In a rare instance of journalistic access to the pilots behind America’s drone war, GlobalPost discusses the differences between unmanned and manned combat. After Wired last month brought up the issue of access to drone pilots, GlobalPost got an interview with three pilots at Holloman Air Force Base, where the remote pilots are trained.
The pilots brushed off the common criticism that they are too removed from the battle to properly consider the lives they may be taking.
The pilots said that it’s not just their aircraft that are misunderstood. They’re well aware of a public perception that pilots like them simply push a button to blithely drop bombs on people they’ve never seen in countries they’ve never visited, all from the comfort of their US air base.
Pilots at Holloman said they’re not surprised the public may have such a view, since even some experienced flyers arriving for training here have mistaken ideas about what it’s like to be the human element in a UAV. After all, these guys walk out the door of their simulated cockpits and go home to their families at the end of a work day.
In fact, the pilots’ take on the differences between manned and unmanned flight hints that it might be safer for everyone. No rushed decisions, no over-defensiveness out of fear.
“Your visibility is like looking through a soda straw because you’re just looking at one thing at a time, based on the capabilities of the camera, whereas in a real aircraft you can look around very easily,” he said.
But a simulated cockpit has distinct advantages as well. These pilots, who have all seen combat duty themselves in manned aircraft, said the safety allows them to do their job more effectively.
“You’re going slow and you’re not worried about ejecting or the environmental factors you have in a manned aircraft, your ability to really concentrate on exactly what’s happening is much better,” Brent said.
Mike agreed. “You’re not in a rush to make a decision because you’re not pressured by fuel or speed or anything like that,” he said.
But Yosef Lapid, a professor at Mexico State University who studies terrorism, said the dangers of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) should be considered carefully.
“When you look at how the laws of war have emerged, there’s a sense that the underdog should have some decent chance of challenging,” he said. “I think these technologies violate that sense of justice.”
Lapid also worries about the long-term effects of using UAVs in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In all the countries where armed UAVs are flown, large protests have erupted among the civilian population, which has at times suffered enormous casualties.
“It’s important to ask that question … not only how many terrorists we’re eliminating but how many new terrorists we are creating,” he said.