Drone Pilot SchoolDrone warfare makes unique demands on its soldier operators

July 29, 2021by helo-10
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Fighting wars with drones could change traditional views of courage in the military. 

Retired Lt. Col. Wayne Phelps, former commander of a drone unit for the U.S. Marines, notes that the images of those being observed are quite clear. “You watch guys walking their kids to school and playing with them in the backyard for hours,” he says. This creates a “one-sided intimacy” with the person you intend to kill.

Why We Wrote This

Reliance on drones in warfare poses new challenges for the soldiers who operate them and could help redefine what courage means in the military.

Drone operators “might be removed from harm’s way, but emotionally and cognitively … they’re in that fight,” he says.

Courage needs to be redefined in the military, Lieutenant Colonel Phelps adds, so that the bravery needed to fly a jet into enemy territory isn’t all that’s valued.

Offering an example of moral courage, he tells of a drone operator who, when ordered to strike a house, did so. Afterward, he saw a man carrying an injured girl out of the house and into a car. When ordered to strike the car, the drone operator refused, saying, “Absolutely not. I’m not going to strike that car knowing there’s a wounded little girl in there.”

“I’m proud of some of the decisions that these drone crews are making,” says Lieutenant Colonel Phelps. “It’s not easy.”

In his new book, “On Killing Remotely: The Psychology of Killing with Drones,” retired Lt. Col. Wayne Phelps, former commander of a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) unit of the U.S. Marines, found that the average drone operator has conducted more than 50 strikes resulting in the deaths of 50 or more enemy combatants.

The number of RPA units will likely increase, judging by former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ prediction that the F-35 joint strike fighter jet will “almost certainly be the last manned strike fighter aircraft” that the Pentagon “will ever buy or fly.” Given that, the U.S. military must reckon with the impact of RPA missions on its members, Lieutenant Colonel Phelps says in an interview with Monitor correspondent Anna Mulrine Grobe. The following excerpts have been lightly edited.

Q. In your book you emphasize the extreme distance – but also the extremely vivid window on enemies – that drones provide for the U.S. troops who operate them. This means that after killing with drones, some RPA crews describe the experience as akin to hitting an “emotional funny bone.” Can you talk about this?

Why We Wrote This

Reliance on drones in warfare poses new challenges for the soldiers who operate them and could help redefine what courage means in the military.

The persistent nature of drones allows us to watch a person for 8 or 24 hours, or for months. Early video monitors for RPAs were grainy – targets looked like blobs, not people. Today, the video feed is really good – you can tell what color shirt they’re wearing. You can see their hand gestures, their gait. It’s almost too good. I don’t know if it needs to be that good.

So you really observe the humanity of this person. You watch guys walking their kids to school and playing with them in the backyard for hours. As one analyst said, there’s no doubt they’ve done nefarious things, but with some there’s also no doubt that they’re good fathers and husbands. 



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