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Meet The New Mavericks: An Inside Look At America's Drone Training Program
Editor’s Note: This article by Ainsley O’Connell originally appeared on Fast Company, the world's leading progressive business media brand, with an editorial focus on innovation in technology, ethical economics, leadership, and design.
On most weekday mornings, Crystal drops her daughter, Bianca, at school before driving through downtown Alamogordo, New Mexico, a town of 31,000 people in the Chihuahuan Desert, on her way to work. She and her husband, Luis, coordinate after-school care and pick-up, and by the time the sun sets over White Sands Missile Range, the sky aflame with ragged streaks of pink, they’re both home with Bianca for dinner and homework.
Recently Bianca, 7, has started asking more questions about her parents' jobs.
"She knows when she sees the Reapers in the sky that that’s what we fly," Crystal says. "She knows that we’re not pilots, that we control the camera. She knows that we’ve been in the war."
Before, that was sufficient. But now Bianca wants to understand motive and logic. "'Why is the war going on? Why do you fly those?' I try to answer at a level she understands," says Crystal, a veteran sensor operator who now works as a civilian instructor, training airmen to operate the cameras on U.S. Air Force drones. "I figure she can form her own opinions as she gets older, and I just try to fill in the facts. I want her to be aware. I don’t want her to be scared."
Crystal has reason to be cautious with her words. She and Luis, who is also a sensor instructor, spend their days helping to grow the Air Force’s drone program by teaching at Holloman Air Force Base, which adjoins Alamogordo. Drones — or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), as they are known in the military — have quickly become one of the Pentagon’s tools of choice for precision surveillance and attack, and Holloman is responsible for training new pilots and sensor operators in order to meet swelling demand. This year the base will produce 818 RPA operators, more than double the number of projected F-16 trainees. All told, over 20,000 military and civilian personnel are currently assigned to the RPA program, representing nearly 5% of the Air Force's total capability. While Americans may be queasy about the disembodied technology's unintended consequences — civilian deaths overseas, stress on the homefront — surveys have shown that we generally support the strikes themselves.
Base and squadron commanders say the RPA program is on track to become one of the Air Force’s largest divisions. In fact, for the first time ever, drones were responsible for more than half of the weapons dropped by the U.S. on Afghanistan last year. New recruits and pilots transferring to the drone program from other aircraft all pass through Holloman, sooner or later.
I first meet Crystal, petite and curvy, in the flickering, cave-like darkness of an RPA training room in one of Holloman's many low-slung, nondescript buildings. Long brown hair frames her smiling eyes, button nose, and dusting of freckles. Airmen at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada used to call her "Mama Bear."
"If they got in trouble or were having marital problems, they knew I was the one to go to," she says.
Crystal, call sign C-Rod, and Luis, call sign L-Rod, met 13 years ago as enlisted aircrew. After years of deployments, sometimes together and sometimes apart, they got pregnant and decided to take RPA sensor operator assignments at Creech. In the RPA cockpit, pilots fly the plane and sensor operators control the camera eye; their missions are carried out in close coordination with intelligence experts and distant ground forces.
"It will be high stress, but we’ll get to see our baby every day," they reasoned. Crystal completed her training when Bianca was nine-months old; for the next three years, she and Luis worked the same 12-hour shift schedule.
"We got to fly combat, drive home, and talk about what we went through, and see our daughter together," she says. "I would review the nanny cam after our shift, to make sure it was normal. Maybe we couldn’t tuck her in at night, but we were there in the morning, or vice versa."
On their drive home, she and Luis would share stories and commiserate, within the bounds of their classified clearances. "You have to let the good days outweigh the bad," she says. "One of the missions I had was for a Marine whose leg got cut off. [The enemy was] trying to use his leg as a way to say, hey, we killed this guy. Like a propaganda kind of thing." With help from her aircraft’s watchful camera eye, Marines were able to reclaim the leg and prevent it from being used as a war trophy. "Little things like that can even out the bad days."
Not everyone who worked for the drone program was able to maintain Crystal's sense of perspective. "You would see families fall apart, and marriages fall apart," she says. In the United States, she observes, we tend to lead busy, hectic lives: "Adding combat to that can be tricky. There’s not a lot of decompression."
Former Creech operator Brandon Bryant, who logged 6,000 hours in the sensor seat, has become one of the most outspoken critics of the program. "I felt disconnected from humanity," he told German publication Der Spiegel. In a GQ profile, he revealed that he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and expressed remorse for the kills he executed, per his orders. "I’ve had a soul-crushing experience," he said.
