Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Interview with a U.S. Air Force drone pilot: It is, oddly, war at a very intimate level

By Daniel Rothenberg Best Defense guest columnist “There’s an insatiable appetite for RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) right now. When RPAs were first deployed they were so new that the leadership didn’t realize how popular and successful they would become. Initially, RPAs didn’t draw in a cadre of fighter pilots. But then, things began to change ...

By Daniel Rothenberg

Best Defense guest columnist

“There’s an insatiable appetite for RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) right now. When RPAs were first deployed they were so new that the leadership didn’t realize how popular and successful they would become. Initially, RPAs didn’t draw in a cadre of fighter pilots. But then, things began to change and you saw fighter pilots, bomber pilots, and others who brought with them a lot of experience flying RPAs. Now, we’re at the point where RPA pilots are getting the most combat experience of anyone. In my opinion, a lot of the most significant work is being done in the RPA community and that’s drawing in the top-tier guys. There’s pride associated with flying RPAs.

“The important thing for me is the twenty-year-old with the rifle on the ground, sleeping in a ditch. That’s why we do this job. If I can be more successful supporting that soldier, then that’s what I want to do, day in and day out. Would I like to be flying an F-22 around and doing loops and rolls and things? Sure, absolutely. But I find what I do now to be more meaningful than anything else I could think of.

“The RPA is remotely operated, but it’s very much a manned aircraft. There are a lot of people involved in the operation of an RPA, in fact, more than for a regular airplane. You need classic pilot training to fly an RPA. Absolutely. We have a stick, we have a rudder; you’re flying an airplane, you’re just doing it remotely. All the same skills are necessary. You have to worry about the traditional things that concern pilots like altitude de-confliction and airspace de-confliction. In addition, you need the ability to manage and disseminate information and to deal with different scenarios with other individuals and other aircraft. You also need know who needs information ‘X’ and who needs information ‘Y’ and how do I get it to them? How do I make sure they understand what they need to know? And, how do I give it to them in the simplest form?

“Flying an RPA is more like being a manager than flying a traditional manned aircraft, where a lot of times your focus is on keeping the shiny side up; keeping the wings level, putting the aircraft where it needs to be to accomplish the mission. In the RPA world, you’re managing multiple assets and you’re involved with the other platforms using the information coming off of your aircraft.

“You could use the term ‘orchestrating’; you are helping to orchestrate an operation.

“We have several different communication pieces that we use to talk to those on the ground just like with a regular aircraft. In addition, there are other systems that we use to talk to other aircraft and to network with other individuals. We do what we call CRM, cockpit resource management. That is the ability to take in a lot of information and disseminate it to where it needs to go. There could be fifteen to twenty people that are using the information that’s coming off an RPA at any given time, live while we’re flying.

“People talk about RPAs as if they’re like a videogame. We hear that all the time, “You play videogames for a living.” Well, people do not die in videogames. And, you’re not able to save people’s lives in videogames. I can’t cause an aircraft to have a collision with another aircraft in a videogame. Flying RPAs is simply not a videogame.

“Physically, you don’t have the sensation of flying. I think that’s pretty obvious to most people, but then many people assume that to fly airplanes we need to look outside, to see the world around us. And, most of the time, that’s not really the case most of the time. 

“We use the same navigation system to fly RPAs as with traditional aircraft. However, RPA missions can extend far longer, which is one of the major benefits of using these systems. In an F-16, a mission is around two hours, but with an RPA you’re flying twenty plus hours. You can’t argue with those efficiencies. Still, it is exhausting. And, there are often multiple pilots for a mission. It’s odd because you have several different pilots flying one RPA on any given mission. For a pilot, this is a paradigm shift.

“Because of the length of time that you’re over any certain area you’re able to engage in lengthy communications with individuals on the ground. You build relationships. Things are a little more personal in an RPA than in an aircraft that’s up for just a few hours. When you’re talking to that twenty year old with the rifle for twenty-plus hours at a time, maybe for weeks, you build a relationship. And with that, there’s an emotional attachment to those individuals.

“You see them on a screen. That can only happen because of the amount of time you’re on station. I have a buddy who was actually able to make contact with his son’s friend over in the AOR [area of responsibility]. If you don’t think that’s going to make you focus, then I don’t know what will.

“Many individuals that have been over there have said, ‘You know, we were really happy to see you show up’; ‘We knew that you were going to keep us from being flanked’; ;We felt confident in our ability to move this convoy from ‘A’ to ‘B’ because you were there.’ The guy on the ground and the woman on the ground see how effective we are. And it gives them more confidence.

“Sometimes, by chance, we meet face-to-face with the individuals who were on the ground while we were in the air. Somebody will start talking about where they were or what operation they were involved with and I’ll say, ‘Really? What time were you there?’ And, then through the conversation, I’ll find out that the person was part of the same operation.

