Drone ‘Stigma’ Means ‘Less Skilled’ Pilots at Controls of Deadly Robots

Air Force, Experts Dismiss ‘Skill’ Impact on Drone Operations

Drone missions, conducted by the military and CIA, have killed thousands over the last 13 years by official accounts – including top al Qaeda targets and a number of civilians. But Cassidy said having “lower ranking” pilots at the helm of such an important task “absolutely [does] not” compromise drone missions.

She was quick to note that all Air Force RPA pilots had graduated flight school and are “full up trained, mission-qualified fighter pilots… They’re all good pilots. There are degrees of good.”

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap told ABC News he doesn’t believe a variation in skill between manned and unmanned pilots would “make a significant difference in terms of the ability to apply force the right way.”

“To get through flight school, you have to make it through so many wickets,” said Dunlap, a former high-level Air Force attorney and current Executive Director of the Center for Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University. “Let’s assume you’re the last in your class to graduate Harvard Law School. What does that make you? A bad lawyer?”

The Air Force serviceman in the drone program, who is not a pilot, said that while operating drones is different than flying manned aircraft and requires a “special mindset,” the pilots he has worked with “are the best in the world, hands down.”

Cassidy said that flying an RPA “requires many of the same pilot skills” as manned aircraft, but some are in less demand than others. “For example, there is no requirement to fly in tactical formation when piloting an RPA so an RPA pilot can devote more attention to other tasks. However, landing an RPA with limited visual cues such as peripheral vision is a much more difficult task," she said.

Further, any lethal action taken by drones is decided by officials higher up on the chain than the pilots, making the pilot’s personal judgment less of a factor in deadly operations. The Air Force said such a decision is based on the Theater Rules of Engagement and strikes are authorized by the “correct level of authority” before the order comes down to the pilot to pull the trigger.

“Drones allow us significantly greater control, oversight, and review before a shot is fired than occurs using manned aircraft or other operations conducted by soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines… [M]any lawyers and senior leadership are directly involved with RPA lethal engagements,” wrote retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula in an Op-Ed for Breaking Defense last year. “The power of our intelligence networks allows RPA to essentially carry around their own command and analysis center and legal counsel as an integral part of their payload.”

Deptula, who wrote that he takes issue with the use of the term “drone” because he feels implies too much autonomy on the machine’s part, was a former fighter pilot himself and later directed air operations when the first Predator drone launched a missile in 2001.

Still, former Marines fighter pilot and ABC News consultant Col. Steve Ganyard (Ret.), said that the pilot must have “judgment and discipline” when the moment comes “to pull the trigger [or] to hold.”

Sometimes it’s a split second, life and death decision. In the case of a suspected drone strike in Yemen last weekend, the Yemeni government said three civilians were killed when their vehicle pulled up near a targeted vehicle just before the missiles struck. While there is little information about how the Yemen strike was conducted and what kind of munitions were used, in some similar situations responsibility can land on the drone pilot to decide on the spot to suddenly abort a strike.

Deptula told ABC News he’s not concerned if RPA pilots aren’t thought of as skilled as their counterparts in such a situation. He believes they're certainly skilled enough.

"The issue again is not the type of airplane one flies… [It’s] do the basic competencies exist in the drone force to execute the mission appropriately? And the answer is, 'Yes,'" he said. Any thought to the contrary is “emotionalism gone awry.”

Deptula also said he was surprised at the GAO's findings. He said he's aware of at least one former F-22 pilot, who was in what was believed to be a plum position as a top-tier fighter pilot for the Air Force's most advanced if historically troubled stealth jet, who gave up the cockpit for the drone joystick. The reasoning was simple, Deptula said, F-22s have never been deployed in combat operations. The pilot wanted "to make a difference" and saw the ever-active drone program as the best way.

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