The serviceman, who agreed with the general findings of the GAO report, said crew members have “virtually zero time to decompress from whatever we were involved in that day.” Some just turn themselves off.
“These strikes are broadcast on 10 ft. by 10 ft. HD screens in the operations centers for all to see,” he said. “[After successful strikes] there has been cheering, total silence and everything in between when this happens. Sometimes people don’t even look up from their workstations because they simply don’t care due to being desensitized.”
The Air Force is well aware of the potential psychological challenges of RPA crews, has conducted academic studies on the subject and has taken steps to provide additional resources to “ensure the mental health” of its RPA pilots, Danner-Jones said.
Air Force Hopeful About Future of Drone Units
In fact, Danner-Jones said the Air Force is “well aware” of all the challenges noted by the GAO and is still optimistic.
She said the Air Force believes it will meet its 2014 RPA recruitment goals by using a different system to pull in cadets from the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). But that, too, is a temporary fix.
In response to the GAO report, the Air Force stated in a letter that it agrees or partially agrees with several of the GAO’s recommendations, including that the Air Force should “develop a recruiting and retention strategy that is tailored to the specific needs and challenges of RPA pilots to help ensure that the Air Force can meet and retain required staffing levels to meet its mission.”
As more recruits sign up specifically for RPA units, more pilots means shorter shifts and assignments and, the Air Force hopes, less stress on everyone involved. Solving the one problem could help solve the others.
Danner-Jones said she’s also just hoping Air Force recruits will realize that the definition of pilot has changed in a new era of warfare.
“RPA pilots are conducting some of the same missions as manned aircraft such as Operational Reconnaissance and Close Air Support as well as successfully employing ordinance during mission accomplishment,” she said.
That last phrase -- “successfully employing ordinance during mission accomplishment” -- by the way, means drone strike.