Do remote-control war pilots get combat stress?

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 11 2008 7:53 AM

Ghosts in the Machine

Do remote-control war pilots get combat stress?

A sensor control station for an MQ-9 Reaper UAV. Click image to expand.
A sensor control station for an unmanned aerial vehicle

Is it easier to kill people far away, through a video screen, than to kill them up close?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Three weeks ago, I raised that question about a system for controlling unmanned military aircraft. The system, made by Raytheon, looks and feels like a video game  but operates real drones. From a console in the United States, you hunt and kill people in Iraq or Afghanistan. Will the drone pilots of tomorrow—kids who have grown up on PlayStations—feel the mortal gravity of what they're doing? Have we made killing too easy?

No, says a new report from the Associated Press. The story, published in newspapers across the country, is headlined, "Remote-control warriors suffer war stress." It begins: "The Air National Guardsmen who operate Predator drones over Iraq via remote control, launching deadly missile attacks from the safety of Southern California 7,000 miles away, are suffering some of the same psychological stresses as their comrades on the battlefield."

How could drone piloting cause the same stress as being in combat? The AP reporter, Scott Lindlaw, offers several reasons. One is that drone pilots work longer shifts and tours than pilots in the war zone. Another is the daily "whiplash transition" between being a console killer and being a soccer dad. "They're putting a missile down somebody's chimney and taking out bad guys, and the next thing they're taking their wife out to dinner, their kids to school," says an Air Force officer.

A third reason is that unmanned aircraft, unlike manned ones, are often assigned to remain over the target and assess the damage. "When you come in at 500-600 mph, drop a 500-pound bomb and then fly away, you don't see what happens," a wing commander explains. But when you fire a drone missile, "you watch it all the way to impact." Furthermore, Lindlaw notes, the video in a drone console, unlike the view from a traditional plane, shows the resulting fatalities "in high-resolution detail."

These are all intriguing factors. They might well explain why drone pilots suffer the same stress as battlefield combatants—or even more. But despite these factors, Lindlaw's evidence indicates that, in fact, drone pilots don't suffer the same degree of stress.

To the military's credit, Lindlaw finds that bases in four states have brought in chaplains to counsel drone pilots. One has even "enlisted the services of psychologists and psychiatrists to help ease the mental strain." The only thing in short supply seems to be the mental strain itself. "In interviews with five of the dozens of pilots and sensor operators at the various bases, none said they had been particularly troubled by their mission," Lindlaw reports.

"Col. Gregg Davies, commander of the 214th Reconnaissance Group in Tucson, Ariz., said he knows of no member of his team who has experienced any trauma from launching a Predator attack," Lindlaw writes. The only quantifiable impact he can find comes from Col. Chris Chambliss, a commander at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada: "On four or five occasions, [drone] sensor operators have sought out a chaplain or supervisor after an attack, Chambliss said. He emphasized that the number of such cases is very small compared to the number of people involved in Predator operations."

Compare this weak, absent, or asymptomatic evidence to the data on post-traumatic stress disorder among Air Force personnel overall. Last year, 871 airmen were diagnosed with PTSD. And that's the lowest score among the armed services. Eighteen to 30 percent of all military personnel are estimated to have developed symptoms of PTSD or depression.

The AP story is notable for documenting the very existence of mental stress among drone pilots. It shows that operating a real hunter, killer, or spy aircraft from the faraway safety of a game-style console affects some operators in a way that video games don't. But it doesn't show that firing a missile from a console feels like being there—or that it haunts the triggerman the same way. Indeed, the paucity of evidence—despite the brutal work shifts, the superior video quality, and the additional burden of watching the target take the hit—suggests that it feels quite different.

My guess is that the difference lies in the remaining factor cited in the story: the "whiplash transition" between the physical world of your family and the virtual world of your faraway drone. Living in the console for a full work shift, with your country's missions, assets, and personnel at stake, is more intense than playing Halo. Walking out of the room and trying to resume your physical life is disorienting. But these factors can't match the stress of physical presence in combat. The point of the drone, after all, is to insulate you.

Lindlaw's reporting doesn't settle the question either way. But he's on the right track. The armed forces should monitor drone operators systematically and track the effects of living in this whiplash world, where you kill on a video screen and then go home to your spouse and kids. Human nature has never been tested in such alternating semi-virtual reality. We may well discover that it combines the worst of all three worlds: the stress of missions, the desensitization of video gaming, and the whiplash of transitioning between physical and synthetic environments.

The wing leaders who supervise drone operations regard mission stress as the main hazard. They worry about sensor operators, who guide the missiles to their targets and are often, as Lindlaw points out, "on their first assignment and just 18 or 19 years old." They fear that the on-screen killing will rattle these kids. Maybe they're right. My fear is that it won't.