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

Air Force: "They're all good pilots. There are degrees of good."

April 29, 2014, 4:19 PM
PHOTO: A student pilot and sensor operator man the controls of a MQ-9 Reaper in a ground-based cockpit during a training mission flown from Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, Syracuse, New York, June 6, 2012.
A student pilot and sensor operator man the controls of a MQ-9 Reaper in a ground-based cockpit during a training mission flown from Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, Syracuse, New York, June 6, 2012.
TSgt Ricky Best/Defense Department/AP Photo

April 29, 2014 — -- The Air Force recently acknowledged that due to a “stigma” surrounding its drone program, many pilots at the controls of the deadly weapons are “less skilled” and officers overseeing them are “less competent” than their manned aircraft brethren, as alleged by the Government Accountability Office.

“Let’s be honest, when people dream about flying… People in this generation didn’t grow up and say, ‘I want to fly an RPA [remotely piloted aircraft],’” Air Force spokesperson Jennifer Cassidy told ABC News last week. “They were the ones that watched re-runs of ‘Top Gun’ and said, ‘I want to be a fighter pilot.’… So in fact the people that were lower ranking [in flight school], I guess you could say, are the folks that went to RPAs. It doesn’t mean they were bad pilots, or bad officers, it just meant you got to have some at the top and some at the bottom. That’s how that worked.”

Cassidy’s comments came in response to ABC News’ questions regarding a report from the Government Accountability Office, released earlier this month, that said the Air Force has “faced challenges in recruiting RPA pilots since it began this career field.”

The demand for drone pilots has exploded in recent years. While the Air Force had approximately 400 in 2008, the service now has more than 1,300, according to the GAO. The demand, however, is still higher and the Air Force has had trouble keeping up.

The GAO report says the Air Force has fallen well short in its recruiting goals for RPA pilots the last two years and nearly half of current pilots have been pulled from manned aircraft units or from manned aircraft training as temporary fill-ins. And the pilots that have been pulled over weren’t necessarily the best.

“…Air Force documentation states ‘lower quality pilots are generally sent to RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] squadrons,’” the GAO report says. “Headquarters Air Force officials and two commanders of manned-aircraft squadrons explained that commanders select pilots from their squadrons to assign to RPA squadrons and in general most commanders assign less-skilled pilots and less-competent officers to these squadrons.”

Aside from commanders who pulled “less skilled” fighter pilots from manned aircraft units, Cassidy explained that, like in other services, when it comes to pilots who graduate fighter pilot flight school, the best in the class generally get to choose what aircraft they fly -- which in recent years included RPAs. Not many pass up slicing through the sky in an F-22 or F-16 for sitting in a sterile command center in, say, Arizona from which some drone pilots operate.

“The heat of battle is the heat of battle,” Cassidy said. “And the mission is the same and saving lives on the ground is the same, but of course the adrenaline rush from flying a high-performance aircraft is definitely going to be different than flying a drone. Nobody is going to defend that.”

As one Air Force serviceman involved in the drone program put it to ABC News, “Most pilots don’t enjoy flying from a box.”

The Air Force said it no longer pulls pilots to RPA programs from manned aircraft units and that now there is a “separate and distinct career field for RPA pilots who must meet stringent training requirements before earning their RPA wings, similar to pilots operating manned aircraft.”

Beyond personal preference, however, the GAO reported that there is a “stigma” associated more broadly with the program – the idea that drone pilots are looked down upon because they’re not in the cockpit of a plane.

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Brandon Bryant, a former Air Force sensor operator who was one of the first to speak out about the difficult life of a drone crewman to GQ in October, told the magazine he and his teammates were often the butt of jokes, called “chair-borne rangers” who would “only earn a Purple Heart for burning themselves on a Hot Pocket.”

RELATED: Pentagon to Consider Whether Drone Pilots Deserve Top Military Honors

The serviceman who spoke to ABC News said he has a relative in another service who lightheartedly makes fun of him in the same vein and said there is “definitely” a rivalry between drone pilots and those in manned aircraft.

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.

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.”

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.”

READ: Air Force’s Response to GAO Report (PDF)

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.

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