Are Pilots Deserting Washington’s Drone War?

By Pratap Chatterjee, executive director of CorpWatch. He is the author of Halliburton’s Army: How A Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War and Iraq, Inc. His next book, Verax, a graphic novel about whistleblowers and mass surveillance co-authored by Khalil Bendib, will be published by Metropolitan Books in 2016. Originally published at TomDispatch

The U.S. drone war across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa is in crisis and not because civilians are dying or the target list for that war or the right to wage it just about anywhere on the planet are in question in Washington. Something far more basic is at stake: drone pilots are quitting in record numbers.

There are roughly 1,000 such drone pilots, known in the trade as “18Xs,” working for the U.S. Air Force today. Another 180 pilots graduate annually from a training program that takes about a year to complete at Holloman and Randolph Air Force bases in, respectively, New Mexico and Texas. As it happens, in those same 12 months, about 240 trained pilots quit and the Air Force is at a loss to explain the phenomenon. (The better-known U.S. Central Intelligence Agency drone assassination program is also flown by Air Force pilots loaned out for the covert missions.)

On January 4, 2015, the Daily Beast revealed an undated internal memo to Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh from General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle stating that pilot “outflow increases will damage the readiness and combat capability of the MQ-1/9 [Predator and Reaper] enterprise for years to come” and added that he was “extremely concerned.” Eleven days later, the issue got top billing at a special high-level briefing on the state of the Air Force. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James joined Welsh to address the matter. “This is a force that is under significant stress — significant stress from what is an unrelenting pace of operations,” she told the media.

In theory, drone pilots have a cushy life. Unlike soldiers on duty in “war zones,” they can continue to live with their families here in the United States. No muddy foxholes or sandstorm-swept desert barracks under threat of enemy attack for them. Instead, these new techno-warriors commute to work like any office employees and sit in front of computer screens wielding joysticks, playing what most people would consider a glorified video game.

They typically “fly” missions over Afghanistan and Iraq where they are tasked with collecting photos and video feeds, as well as watching over U.S. soldiers on the ground. A select few are deputized to fly CIA assassination missions over Pakistan, Somalia, or Yemen where they are ordered to kill “high value targets” from the sky. In recent months, some of these pilots have also taken part in the new war in the Syrian and Iraqi borderlands, conducting deadly strikes on militants of ISIL.

Each of these combat air patrols involves three to four drones, usually Hellfire-missile-armed Predators and Reapers built by southern California’s General Atomics, and each takes as many as 180 staff members to fly them. In addition to pilots, there are camera operators, intelligence and communications experts, and maintenance workers. (The newer Global Hawk surveillance patrols need as many as 400 support staff.)

The Air Force is currently under orders to staff 65 of these regular “combat air patrols” around the clock as well as to support a Global Response Force on call for emergency military and humanitarian missions. For all of this, there should ideally be 1,700 trained pilots. Instead, facing an accelerating dropout rate that recently drove this figure below 1,000, the Air Force has had to press regular cargo and jet pilots as well as reservists into becoming instant drone pilots in order to keep up with the Pentagon’s enormous appetite for real-time video feeds from around the world.

The Air Force explains the departure of these drone pilots in the simplest of terms. They are leaving because they are overworked. The pilots themselves say that it’s humiliating to be scorned by their Air Force colleagues as second-class citizens. Some have also come forward to claim that the horrors of war, seen up close on video screens, day in, day out, are inducing an unprecedented, long-distance version of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

But is it possible that a brand-new form of war — by remote control — is also spawning a brand-new, as yet unlabeled, form of psychological strain? Some have called drone war a “coward’s war” (an opinion that, according to reports from among the drone-traumatized in places like Yemen and Pakistan, is seconded by its victims). Could it be that the feeling is even shared by drone pilots themselves, that a sense of dishonor in fighting from behind a screen thousands of miles from harm’s way is having an unexpected impact of a kind psychologists have never before witnessed?

Killing Up Close and Personal From Afar

There can be no question that drone pilots resent the way other Air Force pilots see them as second-class citizens. “It’s tough working night shifts watching your buddies do great things in the field while you’re turning circles in the sky,” a drone instructor named Ryan told Mother Jones magazine. His colleagues, he says, call themselves the “lost generation.”

“Everyone else thinks that the whole program or the people behind it are a joke, that we are video-game warriors, that we’re Nintendo warriors,” Brandon Bryant, a former drone camera operator who worked at Nellis Air Force Base, told Democracy Now.

Certainly, there is nothing second-class about the work tempo of drone life. Pilots log 900-1,800 hours a year compared to a maximum of 300 hours annually for regular Air Force pilots. And the pace is unrelenting. “A typical person doing this mission over the last seven or eight years has worked either six or seven days a week, twelve hours a day,” General Welsh told NPR recently. “And that one- or two-day break at the end of it is really not enough time to take care of that family and the rest of your life.”