Crystal doesn’t fly combat any more. She was forced to retire early, after developing rheumatoid arthritis. When Luis got orders to transfer to Holloman, Crystal applied for a job as a civilian contractor. Now, for the first time in years, they have found a semblance of normal work and normal life. Although some military lawyers have questioned the legality of embedding civilian contractors in roles that are core to the RPA mission, the practice continues, presenting opportunities for trained specialists like Crystal who are interested in working more regular hours and avoiding deployments.
"I’ve considered doing other things," she says. "I always come back to this—it’s what I like, it’s what I know."
"Normal" is not a word typically associated with flying military aircraft. Quite the opposite: In films, our culture has exalted pilots as swaggering daredevils in leather jackets, bent on speed and glory, from Chuck Yeager and the “Right Stuff” generation of airborne pioneers to the Jedi knights of “Star Wars” navigating the cosmos as they battle the dark side of the Force. "You don’t have time to think up there," says Maverick, the brash U.S. Navy pilot iconicized by Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.” "If you think, you’re dead."
RPAs corrode that narrative. If the pilot of popular mythology is intuitive and independent, the pilot of the RPA era must be analytical and collaborative. He (or sometimes she) must be comfortable multitasking, effective at communicating within and across teams, and capable of continually learning on the job. He or she may have a family to support, and the desire to be present at Little League games and piano recitals.
Indeed, the daily reality for RPA pilots, as well as sensors, stands in stark contrast to the Maverick of myth. RPA crew members must not just think but think out loud in coordination with other pilots, troops on the ground, and intelligence officers. "What differentiates the elite performers is that they tend to score higher on verbal abilities," Maj. Emily Skinner, an aeromedical operational psychologist, says of RPA pilots. "Their verbal conceptual reasoning is higher, and they also tend to perform higher on measures of information processing speeds and visual memory."
An MQ-1B Predator, left, and an MQ-9 Reaper taxi to the runway in preparation for takeoff June 13, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.U.S. Air Force photo
The new Maverick represents the future of work in a fully global world dominated by complex machines, complex communications, and fluid, remote teams. A body of economic research produced over the last 15 years suggests that organizations are shifting to a model of work characterized by continuous learning and flat teams with complementary skill sets. In this model there is room for autonomy and improvisation, but it takes place in the context of managerial surveillance and shared goals. The military, though still wedded to its lock-step hierarchies, is not immune to the trend. And RPA crews, despite their image as video gamers operating in the dark, are arguably one of the best case studies for how the future of work will affect war and conflict.
I went to Holloman to better understand this contemporary flight crew.
Darkness envelops my Texas-size rental car on the 90-mile drive up Route 54 from El Paso to Alamogordo as distant radio stations scratch through the speakers. Ahead and behind, the four-lane road is eerily empty; overhead, military airspace stretches far and wide. Later I learn that soldiers at neighboring Fort Bliss use the territory surrounding the highway for military exercises, sometimes in coordination with the Air Force.
I arrive in town after midnight, the last to check in at the Holiday Inn Express. The neon welcome of Alamogordo’s fast food strip glows at the edges of the motel blinds as I drift to sleep.
The next morning, Holloman’s public affairs team takes me through base security and drives me to a hangar with the two most popular RPA models on display. The MQ-1, also known as the Predator, sits beside its larger, younger cousin, the MQ-9, or Reaper. Up close, they’re slender-winged birds of prey wrapped in ossified carbon composite, with high-resolution cameras for eyes and connective computers for brains.
"They’re really resilient," says a member of the maintenance crew, back from a deployment in Italy, as we walk around the MQ-1’s tail. His squadron overseas named one plane Thor and another the Rabbit Killer, after a memorable runway encounter with one of the little animals. "I want to say the plane won that battle. It messed up the rabbit pretty good."
