Priscilla Kim is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. Air Force trains more remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) pilots than traditional fighter and bomber pilots combined—350 RPA pilots compared to 250 fighter and bomber pilots in 2011. Additionally, one in every three planes is unmanned, and the Pentagon intends to double the number of unmanned aircraft systems from 340 to 650 by 2021. If RPA proliferation is not complemented with policy changes that effectively address the concerns of RPA pilots, there could be damaging overall effects for U.S. military forces.
Philip Alson, former United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, expressed concern in a May 2010 report that RPA pilots might have been developing a “PlayStation” mentality due to their remote location from the battlefield. In an adaption of his book, “The Way of the Knife: The C.I.A., a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth,” Mark Mazzetti wrote, “Targeted killings were cheered by Republicans and Democrats alike, and using drones flown by pilots who were stationed thousands of miles away made the whole strategy seem risk-free.” However, more recent studies show that despite geographical separation of RPA pilots from the battlefield, the psychological effects remain remarkably similar to their manned aircraft (MA) counterparts who experience direct combat.
RPA crews at ground control stations are comprised of pilots who maneuver the unmanned aircraft in flight and pull the missile trigger, and sensor operators who monitor camera visuals and guide the warhead to its target—both of whom are susceptible to mental health issues. Though there is growing attention to this concern, the U.S. military remains ill prepared for a future of sustained drone operations. Four particular points that are acknowledged in recent studies and interviews with RPA pilots are worth considering as the U.S. military moves forward with RPA operations.
Same rates of mental health diagnoses between RPA and MA pilots. Studies conducted in recent years by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center (AFHSC) show no notable difference in rates of mental health issues between RPA and MA pilots, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Despite an RPAs’ physical absence from the warzone, they often spend hours or weeks at a time surveilling a potential target or area. RPAs may covertly watch alleged al-Qaeda insurgents go about their daily lives. Airman First Class Brandon Bryant “watched the targets drink tea with friends, play with their children, have sex with their wives on rooftops, writhing under blankets.” When it’s time to release the Hellfire missile, pilots watch them die: “It took him a long time to die…I watched him [on the infrared camera] become the same color as the ground he was lying on.” In some instances the RPA crew’s mission may require them to linger at the scene for the funeral and watch as relatives mourn. Matthew Power of GQ Magazine calls this a “voyeuristic intimacy.” AFHSC reported approximately 8.2 percent of RPA pilots and 6 percent of MA pilots had a minimum of one out of twelve mental health illnesses. The incidence rate for RPA pilots with all mental health outcomes was 3.8, compared to 3.3 for MA pilots. Additionally, some of the other top contributing stressors identified in studies are unique to telewarfare, where the demarcation between combat and personal life is obscured, shifts are long and inflexible, and the working environment is isolated and often uncomfortable.
RPAs experience “moral injury” PTSD. PTSD is the most difficult mental health concern for psychologists to diagnose in RPA pilots. While the traditional understanding of PTSD as a result of witnessing traumatic scenes or experiencing mortal terror can also be seen in RPA pilots, there are an increasing number of instances of “moral injury”—an idea accredited to Jonathan Shay in his book Achilles in Vietnam—which is caused by a sense of guilt about what one has either done or failed to do for others. Killing from a distance also weighs heavily on the human conscience and may cause an existential crisis. In the absence of preventive measures, the development of such psychological effects will make it increasingly difficult for the U.S. air force to retain its well-trained and effective RPA pilot force.
High RPA pilot attrition rates. RPA students and pilots are burning out at nearly three times the attrition rate of MA pilots. Though attrition rates improved slightly over the last year, down from 33 percent to 25 percent (compared to the traditional pilot’s 10 percent attrition rate), concern remains regarding the quality of the candidate pool for RPA recruitment. Commanders have shown a tendency to select and send their least eligible captains for RPA pilot assignment—saving their best men for MA—which is contributing to high attrition rates. The bottom quarter of the class accounted for 54.3 percent and 63.3 percent of the 2011 and 2012 classes, respectively. The air force also allows cadets rejected from Undergraduate Pilot Training to volunteer for Undergraduate RPA Training. Assigning the less qualified to RPA pilot positions could create vulnerabilities in the sustainability and effectiveness of future operations.
RPA pilot positions are undesirable. The shortage of airmen volunteering for the RPA community can be partially attributed to the lack of promotions. Due to the position’s relatively new status, the military has yet to establish a clear road for career advancements for RPA pilots. A Brookings Institution report by Col. Bradley T. Hoagland shows that over the last five years RPA pilots had a 13 percent lower rate of promotion to major rank when compared to MA or noncombatant airmen. Lower rates of promotion are partially indicative of insufficient recognition of the RPA community, and enduring skepticism within the military and the general public about the challenges of engaging in telewarfare. For example, former secretary of defense Leon Panetta approved the Distinguished Warfare Medal (DWM) in February 2013, claiming at a Pentagon news conference that it “provides distinct, department-wide recognition for the extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but that do not involve acts of valor or physical risk that combat entails.” The creation of the DWM was later overturned by the Pentagon when it was marred by controversy and public outcry.
Due in part to the aforementioned attrition rate, coupled with the fact that few airmen choose to fly unmanned aircraft over manned, the air force is facing a shortage of RPA pilots. According to the Air Education and Training Command (AETC), to compensate for the current shortage of RPA pilots, the air force will have to train 168 new pilots per year through 2016—and if that quota is met, 140 annually thereafter. Unfortunately, the air force was unable to meet their goal of 150 pilots in 2012 due to a lack of volunteers. The shortage of RPA pilots results in longer shifts for current operators, which means schedules that don’t allow them to take advantage of educational opportunities, and increased stressors that take both a physical and mental toll. As Gen. William Fraser, formerly of the Air Combat Command said, “We cannot operate on a continued surge pace indefinitely.”
Policymakers should recognize that RPA pilots are at risk for many of the same mental health concerns as their combat counterparts and provide access to the same quality assistance in mental health care and well-being. Some initial measures should include an effort to institute robust periodic health assessments and improve working conditions. It has already been established that RPAs are here to stay. If the U.S. government intends to keep its RPA operations competitive, RPA pilots should not be consigned to a substandard status in the military—as a less desirable position delegated to purportedly less competent airmen. As other countries begin to acquire similar levels of technological sophistication, an investment must be made in the pilots who maneuver the aircraft that define the future of U.S. military operations.