The pilots wholeheartedly agree. “It’s like when your engine temperature gauge is running just below the red area on your car’s dashboard, but instead of slowing down and relieving the stress on the engine, you put the pedal to the floor,” one drone pilot told Air Force Times. “You are sacrificing the engine to get a short burst of speed with no real consideration to the damage being caused.”

The Air Force has come up with a pallid interim “solution.” It is planning to offer experienced drone pilots a daily raise of about $50. There’s one problem, though: since so many pilots leave the service early, only a handful have enough years of experience to qualify for this bonus. Indeed, the Air Force concedes that just 10 of them will be able to claim the extra bounty this year, striking testimony to the startling levels of job turnover among such pilots.

Most 18Xs say that their jobs are tougher and significantly more upfront and personal than those of the far more glamorous jet pilots. “[A] Predator operator is so much more involved in what is going on than your average fast-moving jetfighter pilot, or your B-52, B-1, B-2 pilots, who will never even see their target,” Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Black, a former Air Force drone pilot says. “A Predator pilot has been watching his target[s], knows them intimately, knows where they are, and knows what’s around them.”

Some say that the drone war has driven them over the edge. “How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile? How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?” Heather Linebaugh, a former drone imagery analyst, wrote in the Guardian. “When you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience.”

“It was horrifying to know how easy it was. I felt like a coward because I was halfway across the world and the guy never even knew I was there,” Bryant told KNPR Radio in Nevada. “I felt like I was haunted by a legion of the dead. My physical health was gone, my mental health was crumbled. I was in so much pain I was ready to eat a bullet myself.”

Many drone pilots, however, defend their role in targeted killings. “We’re not killing people for the fun of it. It would be the same if we were the guys on the ground,” mission controller Janet Atkins told Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “You have to get to [the enemy] somehow or all of you will die.”

Others like Bruce Black are proud of their work. “I was shooting two weeks after I got there and saved hundreds of people, including Iraqis and Afghanis,” he told his hometown newspaper in New Mexico. “We’d go down to Buffalo Wild Wings, drink beer and debrief. It was surreal. It didn’t take long for you to realize how important the work is. The value that the weapon system brings to the fight is not apparent till you’re there. People have a hard time sometimes seeing that.”

Measuring Pilot Stress

So whom does one believe? Janet Atkins and Bruce Black, who claim that drone pilots are overworked heroes? Or Brandon Bryant and Heather Linebaugh, who claim that remotely directed targeted killings caused them mental health crises?

Military psychologists have been asked to investigate the phenomenon. A team of psychologists at the School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio has published a series of studies on drone pilot stress. One 2011 study concluded that nearly half of them had “high operational stress.” A number also exhibited “clinical distress” — that is, anxiety, depression, or stress severe enough to affect them in their personal lives.

Wayne Chappelle, a lead author in a number of these studies, nonetheless concludes that the problem is mostly a matter of overwork caused by the chronic shortage of pilots. His studies appear to show that post-traumatic stress levels are actually lower among drone pilots than in the general population. Others, however, question these numbers. Jean Otto and Bryant Webber of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, caution that the lack of stress reports may only “reflect artificial underreporting of the concerns of pilots due to the career-threatening effects of [mental health] diagnoses, [which] include removal from flying status, loss of flight pay, and diminished competitiveness for promotion.”

Seeing Everything, Missing the Obvious

One thing is clear: the pilots are not just killing “bad guys” and they know it because, as Black points out, they see everything that happens before, during, and after a drone strike.

Indeed, the only detailed transcript of an actual Air Force drone surveillance mission and targeted killing to be publicly released illustrates this all too well. The logs recorded idle chatter on February 21, 2010, between drone operators at Creech Air Force base in Nevada coordinating with video analysts at Air Force special operations headquarters in Okaloosa, Florida, and with Air Force pilots in a rural part of Daikondi province in central Afghanistan. On that day, three vehicles were seen traveling in a pre-dawn convoy carrying about a dozen people each. Laboring under the mistaken belief that the group were “insurgents” out to kill some nearby U.S. soldiers on a mission, the drone team decided to attack.

Controller: “We believe we may have a high-level Taliban commander.”

Camera operator: “Yeah, they called a possible weapon on the military-age male mounted in the back of the truck.”

Intelligence coordinator: “Screener said at least one child near SUV.”

Controller: “Bullshit! Where? I don’t think they have kids out this hour. I know they’re shady, but come on!”

Camera operator “A sweet [expletive]! Geez! Lead vehicle on the run and bring the helos in!”

