Drone Operators

Jonathon Johnson, an air interdiction agent for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, pilots a Predator B unmanned air vehicle (UAV), April 3, 2009 at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. The Predator B has been flying and observing flood dangers along the Red River.(DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp, U.S Air Force/Released)

Jonathon Johnson, an air interdiction agent for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, pilots a Predator B unmanned air vehicle (UAV), April 3, 2009 at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. The Predator B has been flying and observing flood dangers along the Red River.(DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp, U.S Air Force/Released)

Daily transition between battle, home takes a toll on drone operators

Call it combat as shift work, a new paradigm of commuter warfare that is blurring the historical understanding of what it means to go off to battle. And the strain of the daily whiplash transition between bombs and bedtime stories, coupled with the fast-increasing workload to meet relentlessly expanding demand, is leading to fatigue and burnout for the ground-based controllers who drive the drones.

“We have 5,000 years of one type of warfare and only a couple of years of this new kind,” said P.W. Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.” “These guys are simultaneously at home and at war. It may be that human psychology isn’t designed for that. We don’t know yet.”

With all due respect (and Murdoc’s got a TON of respect for our guys in uniform), I’m not sure if I’m really buying the “war during the day, home at night” description because the “war during the day” part is nothing like the war that soldiers have fought for the past 5,000 years. Isn’t UAV operation more like air traffic control than infantry?

“It can be very surreal,” Capt. Zeb Krantz, a former C-130 pilot, said about stepping into the ground control station and entering the battle space. “You think: ‘I was just at home this morning.’ ”

What I find surreal are some of the examples:

“The family pressures don’t go away, they heighten,” Singer said. “You’ve just been on a combat mission and half an hour later your spouse is mad at you because you’re late to soccer practice.”

and

For those stationed at Creech, there seems to be an ever-receding finish line. The Air Force hits one target of production only to see it get bumped higher.

and

“It’s hard to forge that esprit de corps, that tribe mentality when you can’t all go to the bar after work and decompress together,” Mathewson said.

and

Overall, Predator and Reaper crews tend to be “tired, disgruntled and disillusioned,” Kent said.

Not to minimize the stress issues, and I have no personal experience to compare it with, but I’m guessing that a lot of troops deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan would be happy to deal with the issues facing drone operators.

(I’m sure I’ve pissed off people here. That wasn’t my intent. What do you guys think?)

Comments

  1. I would guess that sometimes these crews feel guilty about feeling stressed precisely because they know they don’t have to deal with the stresses of the folks downrange.

    And that guilt doesn’t help.

    It’s ok for them to feel stressed and frustrated. Maybe hearing that from someone who matters might help a little. It would be super-helpful for starters if more spouses got it.

    As for the going off to war vs clocking in and out, I’m not convinced. 5,000 years is not a long time to our species. For most of our existence, we lived in family units but in constant peril.

    I wonder that in some sense being with your family but needing to be relentlessly vigilant, if not aggressive, at all times would just feel right to some deep part of our brain.

  2. I made a suggestion on a military discussion board awhile back that I think would solve the whole disconnect problem for drone pilots and operators.

    While still remaining in the US, place them in an area of the base, or maybe even create another location stateside away from their homes, and sequester them for 3-6 month tours, just like their counterparts on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    They may not like it, but I think the bigger problem isn’t their job, it’s going back home every night after spending the day hovering remotely over the war zones.

  3. This is the first war where someone operating a plane loaded with weapons that kill bad guys gets to go home to the wife every night. Even though they’re miles away, those Predator controllers know that their direct action has taken lives, as they’ve seen the aftermath.

    Jerry has an excellent idea. Guys driving armed UAVs should not be at home. War and home are two concepts that just don’t go with each other, so Predator drivers should get TDY to someplace not home.

  4. I think they should find another line of work as they sure are not cut out for what the are doing!

    Stress? Aside from those who are actually engaged in combat, try being an undercover cop or a fireman. How about a flight deck crewman on a carrier and/or the MANY other fields where the sligtest mistake can get you badly injuried or killed?

  5. I can’t see why they would be complaining about the family nagging them… and family pressures on them.

    If they complain about that, they should just be kept on base – why not just keep them locked in and take their telephones… oh right, they wouldn’t like that either.

  6. Neil,
    Yes, being a firefighter is stressful, but a firefighter is NOT fighting with and trying to kill people, he’s attempting to SAVE people.
    And undercover police, as part of their cover, usually DO NOT go home every night.
    Flight deck crew, are support & are NOT actively attempting to kill people. AND they are not going home every night either.
    Lots of differences there, in all your flawed “comparisons”. These remote UAV operators are a new unique breed. And it will take awhile to see how things shake down. But I can go with Jerry’s idea, make the operation & mission a TDY.

  7. Sorry B. Woodman

    Both Logically and Factually, STRESS IS STRESS!

    PERIOD!

    END OF STORY!

    And while the stress of killing would be terrible IF you had no idea if you were killing innocents or not, knowing those you are killing would be killing both those on our side as well as others, and cutting off the heads of ANY who do not agree with them would NOT bother me AT ALL!

  8. OPPS, My Bad!

    Shame be upon me.

    I should have said “KILLING Via what is in essence, a “Video Game” would NOT bother me a bit as I would be killing hose who fully intend to kill me, my loved ones, friends and all who are not members of some particular Moslem sect.

    (Just as the Christians have in history and in very recent times.)

  9. “Overall, Predator and Reaper crews tend to be “tired, disgruntled and disillusioned,” Kent said.”

    Driving 10 miles from home, sitting behind a computer screen in an air-conditioned bunker at Ft. Comfort, subsisting on Cappuccino and Subway sandwiches, and coming home to their families every night, all without EVER risking injury or death, must REALLY make life hard on them.

    Of course, if they ever whine about it in earshot of a Thunderchief pilot who flew down the Devil’s Throat, I can’t guarantee the “Palm Pilots” suffer any injuries.

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