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

Classified Catch-22 Hinders Recruitment, Air Force Says

But the Air Force still struggles to put the drone joystick in the hands of its best people and Maj. Mary Danner-Jones, another spokesperson for the service, told ABC News that the Air Force attributes much of the recruitment-damaging stigma to people both within the service and out not having a clear idea of everything RPA units do. And it’s not something that can be spoken about except in generalities.

“Unfortunately this information in many cases cannot be declassified,” Danner-Jones said. “Once individuals enter the community, they begin to see the broad range of missions, locations, and general impact RPAs have in meeting national security objectives… Our efforts are not to ‘entice’ new recruits, but rather to continue educating them on the RPA mission and lifestyle.”

That “lifestyle” -- of being able to work from bases in the U.S., close enough to drive home to the family after a shift -- is a big part of what the Air Force is trying to sell.

“Now that the word is out, people understand the mission more and, as people get into and see the lifestyle that you do, in fact, get to go home,” Cassidy said.

She said that some former manned aircraft pilots that have been moved over temporarily to drone operations have decided to stay on for that reason.

But according to the GAO report, life on a drone crew – despite being safe from combat – right now is a difficult one. In 10 focus groups conducted by the GAO at various drone bases in the states, all 10 said that morale among drone pilots was low due to stresses of the job.

The GAO report says understaffed crews are stretched to work longer hours, with changing shifts that disrupt sleep patterns and interrupt the biggest advantage of being on an RPA crew – getting to spend off hours with friends and family. Some crew members are also left in limbo about when their assignment would end, prompting some pilots and commanders involved in drone operations to tell the GAO they would prefer to be deployed “in theater” because at least then they would know when they would be done.

'Virtually Zero Time to Decompress' From Sometimes Violent Images on Screens

Perhaps the challenge most difficult to quantify is the psychological impact RPA operators face from watching and participating in a bloody war thousands of miles away.

They see American soldiers struck with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), enemy troops flattened with drone-fired missiles and civilians, sometimes children, caught in the middle – all projected in high-definition on large screens in sterile operations command centers stateside. And it’s not just the pilots. Sensor operators, imagery analysis experts, supervisors – all have a hand in preserving or taking lives.

And then they go home.

“I’ve got 20 minutes in the car to switch from [airman] to husband and daddy,” the Air Force serviceman involved in drone operations told ABC News. “’How was your day?’ ‘How was school?’… There have been times I’m playing with my kids and I have to remove myself from their presence because I can’t stop thinking about witnessing a child used as a guinea pig for a new IED or, in some instances, a casualty of war on our part. It’s madness.”

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