Moments later, Kiowa helicopter pilots descended and fired Hellfire missiles at the vehicle.

Controller: “Take a look at this one. It was hit pretty good. It’s a little toasty! That truck is so dead!”

Within 20 minutes, after the survivors of the attack had surrendered, the transcript recorded the sinking feelings of the drone pilots as they spotted women and children in the convoy and could not find any visual evidence of weapons.

A subsequent on-the-ground investigation established that not one of the people killed was anything other than an ordinary villager. “Technology can occasionally give you a false sense of security that you can see everything, that you can hear everything, that you know everything,” Air Force Major General James Poss, who oversaw an investigation into the incident, later told the Los Angeles Times.

Of course, Obama administration officials claim that such incidents are rare. In June 2011, when CIA Director John Brennan was still the White House counterterrorism adviser, he addressed the issue of civilian deaths in drone strikes and made this bold claim: “Nearly for the past year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death, because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.”

His claim and similar official ones like it are, politely put, hyperbolic. “You Never Die Twice,” a new report by Jennifer Gibson of Reprieve, a British-based human rights organization, settles the question quickly by showing that some men on the White House “kill list” of terror suspects to be taken out have “’died’ as many as seven times.”

Gibson adds, “We found 41 names of men who seemed to have achieved the impossible. This raises a stark question. With each failed attempt to assassinate a man on the kill list, who filled the body bag in his place?” In fact, Reprieve discovered that, in going after those 41 “targets” numerous times, an estimated 1,147 people were killed in Pakistan by drones. Typical was the present leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In two strikes against “him” over the years, according to Reprieve, 76 children and 29 adults have died, but not al-Zawahiri.

Deserting the Cubicle

Back in the United States, a combination of lower-class status in the military, overwork, and psychological trauma appears to be taking its mental toll on drone pilots. During the Vietnam War, soldiers would desert, flee to Canada, or even “frag” — kill — their officers. But what do you do when you’ve had it with your war, but your battle station is a cubicle in Nevada and your weapon is a keyboard?

Is it possible that, like their victims in Pakistan and Yemen who say that they are going mad from the constant buzz of drones overhead and the fear of sudden death without warning, drone pilots, too, are fleeing into the night as soon as they can? Since the Civil War in the U.S., war of every modern sort has produced mental disturbances that have been given a variety of labels, including what we today call PTSD. In a way, it would be surprising if a completely new form of warfare didn’t produce a new form of disturbance.

We don’t yet know just what this might turn out to be, but it bodes ill for the form of battle that the White House and Washington are most proud of — the well-advertised, sleek, new, robotic, no-casualty, precision conflict that now dominates the war on terror. Indeed if the pilots themselves are dropping out of desktop killing, can this new way of war survive?

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  1. Calgacus

    As Chomsky points out, and as many have forgotten or never knew, one of the causes of the US ending its war on Vietnam was the military’s refusal to fight, starting with enlisted men, but culminating in mass refusals of pilots – officers – to fly.

    1. Lambert Strether

      I did not know that. I did a smidgeon of Googling and found this, in fact from Howard Zinn:

      We should look for a peace movement to join. It will look small at first, and pitiful and helpless, but that’s how movements start. That’s how the movement against the Vietnam War started. It started with handfuls of people who thought they were helpless, thought they were powerless. But this power of the people on top depends on the obedience of the people below. When people stop obeying, they have no power. When workers go on strike, huge corporations lose their power. When consumers boycott, huge business establishments have to give in. When soldiers refuse to fight—as so many soldiers did in Vietnam, so many deserters, so many fraggings, acts of violence by enlisted men against officers in Vietnam, B-52 pilots refusing to fly bombing missions anymore—war can’t go on. When enough soldiers refuse, the government has to decide we can’t continue. So, yes, people have the power. If they begin to organize, if they protest, if they create a strong enough movement, they can change things. That’s all I want to say. Thank you.

      Had no idea about the B-52 pilots.

      1. Paul Tioxon

        Susan Schnall, a Navy lieutenant and nurse, worked in 1967 with severely wounded returning soldiers at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in California. Once she realized that she herself was employed in the war machine that trained and coaxed American teenagers to kill innocent people in Vietnam, she set out to end the American War in Vietnam. Knowing that American B-52 bombers had dropped leaflets urging Vietnamese revolutionary soldiers to desert the army, she devised the same tactic to spread anti-war views in West Coast military facilities. In February 1969, with the support of a pilot friend, she loaded an airplane with leaflets calling for a peace demonstration to be led by US troops and veterans in San Francisco in the next two days. She dropped the leaflets from several hundred meters over military bases in San Francisco, onto the USS Enterprise and on Oak Knoll Naval Hospital. Dressed in her military uniform she spoke out against the war at anti-war demonstrations. For her actions, she was tried and convicted by a general court-martial, sentenced to six months in prison and dismissed from the military.

