America ramps up its army of “drone jockeys”

September 3, 2009

The United States Air Force is this year going to train more pilots to fly unmanned aircraft than for manned planes, according to a clutch of reports.

These are the “drone jockeys” who sit in an air conditioned trailer out in Nevada  or at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia controlling the Predators and Reapers drone aircraft that hunt for militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and every now and then score a hit such as last month’s killing of Pakistani Talibani leader Baitullah Mehsud.

Drones are taking over the USAF, says the Small Wars Journal. A decade ago these planes were hardly known. Now they dominate the pilot training programme and in another few years they will dominate the air force’s entire operations, force planning decisions and budgets.

Just three years ago, the air force was flying 12 drones at a time,  now it is doing more than 50, according to The Guardian.

But quite apart from the transformation it is bringing in the U.S. air force, an expanded drone programme also raises the question whether this is increasingly the way the military will fight the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the coming months.

The deployment of unmanned aerial systems began with the Bush administration but has been accelerated under President Barack Obama. By the beginning of August there had already been 28 drone strikes in Pakistan compared with 34 for the whole of last year, according to B. Raman, a former head of Indian intelligence.

Indeed some people are asking how different is the Obama  war strategy from its predecessor, shorn of the rhetoric.  One writer has gone to the extent of calling  it the Third Bush, arguing that continuity in foreign policy was striking, no matter who was in the White House.

But what of the costs involved on the ground ? From the U.S. standpoint, it is hard to argue against such a weapon, with its zero-risk to the life and limb of a soldier, its ability to stay in the air for long periods and its price relative to bombers and aircraft. But what of civilian casualties as a result of missiles fired by these remotely piloted vehicles ? 

What about the whole issue of pilots fighting a de-sensitised war from their air conditioned cubicles half a world away. Indeed there is something eerie about these drone warriors going to war by day, firing missiles into Pakistan’s remote northwest and then going home to dinner with the family.

To be sure as Raman notes, the strikes have become more accurate in recent months. The quality of human intelligence has significantly impoved , as Pakistan under pressure or otherwise, steps up the fight.   

[Photograph of a Predator aircraft and a protest in Pakistan]

21 comments

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Sanjeev,

I read from one source that the U.S. is training just over half of its new pilots to be drone pilots.

The world is grateful to the U.S., Obama or any subsequent Administrations that take the difficult road of keeping our world safe from Militantism and terrorism, and that hard fight always seems to fall on the shoulders of Democracies. Democracy is the only way, any other way, time has proven gives rise to Dictatorships, Military Mafia like Juntas, Totalitarianism or Religious Theocracy-like mixtures of the previous items listed and undemocratic societies do not produce the happiest individuals, as a whole, there may be pockets of exceptions. If Drones is the way that we have protect our democracy, then so be it. We should not stop there, we should also develop supersonic drones, perhaps even hypersonic drones, that can hit targets from anywhere in the world and the U.S. should also develop drones to infiltrate human habitats.

Defending democracy, civilization, the advanced institutions that we equate with human achievement can come at a price at times, but Drones will never be seen as a clean way of waging war, but it is many times easier and cleaner than committing troops, that is undeniable.

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

Drone away .. Bomb away .. Talibans away .;)

Posted by Patrick` | Report as abusive

A drone a day keeps the Talibans away ..:)

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive

When r drones going to Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Muzzafarabad …?

Why the delay?

Posted by Nora | Report as abusive

Drones are a cheap tactical way of increasing body counts. With out human intel, this technology is useless. Unless the hellfire takes out an High Value Target, only collateral damage is the other possibility.
Obama administration is impatient to achieve a quick victory. But the Afghan proverb says, you may have the watches but we have the time.
Technology is no doubt good, but even better it would be if the war is ended. Ethnic Pashtuns are given due representation in an Afghan government of national unity, through Jirga System and return to traditional Islamic way of doing things in Afghanistan.
the corrupt Karzai govt. of narco-criminals are seen as a puppet of the outsiders. Afghan problem or rather AFPAK problem will need an AFPAK solution. Otherwise Nevada and Langely will see more difficult days ahead.

