Flying Under the Influence: Confessions Of A Drone Pilot
Every morning, the hangar doors roll open and the sunlight flares my electro-optical sensors. I drag myself onto the flight line, load up my pylons with Hellfire and Griffin missiles, and try to get some coffee into my tank before takeoff. If all goes well, I lumber into the air, loiter over some godforsaken warzone du jour, and occasionally lob weaponry at those I’m told are the enemies of the free world. By broad consensus, I’m pretty good at my job — and when I’m not soaring above the mountains of Afghanistan or Yemen, I even find time for hobbies, like posting on Twitter. But after I return to base, I self-medicate with extreme prejudice. Because I’m a Predator drone, and you people make me drink.
In the last decade, my robotic flying cohorts and I have gone from Air Force afterthought to indispensable weapon in the global struggle against violent contingencies, or whatever the hell we’re calling it now. We come in sizes large and small: Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk is the size of a modest jetliner and AeroVironment’s NAV is hardly bigger than a golf ball. And we don’t just do war, either. Among other civilian missions, we’ve sampled radiation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and helped firefighters monitor wildfires in Alaska and California. We even fly weather-research missions into hurricanes.
Yet somehow, us drones — yes, we prefer the term “drone” over the alphabet soup of UAV, RPA, or UAS — have been pressed into unwilling service as the bugaboo for a host of disparate interest groups. Libertarians like Ron Paul probably couldn’t agree with Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin on the time of day, but they can at least agree that they don’t like me. And that hurts my robotic feelings, because I simply don’t deserve it.
Many of the key misconceptions about me have already been effectively dissected by the talented national-security bloggers I like to read in-air, not to mention some excellent myth-busting here at FP. So I’ll be brief, and touch on only the most binge-inducing notions polluting the public discourse.
I am the harbinger of risk-free warfare. The fact that I’m good at my job is somehow supposed to be a knock on me. Leading political thinkers such as Michael Ignatieff have argued
that since I lack an on-board human pilot (I prefer “co-pilot”), I eliminate a key reason for the political aversion to airstrikes — the pilot’s potential death or capture. I can also hang out for long periods over a target, cost less to manufacture than a manned fighter, carry a variety of weapons, and transmit high-quality surveillance data in real time. So, I am told, I’m the ultimate weapon — and thus stand guilty of making wars more likely.
Balderdash. While I appreciate the flattery, I’m hardly the magic bullet to global conflict that I’m made out to be. First, Predator and Reaper drones like me are about as fast and stealthy as that crop duster that tried to mow down Cary Grant. So we play it safe, operating over areas where we’re unlikely to be shot down. The Taliban, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or Somalia’s al-Shabab lack the surface-to-air missiles to hit us. And local militaries in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Yemen, and (most notably) Pakistan have granted either their implicit or explicit permission for us to operate.