      2. susan the other

        I did not know this either. I knew lots of GIs who came home as militant pacifists. A very wonderful evolution of intelligence. To be fantasized-pilots is an interesting position. Once removed from the actual bombing but twice reviled. So we must ask why? This is a very interesting outcome of drone reality. If the pilots can say fuck this, certainly all of us blissful civilians can say it too.

      3. JTMcPhee

        Mutiny (it’s really not a BAD thing, in a nominal democracy): One of many reasons why the military “brass” have concentrated on creating, first, a mercenary “force structure” of “volunteers” versus a sweeping-up of “those who, unlike Cheney, can’t buy or lie their way out of service, aka the draft,” and now moving on toward a fully “mechanized military” where machines, so redolent of the technology path that leads to the “Terminator” future, do the killing. (Can’t honestly call it “fighting” anymore, not in the “Global Interoperable Network-Centric Battlespace” that covers the planet with War Department-delineated, supra-national-boundary “Areas of Operation” and “Commands,” CENTCOM and AFRICOM etc., where the Battlespace Managers sit in their ergonomically ideal chairs and play soldiers with what us citizens cannot even call “our” military any more, except in the sense that we fund it, so richly that it can’t even be audited,

        The Army dusted up its “Operation Garden Plot” contingency plan in 1968, “Document Friday: “Garden Plot:” The Army’s Emergency Plan to Restore “Law and Order” to America,” . Its immediate application (much broader ones are planned for) was first to address the reactions to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, then to unlimber military hellfire on civil disturbers at the 1968 Democratic Convention., and stuff like .

        It fell to soldiers assigned to the 2nd Armored Division at Ft. Hood to be lined up to “attend to” both problems. I got to be one of them. Many were Vietnam returnees who, like myself, had more than 6 months “duty” left. (The Army, recognizing how screwed up and what “discipline problems” many Vietvets were, was “early-outing” those with less than that.) Most happened to be black, see “The Vietnam War and the Revolt of the Black GIs,” We were supposed to be trained in “riot control” and told we were going to Chicago, not, in Daley’s immortal phrase, to “create disorder, but to preserve disorder.” The Troops’ response was pretty firmly, “Sir! No Sir!”!_No_Sir!

        A brief selection of materials relating to the “unreliability” of citizen-soldiers who might take their oaths to “support and defend the Constitution” more seriously than, say, a Bush or a Cheney or a David Petraeus:

        “Fact Sheet on GI Dissent,”

        “Under the Hood,”

        “1968: The Democrats and the anti-war movement,”

        “Ft: Hood: Iraq and Afghanistan — the resurgence of antiwar cafés,”

        And for anyone interested in a lengthier exegesis from the genius of the War Department’s “Science Advisory Board,” showing what “our” military is up to (the goal of “interoperability” of most national armies and police forces under DoD command) as we sit and blog, what they have in store, and how they are going to help nominal US industries profit from global environmental collapse, here’s another fun read: “Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security,”

        Some tips there, too, for people hoping to profit from the coming miseries…

        1. Matt

          I have not forgotten that the after the fact word on the street in the summer of 1968 in St. Louis was that the plan was to roll barbed wire around the stock yards and rail yards for holding pens.

        2. NoReply

          I just wanted to add a deeply chilling note here on this topic thread for all you parents.

          I used to play video games from time to time with my teenage son, first Mario and Zelda, but then he became older and more ‘engaged’, isn’t that the military term, with massive multiplayer shooter games, …and hey, it’s his life, I’m not going to say yeah or ney, but from time to time I’d sit with him and watch as he played, just so he wouldn’t get too zomed out, or too stupid.

          Then I realized, as I listened in on the ‘chatter’, isn’t that the military term, on his headphones, that there was one voice above the rest, leading the rest, organizing the rest in assaults, using military terminology that I knew too well, and giving the other players nicknames, like rabbit and mongoose. My son was being GROOMED ONLINE by some dink LT!

          I had to think of some way to warn my son without breaking the hypnotic camaraderie of slaughter this LT had created, and finally figured out a way. I held the earphones a little away, like I’d just walked into the room, then as soon as the LT came back commanding an attack, I spoke in a deep voice that the microphone could pick up, ‘Who’s your adult friend, son?”

          The LT quick bugged out, and left the others to be slaughtered by, no doubt, his faster- bandwidth Mil buddies. And that’s how you train a youth cadre to slaughter. If your kid is addicted to MMRPGs, better start listening in, you’ll hear the military when they come online, training your kid to be a mass-murderer, just like Columbine, all those kids played MMRPGs!

