WASHINGTON -- The negative attention on drone strikes appears to be taking a toll on the people who control these unmanned aircraft, with a new government report finding that Air Force drone pilots are suffering from low morale.
The Government Accountability Office report, released this week, looked at 10 focus groups of active-duty Air Force drone pilots, known as remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operators. Investigators found that these individuals feel stressed and overworked as they face uncertainty in their careers, long hours, negative public perception and a prohibition on talking about what they do, which is often classified.
Part of their stress comes from that fact that although there has been an "explosion" in the government's use of drones, as of last December the Air Force had only 85 percent of the drone pilots it needed.
Attracting new pilots for these missions appears to be a problem. Every single focus group agreed that there is a negative perception of the work they do. That stigma isn't coming just from the public, but from within the Air Force as well.
"The Air Force may face challenges recruiting officers to serve as RPA pilots because of a negative perception that some in the Air Force associate with flying RPAs," wrote the GAO. "Headquarters Air Force officials, RPA pilots in some of our focus groups, and one unit commander stated that some in the Air Force view flying RPAs negatively, resulting in a stigma. According to these officials one reason some view flying an RPA negatively is because flying an RPA does not require pilots to operate an aircraft while on board an aircraft in-flight."
Pilots in every single focus group also said that those who wanted to return to flying more traditional manned aircraft have been required to stay in their drone assignments for longer than a typical Air Force assignment.
Other pilots were frustrated by low promotion rates for drone operators. The issue of how to recognize drone pilots came up last spring, when there was an outcry over the Pentagon's decision to create a new medal that would have honored drone pilots and cyberwarriors. Veterans organizations and members of Congress expressed outrage that it would outrank some battlefield medals like the Purple Heart. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel eventually announced that he would cancel the creation of the medal.
In January 2013, writer Elijah Solomon Hurwitz met up with some drone pilots -- who don't particularly like using the term "drone" -- and reported on their daily life for Mother Jones:
The word drone also evokes monotony, which is what fills much of the pilots' daily routines. Though strikes on suspected terrorists and the resulting civilian casualties get the headlines, the lion's share of remote piloting consists of quieter, more shadowy work: hour after hour of ISR -- intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. ...
Yet the pilots insist their distance from their targets does little to desensitize them to the real-life consequences of their actions. Ryan, a captain who used to fly a B-52 bomber, says, "Oh yeah, you still get buck fever; you know you're about to do some damage. The heart rate goes up. The main thing is repetition, so whether it's a training weapon or 2,000-pound laser-guided missile, it doesn't feel different." ...
This isn't to say RPA pilots are a disgruntled lot; they see value in what they're doing, but it's an adjustment for the guys who followed their Top Gun daydreams only to find themselves landlocked in air-conditioned containers.
Last spring, senior commanders at Langley Air Force Base also told The Huffington Post's David Wood that the stress experienced by these drone operators is "extremely high." They had assigned a psychologist and a chaplain with top security clearances to work full time inside the facility.
"Officers and airmen who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq say this work resembles the mix of boredom, loneliness and stress of being deployed on a combat tour -- but not being able to come home and relax when the deployment is over," wrote Wood. "Some of these airmen work the night shift here, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., for four or five years before being transferred to another facility of the same kind, to again work the night shift."
In a statement Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, "The GAO’s findings regarding management of our Air Force’s RPA pilot community are quite troubling. These individuals sacrifice so much to conduct missions vital to U.S. national security interests in a fast-paced, high stress environment every day. Given their mission’s importance, it is critical that the Air Force take necessary steps to ensure their success."
In response to the report, the Air Force told the GAO that it agreed with several of the report's recommendations, including to develop a new recruiting and retention strategy for drone pilots and to seek more feedback from these individuals.