The U.S. military has been testing remotely piloted aerial devices since 1918, when the Army developed the Kettering bug, a biplane equipped with a gyroscope. The Kettering, which was never used in combat, was designed to haul 180 pounds of explosives and dive-bomb close-range targets. Decades passed before the Air Force activated its first RPA squadron in 1995, for intelligence missions in Kosovo. By 2005, RPAs were logging 40,000 flight hours per year. Last year those total flight hours hit over 368,000, according to the Pentagon, with some of the Air Force’s active-duty RPA pilots flying upwards of 900 hours — meanwhile, fighter pilots in manned aircraft typically max out at 300 hours per year. That extra RPA effort has kept the Air Force’s five dozen Predators and Reapers in the sky almost continuously, but at great cost to retention and morale. RPAs can stay aloft for days at a time; when they land, refueling, rearming, and routine maintenance take less than an hour to complete. In short, the machines are reliable but the humans are breaking down — and this has helped fuel the program's difficulty retaining team members.
"Look, the RPA community has been abused for about eight years now," Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, told Holloman airmen at an assembly last year in response to an audience question about RPA operator stress and turnover. "We’ve got to the get the training pipelines right. If we don’t get past training fewer people than we lose here, the math just doesn’t work."
Last summer, to alleviate the strain on chronically overworked pilots and sensors, the Air Force began offering annual bonuses of up to $15,000.
"There’s no other weapons system right now that has been tasked on such a continual basis as the remotely piloted aircraft," says Col. Robert E. Kiebler, a compact former A-10 pilot who switched to RPAs in 2007 and now serves as Holloman’s base commander. His office is outfitted with furniture that looks like it came out of the Colonial Williamsburg catalog, the dark-stained wood contrasting with stucco walls and Native American art.
During the two and a half years he served as a squadron commander at Creech, Kiebler says, the squadron as a whole "didn’t have a single down day—that was birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July." There were no days that every member of the team got off. The demanding schedule has "absolutely" limited the RPA community’s ability to develop a culture of its own: "It’s very hard to have a picnic or a sports day or things like that when your squadron is responsible for 24/7 operations." This situation isn't unique to the RPA program, but its work culture is particularly important when you consider the long hours these drone pilots and sensors are working.
Like many of the pilots training at Holloman, Kiebler came to the Predator with manned, airborne aircraft experience. "Going from an A-10 to an MQ-1, I think the hardest thing is [losing] that physiological reaction, the seat of the pants feel" of being in the air, he says. With the RPA, "You’re taking three dimensions and you’re squashing that down into two dimensional displays in the ground control station."
He also sees a difference in the training tempo. "On A-10, I flew as a wingman. I learned and I gained judgment by watching the flight lead," he says. "For our folks [in the RPA program], they are out there making those decisions very quickly after leaving training."
Photo by Ainsley O'Connell
After lunch at the base bowling alley, I get my first chance to observe training in action on the simulators. I brush aside the plastic curtain hanging in the tall doorway and enter a dim, high-ceilinged room with pockets of stacked screens. Pairs of pilots and sensors sit in brown leather armchairs, hands poised for action, eyes alert; instructors in headsets stand at their shoulders. The gentle hum of cooling fans wafts through the room, whiting out private conversations.
At a station in the back corner, instructor Jonny, call sign Woogie, invites me to take a seat on the pilot’s side. The leather is still warm.
"Fence yourself in," he tells me, shorthand for getting comfortable in a new station.
I lean back in the chair and try to parse the bewildering array of feeds and controls in front of me. To the left, I have my radio frequencies and a chat room for messaging with intelligence specialists and troops on the ground. In the center of my station, I have a map showing my flight path, a video feed from the RPA camera, touch screens displaying data from the plane’s instruments, and two keyboards. Radio controls are to my right, between me and my sensor, or "S.O." Students going through training at Holloman spend at least 40 hours in these chairs.
The simulator is currently set to mimic the experience of flying an MQ-9. Woogie points out my speed and altitude, my engine and electronics and data, and my missiles. Autopilot is on, maintaining my altitude, but the plane’s route is up to me.
"We’ve got the mountains, we’ve got the woods, we’ve got the desert," Woogie says, nodding to the map. Today, everything I experience will be a virtual simulation. Students who master the "sim" graduate to training flights, with a real bird in the sky nearby, above the land I drove through on my way to the base. At that stage, lessons sometimes involve games designed to bring conflict zone experiences to life. During semi-annual practice exercises, for example, actors on the ground — many of them veterans who volunteer to participate — bring tape recorders into the field and play gunfire tracks to go along with the pyrotechnics. RPA trainees back at the base can hear the sound effects on their radios, much as they would if they were talking with a JTAC (joint terminal attack controller) managing aircraft from the ground in Afghanistan or Iraq.
