated elements of the U.S. military’s operations across the world. They provide hours of support in watching over U.S. troops on the ground, searching for enemy targets and sometimes launching missile strikes. But the new age of robotic warfare is straining human limits — the U.S. Air Force fears that the growing demand for having more drones in the air around the clock is pushing its drone operators to the breaking point.

The Air Force has struggled to train enough pilots to remotely operate its MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft for years. It has scrounged for new pilots by partially cannibalizing its training squadrons and by keeping manned pilots on drone operator duty for years beyond normal Air Force assignments. The existing group of military drone operators has received less time off and has suffered in its chances for promotion because ongoing operations have kept operators too busy to take military education courses. Now an internal Air Force memo acquired by The Daily Beast has revealed fears that the Pentagon’s demand for more drone patrols will drive exhausted drone operators to quit and make it difficult to recruit new replacements.

“It’s at the breaking point, and has been for a long time,” a senior Air Force official told The Daily Beast. “What’s different now is that the band-aid fixes are no longer working.”

Humans needed for robot warfare

The Joint Chiefs of Staff — the most senior military leaders advising the U.S. Secretary of Defense — want to boost the number of drone combat air patrols (CAPs) from 61 to 65 as soon as April 2015. Each CAP requires four drones to provide 24-hour coverage over locations such as Afghanistan, Yemen and North Africa.

U.S. Air Force Airmen with the 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron aircraft armament systems specialists walk past MQ-9 Reapers with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan Aug. 18, 2014.  Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez

U.S. Air Force Airmen with the 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron aircraft armament systems specialists walk past MQ-9 Reapers with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan Aug. 18, 2014. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez

But Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of the Air Combat Command responsible for training Air Force personnel, warned that the increased demand for drone patrols would add additional strain for the human crews supporting the drones. The Air Force typically wants a ratio of 10 crews for every drone CAP, or perhaps 8.5 crews per drone CAP under emergency situations. That ratio has already dropped to less than 8.1 crews per drone CAP, which violates the Air Force’s “red line” for drone manning and combat operations.

The military blog War Is Boring breaks down the number of people needed per CAP:

But a CAP also needs people — 186 people, to be exact. Fifty-nine people launch, land and repair the Predators at airfields near the actual combat zones, in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Djibouti. Forty-five CAP members live and work at an air base in the United States, flying the drones via Ku-band satellite. Another 82 people scattered across the U.S. pore over the video imagery the robots acquire and forward it onward to intelligence officials and front-line commanders.

Such increased demand has driven a huge leap in the numbers of U.S. military drone operators over the past decade or so. There were just around 50 military drone pilots in the late 1990s. That number has grown to more than 1,300 drone pilots as the U.S. military became involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world in the expanding War on Terror.

The growing tempo of drone operations has also left many drone crews tired and unhappy — especially when the Air Force initially treated the human crews like robots expected to work 12-hour shifts, six days a week, without fully briefing them on the purpose of their assigned missions. Morale hit a low point around 2005 or 2006 when a group of Predator pilots, sensor operators and maintenance crew members booed their commander during a meeting, according to War Is Boring.

No satisfaction for drone operators

The Air Force has scrambled to improve the morale of its drone crews since that low point. But the growing demand for drone operations and the limited number of pilots and crews has continued to strain human limits. Investigators from the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report on Apr 10, 2014 that included troubling findings from focus groups held among drone pilots.

  • 7 out of 10 focus groups mentioned how rotating shifts for drone operations caused sleep schedule problems. Some drone pilots also chose to sacrifice sleep during their unusual daytime sleep schedules in favor of spending time with family and friends.
  • 5 out of 10 focus groups said they felt stress from flying drones for periods beyond the typical length of Air Force assignments. Officer assignments usually last 3 to 4 years, but some pilots have been on assignment for over 6 years.
  • 6 out of 10 focus groups said they were expected to do more administrative work that wasn’t required of Air Force personnel deployed-in-theater outside the United States. (Many drone pilots had firsthand experience of this contrast in treatment because they had formerly flown manned aircraft.)

The problem of lower promotion rates and career advancement was also identified by both the GAO report and a Brookings Institution report authored by U.S. Air Force Colonel Bradley T. Hoagland last year. Longer work shifts for drone pilots mean that they have less time than their manned pilot counterparts to complete military education requirements needed for promotion. In the last five years, promotion percentages for drone pilots from the Air Force’s Majors Promotion Boards have fallen from 96 percent to 78 percent. By comparison, typical Air Force officer promotion percentages range from 96 to 91 percent.

Carrying out war from home

Staff Sgt. William aims a laser onto a target during the third annual 432nd Wing’s Wing Hunt competition June 30, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Shad Eidson

Staff Sgt. William aims a laser onto a target during the third annual 432nd Wing’s Wing Hunt competition June 30, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Shad Eidson

But the most widespread issue raised by the GAO report’s focus groups was being deployed on-station — a curious sort of limbo existence that means drone pilots often get to go home to their families every day after spending their work hours supporting U.S. troops engaged in life-or-death situations on faraway battlefields. In the GAO report, 10 out of 10 focus groups said that such on-station deployment negatively affected their quality of life.

