Drone Wars: Pilots Reveal Debilitating Stress

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In the final years of his nearly 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force, Slim spent 10 to 12 hours a day in a cool, dark room in the Arizona desert, stationed in front of monitors that beamed back aerial footage from Afghanistan.

Slim's unit operated around the clock, flying Predator drones thousands of miles away over Afghanistan, to monitor -- and sometimes eliminate -- "targets" across the war-ridden country. As a sensor operator for these remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs, it was his job to coordinate the drones' onboard cameras, and, if a missile was released, to laser-guide the weapon to its destination.

These types of missions are part of the military's expanding drone program, which has developed a reputation for carrying out shadowy and highly classified operations -- ones that sometimes blur legal or moral lines. As such, their use in warfare has been steeped in controversy. (How Unmanned Drone Aircraft Work (Infographic))

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Critics say firing weapons from behind a computer screen, while safely sitting thousands of miles away, could desensitize pilots to the act of killing. What separates this, they argue, from a battlefield video game?

But war is rarely so simple, and distance does nothing to numb the emotional impact of taking a life, said Slim (who is referred to here by his Air Force call sign in order to protect his identity).

"People think we're sitting here with joysticks playing a video game, but that's simply not true," Slim, who retired from the Air Force in 2011, told LiveScience. "These are real situations and real-life weapons systems. Once you launch a weapon, you can't hit a replay button to bring people back to life."

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In video games, players rarely make a human connection with the characters on their screen, but Predator drone operators often monitor their targets for weeks or months before ever firing a weapon, he added.

"While the enemy is the enemy, you still understand that they are a real person," Slim said. "To extinguish a person's life is a very personal thing. While physically we don't experience the five senses when we engage a target -- unlike an infantryman might -- in my experience, the emotional impact on the operator is equal."

Still, the idea that being far away from the front lines could desensitize people to killing is not a new one. Arguably, the first weapon to give humans standoff distance in battle was the bow and arrow, said Missy Cummings, an associate professor of aeronautics and engineering systems at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., and director of the school's Humans and Automation Laboratory.

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Cummings, who served as a naval officer from 1988 to 1999 and was one of the Navy's first female fighter pilots, said the argument that killing at a distance could desensitize soldiers has evolved in tandem with advances in war-fighting technology. The issue was similarly discussed when airplanes were introduced into warfare.

"You could make the argument that pilots haven't really been on the front lines since before World War II," Cummings said. "With some of the high-altitude bombing in World War II, pilots became pretty far removed from the actual combat." (Rise of the Drones: Photos of Unmanned Aircraft)

But drone pilots are sometimes thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and their physical distance takes on another dimension, since the entire operation is controlled across a network of computers rather than by soldiers on radios in the field. Yet, Cummings said the only difference is the location of the pilot and the amount of danger he or she may be in.

"Whether you're 5,000 miles away or 5 miles up, there aren't huge differences," Cummings told LiveScience. "When I flew F-18s, you saw everything through cameras and TV screens, just like how drone operators see today. I can't think of anybody now who releases a weapon purely on sight -- you just don't do that anymore, because you have computer systems that do it for you."

The front lines of virtual combat

In fact, Nancy Cooke, a professor of cognitive science and engineering at Arizona State University's College of Technology and Innovation in Mesa, Ariz., argues drone pilots may be more emotionally impacted by killing at a distance because of how closely they have to monitor the situation before, during and after the attack. (After the Battle: 7 Health Problems Facing Veterans)

"The big difference is the level of detail that you can see on the ground," Cooke said. "When you operate a remotely piloted aircraft, even though you're there virtually, you have a lot of information about what's going on, on the ground."

Unlike pilots who physically fly into an area, release a weapon and sometimes never see the aftermath of their mission, drone operators regularly conduct lengthy surveillance following the strikes, exposing themselves to the often-grisly aftermath.

"While fighter pilots have to worry about being shot down, they rarely see the results of their attack," Slim said. "After an engagement, we have to conduct surveillance for quite a long time. Yes, we may only be seeing it, but sometimes, we're seeing it for hours on end, and that is part of the traumatic impact of the mission. It's a definite form of stress on the operator in and of itself."

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In order to better understand how to screen pilots and their supporting units for mental health concerns, Wayne Chappelle, chief of aerospace psychology at the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, has conducted research on the potential psychological issues faced by drone operators. Most drone operators, Chappelle found, describe experiencing combat sensations that are remarkably similar to infantrymen on the front lines.

"They experience real and visceral reactions, like elevated heart rate and adrenaline -- similar to what you would experience if you were in real combat, so they have that same heightened level of awareness and vigilance," Chappelle told LiveScience.

And despite conducting sometimes-lethal missions in front of a computer screen, Chappelle said drone operators have not shown any indication that they have become numb to the act of killing.

"(Their) own personal lives aren't at risk, but the reality of what they're doing is really clear to them," he said. "I haven't seen or heard of anybody becoming desensitized, or having a nonemotional reaction, to the deployment of weapons."

But the battlefield -- albeit virtual -- is not the only place where drone operators experience tension.

Stressful situations

In 2011, Chappelle co-authored a study that identified areas of high stress within the Air Force's drone program. More than 1,400 members of the Air Force participated in the study, including 600 noncombatant airmen and 864 operators of Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk (unarmed) drones. (See Photos of NASA's Global Hawk Drones)

The individuals were asked to rank their level of stress on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 representing feeling extremely stressed. Chappelle found that 46 percent of Reaper and Predator pilots reported "high operational stress."

From other questionnaires, Chappelle found that 17 percent of Predator or Reaper drone operators, and 25 percent of Global Hawk operators, show signs of what the Air Force terms "clinical distress," which includes depression, anxiety and other symptoms that interfere with job performance or disrupt family life. For comparison, approximately 28 percent of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq are diagnosed with clinical distress, according to the Air Force.

In addition to the actual missions, the study found that some of the biggest factors contributing to stress were the long hours and frequent shift rotations required for drone operations. More than 1,300 drone pilots work for the Air Force, representing approximately 8 percent of all U.S. Air Force pilots, according to a recent report authored by Air Force Colonel Bradley Hoagland.

The Air Force currently supports 61 round-the-clock drone patrols in Afghanistan, Yemen and North Africa, but plans to expand to 65 patrols across the three regions by next year, Hoagland wrote in the report, which was released in August by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C.

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