I take a stab at part one of pilot training: flying and turning. With my hand on the HOTAS (hands-on throttle and stick) I roll right, and then trim the turn, watching as the digital plane on my map screen dots forward through the imagined air space. Pilots who have mastered the fundamentals move on to learn more advanced positioning techniques, communications protocols, and ultimately reconnaissance.
Crystal has been sitting behind me and observing all the while. I cede my seat to a crew scheduled to practice a series of emergency protocols, and join her in the shadows. We watch as an instructor volleys a series of challenges at the trainees: low gas, engine out, engine oil temperature limit exceeded. She and Woogie narrate the session in response to my questions. In the lull of the shimmering screens, time seems to slow down, and suddenly I realize that my assigned escort from the public affairs office is glancing anxiously at the clock while Crystal and I chat about her husband, her daughter, and her deployment overseas.
"When you’re on shifts over there," she says, "time doesn’t really matter."
Early the next morning I join a training flight. My instructor is Fred, call sign Goose. He’s the father of three daughters, a cancer survivor, and the chief evaluator at Holloman, with thousands of hours of flight time in the MQ-1 and MQ-9. I ask what it takes to be successful in the training course.
"You have to be able to receive criticism," he says. "Aviation is not a touchy-feely world. I have to be able to tell you, you stink."
I take a gulp of my second coffee: No "Mama Bear" guide today.
Our pre-briefing takes place in a windowless meeting room lined with maps and whiteboards, where we’re joined by a sensor instructor and sensor trainee. The sensor operator instructor has neatly printed the meeting agenda on the whiteboard, including a review of the weather conditions and the learning objectives for the flight. Today’s lesson focuses on the basics: target acquisition and picture optimization.
Afterward, we stop by the command center. There are 10 flat screens on the side wall, each displaying the video feed of a Predator or Reaper currently in the air. Goose goes over the pre-flight checklist with the desk, and then hands me a borrowed headset: It's time to fly.
Outside, the desert light is pale and gentle, the base still quiet. We walk past the parking lot and enter a high-security area surrounded by a tall fence. Here, our assigned ground control station, or GCS, is housed in a military shipping container painted the color of sand, with a small wind vane affixed to the roof and cables and vents sprouting from its sides. According to protocol, the crew taking over knocks twice to gain entry. Goose asks me to do the honors. I get two knocks in reply, and the door opens from within.
I blink as my eyes adjust and the pilot and sensor stations at the far end of the container come into focus. Dark gray carpeting covers the walls, and the stale air smells of dried sweat. The outgoing crew departs as our MQ-9 coasts at 26,500 feet above military-owned land, and we take our seats along with the sensor.
Photo by Ainsley O'Connell
Fred guides the plane to a configuration of stacked shipping containers and lets the sensor practice zooming in and out on various targets. The image quality is good enough to make out the ribbing on the containers and the tumbleweeds rolling by. A small desert bird flits at the edge of a ragged hole in one of the containers, the mark of a weapon dropped in a training exercise.
"Air sense is like an internal clock," Goose says, clearly at ease in the pilot’s seat. For fun, he executes a "snowplow": Flying the camera directly over a target with the camera pointed straight down. Raytheon-made RPA cameras, which were originally designed to sit on top of helicopters, careen out of control for several seconds when forced to look directly at the ground. The video feed flickers and shimmies as he tricks the gimbals: "There’s your nadir." LOSS OF DATA, the screen announces, and then returns to normal several seconds later.
Missile practice comes next. We fly over a ghost village built for training purposes, complete with a church and a mosque with a gold dome. The dome makes it easy for beginners: In Afghanistan, Goose says, you find the mosques by "looking for loudspeakers."
"First time you squeeze the trigger, it’s the most intense adrenaline rush you’ll have in your life," he says. "If you miss, it’s a big deal. You’re letting your country and your squadron down. Your legs start shaking out of control."
The S.O. instructor asks his trainee to practice hitting a parked truck near the village. Goose maneuvers the MQ-9 while the sensor locks his crosshairs on the target. Part of the RPA pilot craft involves positioning the plane such that the sensor is correcting his aim in one dimension, rather than two, while the missile is in motion.
Goose eyes the calculator that estimates the time between the missile’s sonic boom and its strike, the lower the better. Before it was at nearly half a minute; now it reads 1.7 seconds. "Weapon away. Time, 30 seconds," he says.
The trainee sensor continually reestablishes his track on the truck.
