Ethical, Logistical Concerns Threaten Military Drone Program

By Sam Bermas-Dawes

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Former drone U.S. operator Brandon Bryant recalls a mission from Afghanistan years earlier during a BBC interview.

“It wasn’t until after the missile hit that I was like, ‘Did we just kill a kid?’” Bryant says, staring off into the distance. “There is no recoil, there is not anything to say that we’ve done a shot. It’s just click, click, click.”

Bryant might have been thousands of miles away from his mission, remotely-operating his Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) from military bases across the United States. This is the nature of the job for operators of the U.S drone fleet who have operated on a growing scale since the Obama administration took office. Since 2008, President Obama has authorized 283 strikes in Pakistan, where the Taliban hides in tribal areas.

These operations are having negative effects on the operators behind the drones, compromising the continued existence of US drones. This is a unique situation, with a unique set of problems.

Drone pilots sometimes commanding the unmanned flying vehicles in foreign theaters like Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan from thousands of miles away. Drone pilots can operate the Air Force’s fleet of drones from bases in the United States, known as being deployed-on-station, meaning they commute to work.

A Government Accountability Office Report from April 2014 raises concerns over the management of current and future US UAV operations.

“Their dual role juxtaposes stress related to supporting combat operations with the strains that can occur in their personal lives,” said the report, made to congressional requestors.

UAV pilots were placed in focus groups to discuss their experiences. The results, shown in the info-graphic below, highlight some of the issues pilots brought up in those focus groups.

Info Graphic

UAVs are used in battlefield surveillance, while some drones, such as the Predator, are equipped with missiles.

Supporters of military’s use of armed drones, like American University Senior Tobi Rosenzweig, who studies counterterrorism in the School of International Service say that drone allows the US to curtal elements of Al-Qaeda without risking American lives.

Last February, The Obama Administration agreed to allow the export of armed drones to US allies. A press release from the White House said that besides strengthening the operational capabilities of allied nations, the move will ensure appropriate participation for U.S. industry in the emerging commercial UAV market, “which will contribute to the health of the U.S. industrial base, and thus to U.S. national security which includes economic security.”

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