Q. What is it like to be a drone pilot?
Initially, many drone operators were reassigned from piloting other aircraft whether because of physical obstacles in the way of flying airplanes, e.g., eyesight problems, age, or because of backlogs in training for the manned aircraft they were taught to fly. Individuals would then go to the Predator schoolhouse for Initial Qualification Training (IQT), just as other new pilots would go to IQT for F-15 Eagles, C-17 tankers, or B-1 bombers. No longer does the Air Force send individuals from undergraduate pilot training directly to drone training. The most significant problem with individuals going to pilot training and then to drones was financial. It costs the taxpayers about $1.5M to produce one traditional pilot. One fully qualified drone pilot can be trained for much less than that.
As of the beginning of 2013, Air Force pilots either transitioned from another weapons system or went through drone-specific training in a new specialty code for "Attack RPA Pilot." Training would include 25 hours of manned, powered flight, then training on the unmanned Predator or Reaper. Operating drones has some appeal for individuals. As one former drone pilot reported, "there is an honorable element. We do good work. We produce tactical effects for combatant commanders. We kill enemies and save friends." He went on to say that since drone operators are "perpetually at war," they can have more impact—seen as an upside of being a drone pilot—than the manned pilots who deploy for 4 months and then return for 8 to 12 months.93
Despite this appeal to some, mainstream military culture is still somewhat antithetical to the business of drone operations.
The same drone operator said, "those of us who wanted to fly traditionally manned aircraft wanted to be Maverick or Ice Man [from the movie Top Gun]. There is a man-machine interface, but there is still a 'cowboy' kind of mentality. It is the front line, the tip of the spear of the AF. Sitting on the ground in a trailer does not satisfy this desire." The shift work is onerous, doing the same thing day in and day out, which is not what many individuals envisioned when they joined the military. As a result, "drone operators are leaving the Air Force in droves,"94 the tempo of operation being exhausting and overwhelming. Manning rates for drone pilots have been less than 50% compared to 84% for pilots in the Air Force overall, prompting the Air Force to explore new policies such as opening up Global Hawk operations to enlisted personnel.
A 2013 report by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center examined the health records of 709 drone pilots and 5,256 manned aircraft pilots between October 2003 and December 2011. Those conducting the study expected that drone operators would have higher incidence rates of mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as drone operators "witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don't do that. They get out of there as soon as possible."95 Yet the report concluded that controlling for factors such as age, time in service, and number of deployments, the incidence rates for 12 mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder were similar for drone pilots as manned platforms. Stress rates were higher for drone pilots than for those in logistics or support jobs, however. Forty-six percent of Reaper and Predator pilots and 48% of Global Hawk sensor operators report high stress at their jobs, citing long and inconsistent working hours as a potential cause. One Air Force Predator pilot corroborated these accounts: "the grind got to me. Same thing day in and day out (for the most part). The perpetual shift work was rough. And there was no sign that it was going to get any better."96
While the stress rates of drone pilots were relatively higher than those for other members of the Air Force, such as those in logistics and support roles, the rates of mental health problems for pilots of both manned and unmanned platforms were reportedly lower. The Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center report suggests that this may be the result of underreporting, with pilots (both manned and unmanned) concerned that mental health problems could disqualify them from flying. The Center plans to conduct two follow-up studies: one to try to work around the pilots' possible underreporting of mental health symptoms, and another that looks at the mental health of the support staff who work alongside the drone pilots controlling the cameras.97 While these are fruitful next steps, other important areas of the study would include comparisons between operators who pilot drones for the military versus the CIA, and the operational stress levels experienced by unmanned versus manned pilots.
Monotony is clearly one of the factors contributing to operator dissatisfaction and stress—especially for the many individuals who joined the military with the expectation of being fighter jocks. There have even been several efforts to address the cultural distance between being a manned aircraft pilot and a drone operator. Some units have tried to bring some of the traditional flying culture into drone operations, though, by most accounts it is difficult to change the sense that the operators are playing the role of robots themselves, surveying the ground for long, monotonous shifts. Plans to introduce a Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone operators and cyberwarriors were scuttled after two months because of a sense among members of Congress and some veterans "that it was unfair to make the medal a higher honor than some issued for valor on the battlefield."98 The medal was originally proposed by outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to honor those who were making a difference in combat from afar. Yet it was Chuck Hagel, who upon assuming his position as Defense Secretary on April 15, 2013, replaced the medal with a "new distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals to recognize the extraordinary actions of this small number of men and women."99
At least in terms of numbers, the potential pool of recipients is not actually small. The Air Force has trained more drone pilots since 2008 than fighter and bomber pilots combined; by 2015 this means there will be more individuals trained to fly drones than bombers.100 Higher training rates, however, are essential given that drone pilots have left the service at three times the rate of pilots of manned aircraft, though some aviation analysts have suggested that a more appropriate approach is to follow that of the Army, which allows warrant officers with just a high school diploma to fly unmanned aircraft and helicopters. Drone pilots clearly occupy an uneasy space in a culture dominated by manned pilots, suggesting changes to the drone operator culture and training or changes to the service culture as a whole, either of which presents challenges. Trying to address the drone culture runs up against structural obstacles as there is an interest in maintaining the prestige as an officer-only specialty while dealing with the fact that the job entails unenviable shift work.
Given the Pentagon's plans to shift more drone operations to the Army, the question arises whether that service is better equipped to fly drone missions. Army drone pilots face somewhat different sets of constraints. One is that they are often pulled over to non-drone activities, including guard duty and even lawn care, which has made it difficult for the Army pilot to stay current with their training hours.101 Part of the problem is that while the Air Force has a fighter pilot culture, the Army has a culture that is not organized primarily around flying, let alone unmanned platforms. The greater reliance on the Army then would require a different set of kinks to be ironed out, which says nothing about the quite secretive Special Operations Command, which has carried out drone strikes in places such as Somalia and Yemen and would be assuming a greater role in the vision for more daily surveillance and strike missions.