"Three, two, one. Splash. Cease." There are no weapons loaded on our plane today, but it's clear to the crew, based on their displays, that the simulated missile has hit its intended target.
When the lesson is complete, it’s my turn in the sensor seat. We’re looking down on a nearby highway with toy-size cars and trucks zipping in and out of the frame. My first task sounds simple enough: Pick a car and follow it. But the moment I touch the controls the camera lurches up and to the left. I take a breath, and try to focus on making more subtle movements. After some practice I’m able to trace the diagonal with zig-zag jerks that keep me relatively on course.
I zoom out. "Count the trucks," Goose says, nodding at a staged convoy in the distance. I try to zoom in and follow the line of vehicles. It looks like ... 12?
"Zoom in again," he says.
Of course. The trucks are interspersed with tanks, and my count is off by at least half a dozen.
"Let’s hit one of those tanks," he says, holding the plane’s position. I try to get a lock on the nearest one, but I keep centering on the border between the desert wilds and the road, where light meets dark. Tracking technology relies on color contrast, and I’ve latched onto a strong edge.
Finally, I’m able to center on the tank. With the crosshairs in place, I engage the laser and hold as Goose counts down. It’s a long 30 seconds. I imagine Crystal experiencing the tense wait of these same seconds, shift after shift, week after week, month after month.
"You shaking yet?" the student sensor says with a grin.
I adjust the crosshairs as they drift to the right, my shoulders tense.
"Pick a single pixel on the top of the tank," the student advises. Only a few seconds to go, and then splash. I hit the tank, but only just.
"You have a lot of time," says the S.O. instructor. "If you don’t panic, you’re fine." He takes the seat to demonstrate his "golden hands," words of praise for sensor skill. Passenger cars, 18-wheelers — he tracks the unsuspecting vehicles on a nearby military highway with ease while zooming in and out. Once you’ve spent months tracking motorbikes on Afghanistan’s winding mountain roads, sensors tell me, American highways are a piece of cake.
Airman Ryan, a student sensor operator from the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, practices tactical operations during a MQ-1 simulator mission.U.S. Air Force photo
And in fact this is the easy part, hard as it was for me to execute. The challenges facing pilots and sensors have less to do with the hard skills the jobs require, and more to do with team dynamics and psychology. In a combat situation there are numerous other forces on the ground and in the air, plus the armchair quarterback presence of intelligence teams and senior Pentagon officials.
"Flying the airplane has to become secondary. Mission has to become primary," Goose says.
That mission used to comprise intelligence gathering and assassination-style attacks directed by the Central Intelligence Agency. But increasingly, and particularly with the more powerful MQ-9, Air Force RPAs are playing the role of traditional manned airframes: Protecting forces on the ground, and using firepower when necessary. Part of that shift is the result of outcry over drone strikes in the countries that have been their primary target. But another part of that evolution reflects a deliberate strategy on the part of the RPA community, according to Timothy Cullen, Ph.D., a fighter pilot and lieutenant colonel. Cullen’s (heavily redacted) 2011 MIT dissertation on the Reaper’s "humans and machines" argues that RPA pilots and sensors have been fighting "to transform themselves from hidden automatons pushing buttons in dark rooms to empowered and adaptable" team members. Operators who fail to take on the mantle of decision-maker are dismissed by their own peers as "stick monkeys" and "chat monkeys," dumb cogs in a smart system.
"RPA operators were not satisfied with one-way connections with other humans and machines to accomplish a mission," Cullen writes. "They sought interactive dialog with them in a form they could anticipate, understand, and evaluate so they could influence events on the battlefield and transform themselves into war fighters."
The instructors I interviewed at Holloman further substantiated that conclusion.
"We’ve been called for because we make it so much safer for civilians and military on the ground," says Jon, call sign Data, an MQ-1 pilot instructor with angular features and forceful confidence. "We are absolutely game-changing." He and an MQ-9 instructor named Scott, call sign Spear, join me in a barren conference room down the hall from the sims.
"My whole family is Army," Data says. "So when I’m protecting Army, it’s like I’m protecting my family." Like many of the RPA operators I met, he spoke with pride about alleviating the burdens facing troops on the ground. "I went in support of a convoy who got stuck in the crossfire in Afghanistan — it was a fight between the Afghan police and some insurgents. Our guys had been up for 48 hours because they couldn’t get out. The JTAC hadn’t slept for all of that because he was the only JTAC on the ground. I can tell that dude, go to sleep, I’m watching."
