Joystick Wars

Joystick Wars

As military warfare takes a newer technological turn,drones become increasingly important in combat operations

From his computer console here in the Syracuse suburbs,Col. D. Scott Brenton remotely flies a Reaper drone that beams back hundreds of hours of live video of insurgents,his intended targets,going about their daily lives 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. Sometimes he and his team watch the same family compound for weeks.

“I see mothers with children,I see fathers with children,I see fathers with mothers,I see kids playing soccer,” Brenton said.

When the call comes for him to fire a missile and kill a militant—and only,Brenton said,when the women and children are not around—the hair on the back of his neck stands up. Afterward,just like when he flew in an F-16 fighter jet,he compartmentalises. “I feel no emotional attachment to the enemy,” he said. “I have a duty,and I execute the duty.”

Brenton acknowledges the peculiar new disconnect of fighting a telewar with a joystick and a throttle from his padded seat in American suburbia. When he was deployed in Iraq,“you land and there’s no more weapons on your F-16,people have an idea of what you were just involved with.” Now he steps out of a dark room of video screens,his adrenaline still surging after squeezing the trigger,and commutes home to help with homework—but always alone with what he has done.


“It’s a strange feeling,” he said. “No one in my immediate environment is aware of anything that occurred.” Routinely thought of as robots that turn wars into sanitised video games,the drones have powerful cameras that bring war straight into a pilot’s face.

Among the toughest psychological tasks is the close surveillance for aerial sniper missions. A drone pilot and his partner,a sensor operator who manipulates the aircraft’s camera,observe the habits of a militant as he plays with his children,talks to his wife,etc. “They watch this guy do bad things and then his regular old life things,” said Col. Hernando Ortega,the chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Education Training Command who studies drone pilots. “Some of the stuff might remind you of stuff you did yourself. You might gain a level of familiarity that makes it a little difficult to pull the trigger.”

Of a dozen pilots,sensor operators and supporting intelligence analysts recently interviewed from three US military bases,none acknowledged the kind of personal feelings for Afghans that would keep them awake at night after seeing the bloodshed left by missiles and bombs. All spoke of a certain intimacy with Afghan family life that traditional pilots never see from 20,000 feet. “You see them wake up in the morning,do their work,go to sleep at night,” said Dave,an Air Force major who flew drones from 2007 to 2009.

Some pilots spoke of the roiling emotions after they fire a missile. “There was good reason for killing the people that I did,and I go through it in my head over and over and over,” said Will,an Air Force officer. “But you never forget about it. It never just fades away,I don’t think—not for me.”

The Air Force now has more than 1,300 drone pilots,about 300 fewer than it needs,stationed at 13 or more bases across the US. They fly the unmanned aircraft mostly in Afghanistan. By 2015,the Pentagon projects that the Air Force will need more than 2,000 drone pilots for combat air patrols worldwide. The Air Force is already training more drone pilots—350 last year—than fighter and bomber pilots combined.

Gen. Norton A. Schwartz,the Air Force chief of staff,said it was “conceivable” that drone pilots in the Air Force would outnumber those in cockpits in the foreseeable future even though drones cannot engage in air-to-air combat.

Pilots say the best days are when ground troops thank them for keeping them safe. Ted,an Air Force major and an F-16 pilot,recalled how troops on an extended patrol away from their base in Afghanistan were grateful when he flew a Reaper above them for five hours so they could get some sleep one night. They told him,“We’re keeping one guy awake to talk to you,but if you can,just watch over and make

sure nobody’s sneaking up on us,” he recalled.

All the operators dismiss the notion that they are playing a video game. “I don’t have any video games that ask me to sit in one seat for six hours and look at the same


target,” said Joshua,a sensor operator. “This is a real aircraft with a real human component,with actual consequences.”