Drone Pilots: We Don’t Get No Respect

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Air Force / Senior Airman Nadine Y. Barclay

Air Force personnel hunting targets from a Predator ground-control station

At least that’s the word from Air Force Major Dave Blair – himself an MQ-1 Predator instructor pilot – in the latest issue of Air & Space Power Journal. As technology changes warfare, he argues, the military needs to change, too. The Air Force isn’t welcoming its growing workforce of remotely-piloted aircraft – RPA – personnel. That foot-dragging, he argues, threatens to “poison” relations between those who fly in cockpits over Afghanistan and those who fly from desks in New Mexico:

…what is the differential risk between 10,000 feet and 10,000 miles in current conflicts? When a manned aircraft with two spare engines scrapes the top of a combat zone, well outside the range of any realistic threat, why do we consider that scenario “combat” yet deem a Predator firing a Hellfire in anger “combat support”?

Ouch. He better be careful, lest some flyboy doctor his Jeremiah Weed post-mission.

Technology changes the risks incurred by pilots, Blair notes. Should that be reversed?

Recalling one particularly vociferous (and inebriated) F-22 pilot, who emphatically asserted that “fighting a war via video teleconference isn’t very honorable,” we might say the same for firing a missile beyond visual range from a fighter cloaked with stealth technology. It would be hard to imagine that the same individual would feel compelled to activate his radar transponder upon contact with the enemy, just to restore honor to his kill by mitigating his technological defenses. The decentralized control system of the Predator fits no less well in the category of technological defenses.

As for personal security, RPA operators — unlike many pilots — are not named in Air Force press releases, for their own safety:

I do not believe that RPA operators are in less danger than their manned counterparts. In fact, I assert that it may well be the other way around. Recall that the individuals killed in the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 on the Pentagon received the Purple Heart, a combat medal. This war is global, and our enemies have global reach as well. If we found ourselves in our enemies’ position, would we spend the time and attract attention attempting to purchase a high-profile missile when a terror attack on RPA operators in the continental United States would produce better results? God forbid that scenario comes to pass, but I argue strongly that the differential risk of being an RPA operator in this war is at least that of an in-theater pilot.

Blair wraps up by noting only the pilots who actually fly aircraft, and not drone jockeys, are eligible for combat medals. “The Department of Defense’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap predicts a force made up almost entirely of RPAs by the middle of this century,” he concludes. “On the current trajectory, the only Air Medals will be the ones in history books.”