“Sometimes we’ll meet someone whose life we saved.

“Once, I met someone like that at a Little League baseball game. You just start talking about the geographical area and the time and then we pieced together that I was there and I was providing over-watch for the person while he was on the ground. And, he said, ‘Thank you.’

“When you see a person who is at a baseball game now because you were doing your job, well, words cannot describe the feeling. It’s uplifting. Every day I leave work I feel a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride.

“This is a strange dynamic in RPA operations. I think it makes people more focused on the mission. Does it cause you to be more emotionally invested? Absolutely. That’s the human aspect of it. That is the man-in-the-loop aspect of it. In some ways drone use is more human from the pilot’s perspective, which is kind of ironic.

“Flying an RPA, you start to understand people in other countries based on their day-to-day patterns of life. A person wakes up, they do this, they greet their friends this way, etc. You become immersed in their life. You feel like you’re a part of what they’re doing every single day. So, even if you’re not emotionally engaged with those individuals, you become a little bit attached. I’ve learned about Afghan culture this way. You see their interactions. You’re studying them. You see everything.

“In a traditional manned aircraft you drop ordinance and leave. You know that there was a big bang, but that’s it. With an RPA, you see these individuals and their interactions with people prior to an engagement and after the engagement. We see the aftermath. We see what happens next. That more than anything draws an emotional response. 

“They are human beings, right? That is the bottom line, so it affects you to watch the impact of a kinetic strike. You have to provide the battle damage assessment. We do that quite often and it can take a long time. You might even watch the burial and see the ceremony. We’re not disconnected from what’s happening. We’re not playing videogames. With RPAs, you grasp your enormous level of responsibility. You witness it all.

“Targeting with RPAs is more intimate. It is war at a very intimate level.

“Someone might ask, ‘How could you not be upset by that?’ But you have to step back and say, ‘There’s a reason these individuals were targeted.’ The strike may be a response to the fact that many twenty-year-olds have died. The person targeted may have been involved with building IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or suicide vests. Whatever the case may be, there was a reason that person was targeted. I think it’s important to keep that in mind. So, do I feel sorry for that person? No. But, we’re dealing with human beings. Just because you’re separated by technology does not mean you are separated emotionally.

“The biggest misunderstanding within the military about being an RPA pilot is that it’s not stressful. Probably, the lack of personal risk for the pilot has a lot to do with that attitude.

“There are unique stresses to flying an RPA, especially the lack of transition time between a mission and regular life. When I deploy in a manned aircraft, I am on a base for months. And when I’m there, that’s my world. I go fly a mission. I come back to the base. I talk about the mission and then I plan for the next mission. Then I go fly that mission, come back and talk about it. Every once in a while I’ll get on the phone with my wife or kids and try to stay in touch with what is going on at home. But for the most part my world is the mission and the war.

“When you’re doing RPA operations, you’re mentally there, wherever there is. You’re flying the mission. You’re talking to folks on the ground. You’re involved in kinetic strikes. Then you step out the ground control station (GCS) and you’re not there anymore.

“One of the strangest sensations I have is when I step out of the GCS and realize, ‘Ok, I’m not there.’

“I’ll go meet my wife for lunch. I’ll step out from doing a mission and go off to my child’s soccer game. 

“Those are two very, very different worlds. And you’re in and out of those worlds daily. I have to combine those two worlds. Every single day. Multiple times a day. So, I am there and then I am not there and then I am there again. The time between leaving the GCS and, say, having lunch with my wife could be as little as ten minutes. It’s really that fast.

“So, how do I — as an individual, as a human being — operate in these two very different worlds on a daily basis? You learn to deal with it. You learn to compartmentalize. You learn to take that mission and put it away to revisit at a later time.

“Inevitably, RPAs will change war. What we will have ten years from now is going to make things that we are doing today seem almost primitive. What we call pilots today will change. The skillsets necessary to be a pilot will be vastly different ten years from now. Maybe we won’t event continue to call them pilots. And what’s going to happen twenty years from now? It’s going to be dramatically different.

“However, there will always be a need for the man-in-the-loop. There’s always going to be people involved, making decisions for all this to work. You’ve got to bring it back down to what we are trying to accomplish. If we’re talking about war, just war, then the bottom line is that we’re trying to support the twenty-year-old with the rifle on the ground. That is what matters.

“Personally, I am excited to see what the future holds. I am very proud to be part of the most technologically advanced air force in the world. We don’t take it lightly. We do not take the application of firepower lightly.”

Daniel Rothenberg teaches at Arizona State University, where he co-directs the Center on the Future of War. This interview was conducted and edited by Rothenberg and will appear in the forthcoming book Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy, co-edited with Peter Bergen.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1