Pilots Without a Cockpit

drone pilotsExcerpted from: Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control 

 “Death, destruction, disease, horror. That’s what war is all about, Anon. That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. You’ve made it neat and painless. So neat and painless, you’ve had no reason to stop it.” —Star Trek

“On the drive out here, you get yourself ready to enter the compartment of your life that is flying combat,” retired Col. Chris Chambliss told the Los Angeles Times. “And on the drive home, you get ready for that part of your life that’s going to be the soccer game.”

And in between you kill.

Many people can relate to the banal experience of commuting to and from work and the constant struggle with trying to separate one’s time in the office from time spent at home. But for an increasing number of Americans, the process of decompressing after a hard day’s work is about more than just trying to forget about expense reports and the petty tyranny of office politics: in many cases, it’s about trying to forget the lives you extinguished—and the lives of your comrades you couldn’t save.

In contrast to the traditional notion of the war fighter on an actual battlefield, Col. Chambliss, who was based out of Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base about forty minutes outside Las Vegas, could remotely order a Predator drone to fire a Hellfire missile at a group of suspected Taliban thousands of miles away in Afghanistan while, but a few hours later, making it home in time to catch a rerun of Friends. And there are thousands more just like him, soldiers and civilians alike, partaking in the US government’s expanded use of UAVs to assassinate perceived enemies on the other side of the globe.

Creech is a tiny outpost in the barren Nevada desert, twenty miles north of a state prison and adjacent to a one-story casino. In a nondescript building, down a largely unmarked hallway, is a series of rooms, each with a rack of servers and a “ground control station” for remotely controlling drones located 8,000 miles away. There, a drone pilot and a sensor operator sit in their flight suits in front of a series of screens.

In the pilot’s hand is the joystick, guiding the drone as it soars above Afghanistan, Iraq, or some other battlefield. The sensor operator controls the cameras that bring the battlefield into full view to gain intelligence and hunt down targets. This team doesn’t launch or land the plane—that is done by a similar team on the ground, closer to the battlefield. But once up in the air, the crew back in the US takes control.

Most US military drones are operated from Creech and another site just seven miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nellis Air Force Base. But weaponized drones have been remotely operated and/or monitored from dozens of military bases across the United States, including in Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, North and South Dakota, and Texas. Even the US Air Force Base in the Pacific island territory of Guam has become a staging ground for drone flights over Asia.

At Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, soldiers monitor live feeds from drones flying over Afghanistan—what they call “Death TV.” The New York Times reported that on a daily basis, the soldiers “review 1,000 hours of video, 1,000 high-altitude spy photos and hundreds of hours of ‘signals intelligence’—usually cellphone calls.” For up to twelve hours a day, they stare at ten overhead television screens, monitoring a constant stream of images being relayed to them from the battlefield while communicating on headsets with drone pilots at other bases and instant messaging with commanders on the ground. “I’ll have a phone in one ear, talking to a pilot on the headset in the other ear, typing in chat at the same time and watching screens,” a twenty-five-year-old first lieutenant told the New York Times. “It’s intense.”

At the nearby CIA headquarters, meanwhile, civilians working for the spy agency work closely with agents in the field, as well as private military contractors, everywhere from Somalia to Pakistan to target both high-profile terror suspects, such as US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as those who merely fit the “pattern of life” profile of a militant.

Along with the new breed of killing technology has also come a new breed of pilot, ones schooled in the 21st century ways of gaming and multi-tasking. Former UN Rapporteur Philip Alston has warned that with drone operators based so far away from the battlefield and undertaking operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, 
“there is a risk of developing a ‘Playstation’ mentality to killing”—but that’s pretty much how this technology is designed.

Those deeply involved in the military’s UAV programs themselves say appealing to youth gaming culture was one of their explicit goals. “We modeled the controller after the PlayStation because that’s what these eighteen-, nineteen-year-old Marines have been playing with all of their lives,” a robotics expert working for the Marines told author P.W. Singer in his book Wired for War.

medea benjaminThis can blur the line between the virtual and the real worlds. As a drone pilot in Qatar said, “It’s like a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s funking cool.”

But not only have the controls on the military’s war-fighting machines changed, so has the nature of armed conflict—not for those on the receiving end of Hellfire missiles, of course, but for those pulling the trigger. As Singer noted, “For a new generation, ‘going to war’ doesn’t mean shipping off to some god-forsaken place to fight in a muddy foxhole but a daily commute in your Toyota Camry to sit behind a computer screen and drag a mouse.”

Medea Benjamin
Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control 

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