          1. Matt

            Probably more likely to find a paid shill in these comments. The military and intelligence folks play these MMRPGs for RandR, probably at a much higher bandwidth than most others their age. Sean Smith in Benghazi was making on-line comments in his MMRPG the day of, and minutes before he was killed.

    2. Jim Haygood

      ‘I felt like a coward.’ — drone pilot

      The pilot is echoing a widespread social consensus that drone attacks are a lot like shooting someone in the back without even a verbal warning. Lee Harvey Oswald would have made an ace drone pilot, with his uncanny ability to hit moving targets.

      If asked what you do for a living, do you say ‘drone pilot’? These guys get tired of either dissembling, or seeing the dismayed look they get when they answer truthfully.

      No program (or Nobel peace prize) can change social disapproval of activities that are distinguishable from Mafia hits, only in that the Mafia makes sure their extralegal rubouts hit their intended target.

      1. NoReply

        …only in that the Mafia makes sure their extralegal rubouts are in turn rubbed out by others.

        Cover your tracks, Jack.

      1. Nathanael

        That, of course, would open them up to the hackers. They’re already severely at risk from hackers.

        It would be sort of fun, in a macabre way, to watch all the drones turning around and bombing the US military bases. It’s relatively likely to happen, too.

        The core problem is that the US military is run to feed the military contractors, *not* to actually win wars; as a result, nearly everything they have is junk (nobody responsible really cares whether it works, only whether it makes money for them). But for the people who the US military is fighting, it’s life or death, and they will have patriots signing up for their militaries who are actually brilliant.

  2. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

    Permanent War, with the perfect enemy, that cannot be seen and can never be defeated. Paradise Found for the Military-Surveillance-Industrial Complex, all the way from Silicon Valley to the canyons of Wall Street. A pre-crime death penalty with random victims (OK, OK, they kill their intended man or woman fully 4% of the time, according to their own numbers). And a population that fully condones it. In my day we stopped a war by going to the streets, threw out a crook President, and completely changed the society. Today? Hey, where’s my selfie stick…

    1. Ulysses

      As a kid I also participated in the anti-war movement against Vietnam. There still is an anti-war movement, as the actions of these brave friends against an upstate base that conducts drone missions demonstrates:

      Yet the sad truth is that without the draft, huge swathes of the population are able to ignore the atrocities, paid for with our tax dollars, and accept uncritically the lies about “minimal” collateral damage that the MIC puts forward.

      If you are sincerely interested in helping to grow a vigorous anti-war movement again in this country I recommend that you get in touch with these good people:

    2. NoReply

      …. In my day we stopped a war by going to the streets, threw out a crook President, then in less than a decade became so complacent that we were totally co-opted by some former Brylcreme spokesmodel and his Star Wars fetish, which we lazily condoned, even as he turned the US over to Greenspan, the S&L Bailout Cons and the Iran-Contra Bad Boys.


      There, fixed it for you.

      1. ambrit

        Yeah, I agree with L, “we?”
        I got banned from a local “corner store” in the wilds of Looziana for calling Reagan the worst President in a century. I never went back, and didn’t look back. Strangely enough, the closest to my views about that President I encountered was in a store near Talisheek run by an out and out Klansman. Go figure.

  3. rusti

    Each of these combat air patrols involves three to four drones, usually Hellfire-missile-armed Predators and Reapers built by southern California’s General Atomics, and each takes as many as 180 staff members to fly them. In addition to pilots, there are camera operators, intelligence and communications experts, and maintenance workers. (The newer Global Hawk surveillance patrols need as many as 400 support staff.)

    Something that’s struck me in recent years is how utterly baffling this would all look to an outside observer from another planet.

    “So you’ve dedicated your society’s labor, material resources, and engineering talent to building flying death robots to kill people on the other side of the planet with neither the means to pose any threat to your civilization nor (until you showed up on the scene) the desire to harm you, while simultaneously ignoring the actual threats to the ecosystems on which your lives depend? This isn’t gonna turn out well for you guys…”

    1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      That’s what Frank Zappa called “maintaining the fiction”

    2. Oregoncharles

      Although it’s very likely that there is or has been life on other planets in other solar systems, we have yet to see or hear the slightest sign of them.

      That’s because life forms with the ability to be detected from other star systems also have the ability to exterminate themselves – but apparently not the ability to refrain from doing so.

      NOT an encouraging thought.

      1. Anarcissie

        Life forms with the ability to be detected from other star systems would probably also have the ability to perceive what was going on here and therefore rigorously avoid being detected.

    3. Nathanael

      This looks bizarre from any other country on THIS planet.

      What’s going on is that the actual purpose of the system, like that of nearly everything else in the US military, is to pay money to the contractors at General Atomics, etc., and to pay all the employees. It’s the Iron Rice Bowl.