"It’s a human endeavor," agrees Spear, a fresh-faced Minnesota native. "When I know that that intel bubba or that dude on the ground is fantastic at his job, I’m there for him. Those human relationships matter, they go a long way."
"And as you deal with new and different technologies, those relationships and that ability to communicate is more important," Data says. "The guy on the ground needs to know, I can’t hear your voice, but I know you and I know you’re here to protect me. One of the struggles is, how do I teach the next generation guys, especially when we have these turnover issues, to be good at communicating?"
In other words, the "air sense" or situational awareness that RPA pilots and sensors develop must go hand in hand with social awareness. David Deming, associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University, has concluded that across America, the fastest-growing jobs are highly technical and highly social. "I think of social skill conceptually as measuring your ability to read and react to other people," Deming explains. "It’s not like: Are you nice? Are you good at parties?"
In his recent working paper, published last August by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Deming demonstrates that "nearly all job growth since 1980 has been in occupations that are relatively social skill-intensive." In contrast, he writes, "Jobs that require high levels of analytical and mathematical reasoning but low levels of social interaction have fared especially poorly."
Moreover, Deming’s model encompasses all forms of non-routine social interactions, including the digital ones that characterize the RPA operator role. "I think there will still be a return to labor market social skills even for working remotely," he says.
RPA crews fit some aspects of the prevailing models for modern teamwork, as well. MIT professor Deborah Ancona, for example, argues that team performance is positively influenced by regular interactions outside routine team boundaries. "There's very compelling evidence that if you're a team that doesn't know how to reach out, you can't do the core work that needs to be done," she told MIT Technology Review. Other influential management theories, like Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson’s idea of "teaming," emphasize the importance of empowering decision-makers at the front lines as they work together to perform interdependent tasks.
U.S. Air Force photo
RPA operators, characterized as loners by the media, might seem an unlikely fit for traditional models of military teamwork, let alone models on the bleeding edge of organizational behavior. But Data and Spear emphasize that proficiency in the "operational level of warfare," military-speak for soft-skills like collaboration and communication, is what they take pride in doing well.
"I might be able to drop a bomb with the best of them, but if I can’t go work with somebody else, and do that in conjunction with an F-16 or an A-10 …" Spear says, with a shrug.
Yet if corporate teams celebrate success with high-fives and a round of drinks, the reality for RPA crews is far different.
"I have the gas to stick around and watch the aftermath," Spear says. "You’re watching the smoke and wreckage, you watch all the local villagers run—why they run toward the car I don’t know, but they always do—and start pulling out the bodies in varying states of dying, and you go to the funeral, you watch the funeral … yeah."
The room quiets.
"You learn the death traditions of different cultures, things that I never knew but that’s normal-normal in that part of the world," Spear says. "Honestly, I’ve found it to be a balance of emotions because every single time I’ve taken a life, I’ve asked myself, do I really want to do this? Have I built the case in my mind that this individual is an enemy of the United States, and is it going to better our way of life, our cause, to make him go away?"
Other pilots are less introspective. "We have hard days, but you just get over it," Woogie says of his time flying combat at Creech. "It’s not like we’re in fetal position in the shower, like Ace Ventura. We drive 40 minutes home and everybody has their own personal routines once they get home, whether it’s play video games or go to the local bar and meet up with some friends. My wife, she didn’t ask questions, that was our rule. When I’m at home, I’m at home; when I’m at work, I’m at work. Done."
Critics of the RPA program frequently tend to suggest that operators are either video gamers turned real-world, cold-blooded killers or bleeding hearts traumatized by the intimate details of the enemy lives they observe.
"Because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a ‘PlayStation’ mentality of killing," United Nations special rapporteur Philip Alston wrote in a 2010 report on extrajudicial execution.
Even realpolitik enthusiast Henry Kissinger has fueled criticism of the program. "I bet if one did an honest account, there were fewer civilian casualties in Cambodia than there have been from American drone attacks," he told NPR in 2014. But that claim is "preposterous," according to New York Times reporter Scott Shane. The 1970 bombing of Cambodia, which Kissinger oversaw as National Security Adviser to President Richard Nixon, killed at least 50,000 civilians, with some estimates coming in at 150,000 or more. "By comparison, the high-end estimates from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London of civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen totaled about 1,200 at the time that Kissinger spoke," Shane writes in “Objective Troy,” his account of President Barack Obama’s evolving drone policy.
