What It’s Like to be a Drone Pilot

Lawfare

Editor’s Note: Drone warfare is often caricatured as remote-control fighting, more akin to playing a video game than real warfare. In an unusual Foreign Policy Essay, Dave Blair and Karen House ​take on this myth, detailing the costs to the operators and the conditions that increase the risks to their well-being. They offer important recommendations for how to make drone warfare less morally and psychologically hazardous for the operators.

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Understanding Life and Death between War and Peace

It is one thing to experience something, and another thing entirely to watch someone you care about go through the same thing. One of coauthor of this article, Dave, piloted AC-130 gunships for three tours in Iraq before becoming a Predator driver. Before he went downrange for the first time, he asked himself the warrior’s sine qua non questions about killing and dying, and within a few weeks, he knew the answers. The other co-author, Karen, served as a counselor to Predator and Reaper (remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA) crews who were deployed-in-garrison under SOCOM’s Preservation of the Force and Family program. Before her posting as a mental health professional, she was forced to deal with death close to home—she is the widow of a Special Forces soldier. We both understood life and death personally, and therefore both of us were surprised at how challenging it was to walk with our young Predator and Reaper crews as they encountered these questions for the first time.

For someone who’s been flying in remote combat for a decade, Dave found it challenging to wind back the clock and remember what it was like to encounter killing for the first time—especially because his first experience with the topic occurred in such a different place, with radically different rituals and support structures. Similarly, Karen found empathy with the RPA crews in her own story, but our flyers’ perpetual existence in a fractured mish-mash of war and peace made their experience qualitatively different from her own.

We both realized, contrary to popular myth, physical distance and technology were not mediating psychological impact—many crews were connecting more deeply with the experience, not less. We needed to build a new understanding of how the relationship between distance and combat if we were going to provide our crews the support and understanding they required to do what the country asked of them. This is the story of that project, in hopes of synching the story of the combat RPA community with the larger public narrative about who we are and why.

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