      The fact that it’s counterproductive to national interests and routinely loses wars is irrelevant. It doesn’t affect the size of the military contractors’ take-home pay.

      This is a danger to national security. It is the MIC which Eisenhower warned us about.

  4. Doug Terpstra

    Perhaps turning women and chidren into pink mist by remote is not as thrilling and fulfilling for the pilots as it is for Obama or maybe the $50 bonus doesn’t quite compensate for not collecting physical trophies — ears, fingers on a string — and the inability to piss on corpses on the battlefield.

    1. hemeantwell

      Aside from the strain of being a war criminal lacking the absolution of combat glory, one thing that stands out is how the Air Force, fully aware of the problem, is constrained in offering cash incentives to keep pilots at their joysticks in what is described as a key program. A $50 a day bonus for a 12 hour day = $4.16 hourly isn’t working. They can’t be cash-strapped, so I wonder if the problem if they’re warding off objections from the other employees. Regular pilots:

      Pay for Air Force fighter pilots varies based on experience. A pilot is considered an Air Force officer and begins as a second lieutenant. As of 2014, the annual pay at this level ranges from $33,941 to $42,703, according to the Air Force. The median pay range for level five officers is $59,656 to $101,354 per year. Fighter pilots can continue to be promoted through the ranks, with attendant salary increases.

      1. Doug Terpstra

        Yeah, the ‘proposed’ $50/day bonus struck me as a Walmartization of the military. It’s just weird, juxtaposed with “six or seven days a week of twelve hours a day” and the “extreme concern” about attrition. Obviously they’ll need a very expensive consultant to analyze the problem. Maybe instead of merely selecting targets, Obama can have a hands-on go on the JOYstick.

      2. Whine Country

        With respect to your comment about Air Force pilots’ pay, don’t forget to add that many, if not most, are working as such principally because they are either not able to get a job in the private sector or cannot live on entry level pay for what is generally available (with a regional carrier), which is about $14 per hour. Recall the plight of the young female first officer of Colgan Airlines that crashed in 2010. She was forced to live with her parents in Seattle and commute to Newark, NJ because she could not afford to pay for housing on her salary. When you trash an economy and eliminate the need to provide work for humans to live affordably, you get what we have. How long do you think it will be before the Captain on the flight deck of your flight announces: “This is your Captain. I’m on the ground in Bangladesh. Thank you for flying on Drone Airlines”. Don’t laugh. The geniuses that got us here are still in control of our future. Our job is to get over it and wait for the future prosperity that our economists have promised is just around the corner. On the subject of protest, I opine that the military is a symptom and not the real problem. Protest the destruction of our economy and our ability to provide a decent life for all, and the military problems will die of natural causes.

      3. reslez

        Drone pilots are enlisted, not officers, and make around half what officers do. Say around 25k a year for your typical E-4. Cost savings!

        1. steve dean

          Air Force only allows commisioned officers fly drones (and airplanes).

          The Army has loser restrictions and allows warrant officers to fly aircraft.

  5. Steve H

    To confuse, mix up.
    I. Suffixed basic form.
    war, from Old North French werre, war;
    2. worse, from Old English wyrsa, worse, from Germanic comparative *wers-izōn‑.
    II. Suffixed zero-grade form *wr̥s-ti‑. wurst; liverwurst, from Old High German wurst, sausage (“mixture”)

  6. Glen O

    No problem – autonomous drones will work tirelessly 24/7, and can make kill decisions with no remorse. What could possibly go wrong?

    1. Rosario

      Type in “Worlds most realistic video game AI” in the Youtube search for an interesting watch. To summarize for those that do not want to watch it, the video game series Quake had a very effective enemy AI. Quake II in particular (the subject of the video) had a neural networks AI, which since has become rather outdated in the AI world, but nonetheless it remains a complex AI for a video game. The enemies in Quake II become more effective the longer one plays the game (i.e. they get better by “learning” enemy/player movements). The individual hosting the Youtube video set up a separate server to host a Quake II game with only computer AI playing (I believe 4 in total). It ran continuously for a great deal of time because he forgot about it. Upon entering the game world after 4 years he discovered all of the computer characters were standing still. No guns firing, nothing. As his character approached them they would only look at him. Then he fired a gun at one of the characters and they all swarmed him and killed him. After dispatching with his character they returned to remaining in place. Again, not firing any guns. They “learned’ with what little inputs this artificial world gave them that the best thing to do to ensure their survival was nothing, and as a result it enhanced the capacity for the other characters to survive. When he entered the game with his character and fired on the computer player he disrupted the peace. The best thing to do was dispatch of him to ensure peace would continue.