Over the last two years the number of civilian casualties caused by RPA strikes in each of those countries has dropped to the single digits—yet if art and culture is an accurate gauge, the public’s dark fascination with drones continues to grow. Last year Anne Hathaway won rave reviews as a cocky drone pilot in a one-woman play, and the year prior Ethan Hawke starred as a drone pilot, numbed and distant, in the film “Good Kill.” There is abstract photography of drones in flight, an Instagram account devoted to the landscapes of drone strike targets, and a Twitter account that describes pictures of drones in computer-speak, with help from a deep learning library. “Eye in the Sky,” dubbed by critics a "riveting thriller" about drone warfare, opened in theaters earlier this month. At their best, the fictional accounts lay bare the moral complexities that drone pilots are being asked to navigate, and invite civilian viewers to weigh the same ethical questions.
Meanwhile, the rapid ascent of the RPA has alienated some within the Air Force itself.
"Traditionally in militaries, in most large organizations, when a new way of thinking comes around it doesn’t really take effect until enough time has passed that the young folks become the old folks," Data says. "We live in an era now where we just don’t have time to do that. Things changed, and even though we are changing as a service, there’s some resistance and some confusion because folks learned something in a Cold War mindset that is totally different when you have aircraft that are being remotely controlled by someone far away."
But for the troops on the ground, whose lives are directly at stake, the calculation is much simpler. "JTACs have mailed stuff back to us, crews have sent us the bomb pin," as an acknowledgement of RPA contributions, Crystal says. "I feel like the JTACs know there’s people behind the [Reapers]." To a young soldier facing the enemy on a battlefield thousands of miles from home, that human backup from RPA operators can mean the difference between life and death.
Two airmen prepare an MQ-9 Reaper for flight during exercise Combat Hammer, May 15, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.U.S. Air Force photo
For the RPA crews, the personal dangers are more ambiguous. The debate over the legality and wisdom of some RPA missions has obscured a truly revolutionary shift taking place: We can now wage war from a distance, enabling men and women in military service to work from home, so to speak. Recast Tom Cruise in the 2016 remake of “Top Gun,: and he'd perhaps be working the midnight shift, getting home in time for bowls of Cheerios with the wife and kids, and then catching up on sleep during the daylight hours. After a particularly tough mission, he might allow himself a couple of beers at Buffalo Wild Wings with his squadron buddies before making the drive from Creech back to suburban Nevada. On days off, he'd run errands at the mall, hit the gym, coach soccer. He'd experience bouts of exhaustion and cynicism, the traits that exemplify burnout, and he'd eventually encounter a fellow pilot suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. (According to Air Force research, 4% of RPA operators report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — a rate that is roughly on par with that of emergency responders, but lower than rates typical of troops returning from war zones.) Sometimes, on his way to work, Cruise might pass protesters at the base entrance, and try to stay focused on the soldiers he'd be supporting that day from his drone station. And one day, when the long, tedious, irregular hours got to be too much, he'd look to transfer to Holloman to become an instructor — or leave the Air Force entirely. Job prospects in the civilian drone industry, despite its many controversies, are trending positive.
After all, as Spear points out, even "Domino’s, they want to deliver pizzas with these things."
Despite the complications of a career tethered to the RPA program, Crystal generally feels good about her life at the dissolving line between combat zone and civilian routine.
After retiring from the military and moving the family to Alamogordo, she took a year off from work to consider her options while Bianca was in half-day pre-kindergarten. "It was really nice," she says, but hardly peaceful — Bianca loves to play with friends and be around other people. "Sometimes we have to tell her, it’s okay to read a book, watch a movie, have some quiet time."
She gained respect for stay-at-home moms, but decided to follow her own path by signing on to become a sensor instructor. "I’m contributing to the household, and I enjoy it personally — seeing airmen come from nothing to going into combat," she says. "I used to feel kind of bad — I can’t pick up Bianca until 5 p.m. At the same time, she’s seeing a strong woman who’s working, who’s contributing, and still running a household and being a good mom. Same with her dad: He does the after school pickups, he does it all too. She sees the teamwork."
She laughs. "I can’t always go on field trips, but I think that’s okay." The students at Holloman need her, too. And they have a lot to learn.
Ainsley O'Connell writes about technology, education, and design. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.
This article originally appeared on “Fast Company.”
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