The challenge of on-station deployment comes from the daily cognitive dissonance of living a double life that can’t be discussed with spouses or children because of security reasons. Drone pilots said they experienced challenges in balancing their military duties with their personal lives for years at a time. Many said they would have preferred to deploy-in-theater for 6 months with a clear end point and endure the clean separation from family and friends rather than go through on-station deployment for 3 or more years.

U.S. military members have only occasionally encountered such scenarios in the past. Historian T.R. Fehrenbach described a similar situation that took place during the Korean War of the early 1950s in his book “This Kind of War.”

The early months of the war were fought under weird circumstances by the American fighter and bomber pilots. Based in Japan, which never changed from peacetime ways, many of them had wives and family stationed at their fields. Many a pilot flew out in the predawn darkness to strafe and rocket enemy troops all day across the burning hills of Korea, then returned to play cards with his wife at night. This was harder on both pilots and family than if the dependents had been an ocean away.

Fighting for respect

On top of everything, drone pilots still struggle to receive respect from within the Air Force and from the rest of the U.S. military. The average drone pilot may contribute more to combat operations in a day than many manned fighter pilots do in a year, and the growing demand for their services is clear. But the fact that drone pilots don’t expose themselves to the threat of bodily harm like a soldier or Marine on the ground — or even pilots flying manned fighters and bombers over battlefields — means that their contributions are sometimes overlooked or even dismissed within the U.S. military. Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, described one such case while formerly at the Brookings Institution.

Let’s use the case of the mission that got the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Zarqawi. So there was a team of unmanned aerial systems, drone operators, that tracked him down. It was over 600 hours of mission operational work that finally pinpointed him. They put the laser target on the compound that he was in, this terrorist leader, and then an F-16 pilot flew six minutes, facing no enemy fire, and dropped a bomb — a computer-guided bomb — on that laser. Now, who do you think got the Distinguished Flying Cross? The people who spent 600 hours, or the six-minute pilot? And so that’s really what we’re getting at.

The bias against drone pilots is clear even within the Air Force’s struggle to recruit more such pilots. Few manned aircraft pilots voluntarily make the move to become drone pilots, even if the Air Force has assigned some to temporarily fill the ranks of drone pilots. Squadron leaders often send their lowest-skilled pilots to join the ranks of drone operators if requested. Overall, the Air Force recruited just 110 new drone pilots in the fiscal year 2013— falling short of its goal of recruiting 179 pilots by about 39 percent.

In a broad strategic sense, U.S. civilian and military leaders clearly see great value in having a fleet of military drones that can carry out surveillance and strikes across the world. But the entire effort depends upon an overworked, under-appreciated group of pilots of whose human limits will still constrain the future of robotic warfare.

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    received less time off and has suffered in its chances for promotion” Floggings will continue until morale improves.

    Hire civilian gamers, pay them an honest wage with overtime, and assign unchanging shift work in 6-month blocks. If the software is any good, it is a question of training not intelligence. If all they can do is do the job, perfect! Product is important. Process is management displacing discrete facts with overall ignorance, obsessing on what is measurable instead of promoting what is important.

    • alaska99801

      I agree Uncle Al. The problem is that the military equate intelligence with the ability to be trained. But you can train a monkey to do many things.
      Anyway, what happens is that drone pilots originally and after just maybe a year ago, were all enlisted airman. The assignment of officer pilots is new and was done because of the shortage. The Air Force has a very high require,emt for drone pilots that ot seems many enlisted airmen are not able to fulfill for now.
      I believe that the training is quite long so they are filling vacancies with regular pilots, which was never the original intent of the program.

      • Rod Walton

        Perhaps the Air Force should bring back the warrant officer rank specifically for drone pilots. That way officers could continue flying their manned toys while most of the real work is done by drone operators. To quote the U.S. Army recruiting site “Warrant Officers make up the technical foundation of the U.S. Army.” Seems like a perfect fit for the Air Force.

  • mewcomm

    Drone pilots are not warriors. They are aviator technicians. Yet portrayed as “victims”.

    No matter. As self aware automated drones enter the battle space the need for these “pilots” and supporting cast will diminish.

    “Dad what did you do in the war?”

    • Jason

      That tech is further away than your comment would imply. A lot further.

      • Charity5712

        just as
        Philip
        answered
        I cannot believe
        that people
        can
        get paid
        $7191
        in one month
        on the internet
        . find out here now

    • Eriel Ramos-Pizarro

      “Well Jenny, I spent 12 hours in an enclosed facility, isolated from everyone around me, having to be 100% focused on managing a device half-way around the world that was acknowledged by everyone to be highly effective in saving our boys and girls on the ground, and in taking down the enemies of our country. Oh, and, as opposed to “Tommy’s mom in Iraq, I didn’t have a group of buddies I could talk with to make the stress bearable.”

    • Andrew Kiener

      Thanks for perfectly illustrating one of the points made in the article.

  • Buddy199

    Ironically, the underappreciated “Chair Force” is the future of air warfare.

  • YeahRight

    The lesson is clear, hand out more medals to drone pilots and supporting technical crews.

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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