      1. Bart Fargo

        Interesting tale, but the description and comments to the video make clear it is just 4chan creepypasta, or a fictional but realistic story designed to scare or shock, the internet version of an urban legend.

        1. Rosario

          May be so, I actually looked for a follow up and the guy had posted his DAT files (may be worth looking into deeper).
          *correction it was Quake III

          The AI behavior given a large enough data set is plausible using a pretty basic neural network set up. There wouldn’t be many inputs per computer player, character ID, # of kills, # of times killed, # of steps taken, coordinates of spawn point, coordinates of location killed, character killed by, kill character coordinates, etc. It seems very reasonable that this would be their behavior given a long enough play time. The person did say the text file was over 500 MB. That is an incredible amount of 2nd tier neural network inputs to inform a computer character as to the proper course of action, which would logically be in the computer environment, standing still and doing nothing.

  7. Sam Kanu

    The ever-so-predictable response of the sickos in charge of all this will not be to reconsider what they are doing but rather to fully automate the drones and remove the layer of pilot control. Watch and see….

    Hint would be the cursory offer of 50 bucks a day to almost nobody and no change to business as usual, nothing to address their mental healthy. That tells you they consider these people to be pure cannon fodder.

  8. QuarterBack

    Many of the points in the article may be true, but it does not address how much of the loss of pilots is a factor of competitive jobs in other venues. Deployment of UAS technology has been booming in the Homeland Security sub-agencies as well larger police departments. The changes in FAA rules also have many commercial businesses and upstarts all chasing the same labor pool. My guess is a large percentage of the exit rate of UAS pilots is from the failure of the USAF and military services to consider the day when it would not be the only game in town in its human capital planning.

    1. JTMcPhee

      So it’s just the dead hand of the market that’s in play, right? Gotta love the economist’s minds et…

  9. Nat Scientist

    Obama could earn his Nobel Peace prize by self-declaring drone warfare a war crime and an act of global terror that no non-combat human should ever fear.

    1. Llewelyn Moss

      Preview of Obama’s comments announcing that:
      “I guess I ‘war crimed’ some folks with my drone program.” [Obama smirks and winks to audience] Cue the nervous laugh track.

  10. Yonatan

    Why are the pilots resigning? Stress, certainly. Alternatively surely some are moving on to more lucrative posts in PMCs after being trained by the best in the business? Too cynical? I’m sure the PMC CEOs would love to get fully trained employees without having to pay for the training. Next stop, PMCs training pilots from 3rd party regimes to fly drones for fun and profit.

    1. CRLaRue

      Can recent medical discoveries determine if a person is suitable for this murder game?
      It appears that psychopaths have physiological differences in brain matter!
      Might explain the depravity in our leader(s)!

  11. cnchal

    Indeed if the pilots themselves are dropping out of desktop killing, can this new way of war survive?

    Soon we will hear that the Air Force has given silicon valley billions to develop an algorithm to kill people with drones, taking humans out with that equation. Mistakes will be made, innocent people will die and no one will be accountable, but eventually the algorithm will appear to be perfect. The answer is yes.

    For an example of truly messed up thinking from the post:
    Many drone pilots, however, defend their role in targeted killings. “We’re not killing people for the fun of it. It would be the same if we were the guys on the ground,” mission controller Janet Atkins told Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “You have to get to [the enemy] somehow or all of you will die.”

    1. Mel

      Isn’t that just the same attitude that we had from the guy who inspired American Sniper? I take it as a sign that, before we send people to fight a war, we should be sure that a war is what we want.

      1. cnchal

        From Paul Bracken of Yale

        What are the key drivers for technological innovation in the U.S.? . . .Yale SOM professor Paul Bracken argues that a very important player is often overlooked. “The Department of Defense is one of the biggest sources of innovation in the United States, and it has been since the early part of the Cold War. It’s referred to in Silicon Valley and in Washington, D.C., as the ‘mother of all venture capital firms,’” he said.
        . . .
        That change accelerated after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when both the funding and sense of urgency grew tremendously. Thousands of small defense-funded firms popped up, many of them clustered in a new hub. “Without anybody really noticing it, the United States built a second Silicon Valley. A Silicon Valley of defense has been created in northern Virginia—the Dulles Corridor,” Bracken said. “It’s very unlikely you would have heard of them, and they’re not in the business of advertising what they do.” Some of these firms produce weapons; others contribute a single component or algorithm. Some focus on services or processes.
        MMT meets MMT (Military Money Tree).

        As for American Sniper, all I saw was was insane looking commercials where it showed a soldier killing people from rooftops. No different than killing with drones. Where are the plowshares?

  12. Llewelyn Moss

    Skynet, we have a problem.

