Monday, November 02, 2009

War as a 9-to-5 job

Picture this: You're at the controls of a Predator drone in a trailer somewhere, remotely piloting the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over a suspected al Qaeda hideout. You watch on the monitor as a few dozen US Marines close on the bad guys. Out of nowhere, a group of al Quaeda jihadis opens fire on the Marines with AK-47s and RPGs. You watch a couple of friendlies go down and you hear the frantic calls for air support on the radio. Your sensor operator has locked his laser on the bad guys' position and you wait for permission to engage. After a few tense minutes of listening to the radio chatter you're cleared in, and you launch a Hellfire missile on the target. The image on your screen is heat-sensitive, and you see a big plume of white blossom and after it clears, you can pick out the body parts - still warm against the relatively cool background - glowing on the screen. With little time to reflect on the carnage, you receive the order to fire on the building al Qaeda is using for a hideout. You release a second Hellfire aimed at the building. After performing battle damage assessment and post-mission debrief, you exit the trailer and drive home, where your wife meets you at the door to discuss little Johnny's disappointing report card.

A lot of people don't know that many of the pilotless drone missions flown in Iraq and the Af-Pak theatres are actually piloted not from a ground station in the theatre itself, but from an Air Force Base in Nevada. Creech AFB is home of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing which operates many of the Predator and Reaper drones over targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Stars and Stripes has an interesting article about the unforeseen problems this can bring upon families.
Call it combat as shift work, a new paradigm of commuter warfare that is blurring the historical understanding of what it means to go off to battle. And the strain of the daily whiplash transition between bombs and bedtime stories, coupled with the fast-increasing workload to meet relentlessly expanding demand, is leading to fatigue and burnout for the ground-based controllers who drive the drones.

“We have 5,000 years of one type of warfare and only a couple of years of this new kind,” said P.W. Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.” “These guys are simultaneously at home and at war. It may be that human psychology isn’t designed for that. We don’t know yet.”
The Air Force is working on programs now to help families deal with this odd new kind of combat stress, but this isn't as new as it sounds.

During the Yugoslavian conflicts of the 1990s, combat air missions were flown over the Balkans from Aviano Air Base in Italy. Many of those missions were flown by pilots who weren't deployed, but were "permanent party" - stationed at Aviano and accompanied by their families on their tour of duty there. I recall reading articles back then about the unique type of stress faced by those pilots.

Technology is a wonderful thing, but it's often a double-edged sword.


Mark said...

Just so you know, UAV is out... the approved acronym is RPV - remotely piloted vehicle.

This is the Air Force... so there MUST be a pilot, even if he's in a nice office in Fargo...

Ayrdale said...

Yes, it's incredible, leading eventually to all "good guy" combatants staying at home doing a 9 to 5.

Eric said...

Yeah, but writing "remotely piloting the remotely-piloted vehicle" would have sounded awkward.