WASHINGTON -- Say the word "drone," and most people imagine radio-operated helicopters, or else unmanned, remotely piloted aircraft shooting missiles on command by operators half a world away.
Drones are now a staple of the U.S. war on terror, and they are becoming such a normal part of modern warfare that the U.S. military is seriously considering unmanned aircraft for its next generation of fighter planes.
But taking the pilot out of the plane does not take humans out of the equation, and ethical and humanitarian issues surround the growing adoption of military drones.
The new high-tech F-35C "should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly." Thus spoke U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a speech in April, painting a clear picture of the future of air power. "Unmanned systems, particularly autonomous ones, have to be the new normal in ever-increasing areas," he insisted.
Unmanned, remotely piloted aircraft are taking on a rapidly expanding role in the U.S. military. Drones can fly for tens of hours on each mission and they are relatively inexpensive to operate compared to piloted planes. Plus they do not put pilots in harm's way.
Most drone missions are flown for surveillance and information gathering, but they are also a mainstay of the air campaign in Iraq against the extremist Islamic State group.
The U.S. Air Force already has some 1,000 drone pilots, and it says it needs to add 300 more pilots every year.
Stressful day job
The demand for drones exploded in 2008. Before then, the remotely piloted aircraft were used primarily for surveillance. But that year, the U.S. under then-President George W. Bush began flying large numbers of drone missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere to bomb bases of the global militant Islamist organization al-Qaida. Although current U.S. President Barack Obama criticized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has nevertheless continued and expanded the use of drones.
Out in the desert of Nevada sits Creech Air Force Base, home to a command and control facility where pilots operate drones flying missions around the world.
Every day the pilots drive to the base, sit down in front of a console, and operate drones flying in places like Iraq more than 10,000km away. The pilots sit there watching satellite feeds of images captured by the drones to conduct surveillance and to aim and fire missiles. Then, at the end of the day, they drive back home to their friends and families.
As mundane as it sounds, this lifestyle places a heavy psychological burden on the drone pilots. Continually firing missiles at targets during shifts that last for over 10 hours is extremely stressful. Many pilots become plagued by feelings of guilt for all the killing they cause from afar with a simple press of a button, and some even suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
With 240 operators transferring out of the position in any given year, the U.S. Air Force faces a chronic shortage of drone pilots.
Addressing the issue, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James approved an increase in incentive pay from about $600 a month to $1,500 a month for operators of remotely piloted aircraft. But there is still a dearth of applicants to fill all the needed positions.
The U.S. military plans to increase the use of drones considerably, and this could significantly reshape the war on terror.
But this strategy of attacking with unmanned aircraft is being criticized as unethical. It is difficult to tell terrorists from innocent civilians with just the video feeds from drones, and civilians are falling victim to the bombings. Some reports peg this collateral damage at anywhere from 10% to 30% of all deaths caused in drone strikes.
Critics have deeply rooted opinions about this on humanitarian grounds. The use of drones can be associated with a disregard for human life, and it may even represent a violation of international law.