    Hitler ran the First Drone Program, dropping buzz bombs on London. Of course, Germany was AT WAR with Britain. The US is dropping bombs on countries we are not at war with. And killing children that are playing in proximity to some ‘bad’ guy. And the ‘bad’ guy might be innocent but his name was turned in by some informant to settle some personal score.

    When do we start drone bombing Detroit? There’s some bad guys there right?

    1. ambrit

      We’re more sophisticated here at home. We ‘bankrupt’ them, often using ‘robosigning,’ a semi automated form of economic warfare. Cybernetics is finally coming true! “We are the Borgbank! Prepare to be foreclosed. Resistance is futile!”

    2. Nathanael

      It’s worth remembering that Hitler lost.

      There are some very solid long-term analyses which state that aerial bombing (except for bombing in direct support of ground troops) is essentially worthless, and even counterproductive from a grand-strategy point of view. (Google “Abolish the Air Force”.)

  13. DJG

    And yet you’ll have “Occupy Democrats” posting here shortly about how President Obama vaporized Osama bin Laden by remote control–the greatest triumph of our foreign policy of the last eight years. I agree with the comment about about the Walmartization of the military. Mix in the snobbery of “boots on the ground” (whose boots?), the absurdity of thinking that technology doesn’t bite back, and the impulse toward endless war to serve U.S. economic ends and you have a disaster. And have I mentioned the large number of service members involved in torture? And Hillary Clinton plans to do what? More of the same in Ukraine? I can imagine the Secretary of State’s e-mail correspondence with the Pakistani government about random bloodbaths across their country.

  14. Garrett Pace

    You see where this leads – in the future the observations and decision matrix will not be left to unreliable, emotional organic units, and will be run instead by skynet.

    1. susan the other

      or maybe not. Some things are just not feasible. It all leads me to think that there is a realm above and beyond human reactionary thinking that is immune from violence. In the sense that it is separate. We operate on a day to day basis and our most basic need is food. But we also operate on another plane. I’m not ready to call it diving, by any stretch. I don’t think it is “religious” because I simply think it is reality. I have always been informed by my dogs, in that my dogs also operate on a higher plane. I surmise like an ancient that all of nature, the entire planet, operates on an unspoken ethic. And I like to think it is so overpowering and true that nobody can deny it without some sort of PTSD.

  15. Peter

    I guess killing women and children is getting to these drone pilots. But to the White House they are just collateral damage.
    Remember the FAA is going to allow 30,000 drones to fly over U.S in the coming years, you know to keep us safe from the boggie man.
    There are already 10 states that have restrict law enforcement to get a warrant for use of a drone.

  16. Oregoncharles

    ” Indeed if the pilots themselves are dropping out of desktop killing, can this new way of war survive?”

    Let me correct that for you: ” Indeed if the pilots WITH CONSCIENCES are dropping out of desktop killing, can this new way of war survive?”

    They’re screening very effectively for psychopaths. Anybody who stays in that job should be watched very carefully FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIFE. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty good supply of psychopaths, so that need won’t stop the program, though it may curtail its size.

  17. reslez

    > So whom does one believe? Janet Atkins and Bruce Black, who claim that drone pilots are overworked heroes? Or Brandon Bryant and Heather Linebaugh, who claim that remotely directed targeted killings caused them mental health crises?

    Maybe is the difference is people who fly the drones vs people who sit around issuing orders to them, and people who successfully adopt sociopathy as a coping strategy vs people who can’t.

  18. EmilianoZ

    I have an idea. Why not ask Wall-Street traders to operate the drones as a form of recreation from their high stress day jobs? Market that as some kinda hyper-realistic video game with mega adrenaline rushes. I’m sure they’ll do it for free.

  19. TG

    When the first man with a spear killed a man with a stone axe, the man with the stone axe probably called the man with the spear a coward. And the first man with a bow vs. a man with a spear, the first man with a flintlock vs the man with a bow, the first man with long range artillery vs. the man with a rifle, the first carrier-launched airplane vs a battleship…

    Combat is not a sport. It’s about killing the enemy and not letting them kill you. Killing enemies with drones is just as valid a tactic as killing them with improvised explosives that you detonate from a safe hideout…

    No, this is about cheap labor. I’m sure that we can get some Bangladeshis who would be thrilled to be drone pilots for minimum wage. Because that’s the neoliberal way.

    1. Nathanael

      Actually, that’s not what combat is about — that’s an overly tactical POV. It’s about achieving a goal — dominating your opponents. There’s only one method of doing that which involves nothing but killing, and that’s called “extermination” or “genocide”.

      For every other method of combat, there’s a hell of a lot involved which is not about killing — it’s generally about convincing the opposition to surrender.

      Drones are a big backfire when it comes to that. They are the stuff of recruitment posters for the opposition.

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