Posted by Umair | Report as abusive

Exactly as I predicted. Next stop: Quetta.

Posted by Keith | Report as abusive

Sanjeev,

The argument about target dehumanization for operators (because of weapons delivery by UAV) has been brought up time and time again. Yet, there’s no hard data to show that a UAV operator is any more compassionate or heartless compared to a jet jockey flying an F-16. Both individuals are consummate professionals who follow strict rules of engagement and usually will call off the engagement if they believe the risk to civilians exceeds the mission gains.

If anything, a guy who kills by day and morphs into a family guy at night faces cognitive dissonance each day. Pilots who deploy into combat zones switch themselves “on”. They set aside family concerns and become hardened warriors for six months. UAV operators have to switch themselves “on” and “off” everyday. There’s a real risk of high burnout and psychological issues developing here.

Posted by Keith | Report as abusive

When r drones going to Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Muzzafarabad …?
Why the delay?

- Posted by Nora

-Nora: the delay for Karachi, Lahore,Rawalpindi, Islamabad is that they are either big and crouded and latter 3 are in Punjab.

Yes, rain drone fire on camps in Muzzafarabad.
________________________________________ _________

Here is a bad news for Afghans and good news for NATO as each one claims.
“A NATO jet blasted two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, setting off a huge fireball Friday that killed scores of people, Afghan officials said.”

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32685810/ns/ world_news-south_and_central_asia

But Afghan civilians are dead–and a lot of them–not a good sign.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Not Obama ..
Thank Bush, Cheney and Condi for buying the sovereignty of Pakistan ..
Thank Musharraf for selling the sovereignty of Pakistan ..

We should look for another general who can trade the nukes for a UK green card or a few billion dollars ..

Posted by Randy | Report as abusive

NATO Plans Inquiry After Afghan Strike Kills Scores
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/05/world/ asia/05afghan.html?_r=1&hp

-and now when a suicide bomber will blow himself up and others somewhere near Bagram airbase US/NATO will cry they are not winning in Afghanistan putting the blame on everyone other than themselves. Unless this war stops the cycle of violence will continue.

Posted by Umair | Report as abusive

Militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, aren’t these the cowards that took down the twin towers Sept. 11th. Are these the evil sons of Satan we should have gone after instead of going to Iraq.

Aren’t these the same people who skinned alive Russian pilots they captured in the war with the Russians. Don’t you think they would do the same to our troops?

These are a ruthless evil people. I suggest we put a thousand heavily armed drones to work. We are at “WAR” not some little police action. In war you go out with all you have, don’t hold back, give no quarter, take no prisoners. If civilians are along side enemy combatants then they parish with them. Now if you target known civilians with no enemy present then that is a totally different story.

Give them Hell!

Posted by John Rhodes | Report as abusive

The militant is defeated in all strengths but one.

Determination. They will fight for years. They will commit atrocities. They will hide when found. They will die for their cause.

But against automated weapons, they will meet their match. No matter how determined you are, the machine is better. It will track and kill, day and night. Even the taliban must rest and sleep.

Automated weapons are the weapons of the future. Drones are just the first step. If you had told someone in the seventies, they would have laughed. But the future is here.

And the Taliban will have front row seats. Assuming they hear it coming in time.

Posted by Skynet 1.03 | Report as abusive

@If civilians are along side enemy combatants then they parish with them. Now if you target known civilians with no enemy present then that is a totally different story.
Give them Hell!
- Posted by John Rhodes

-John Rhodes: what has US done from Afghan civilian POV? other than Karzai govt.
No talk of Afghanistan reconstruction that can win Afghan’s hearts and minds.
Yes I do hear as much as Afghans here that US cares less about their deaths.

I hope US/NATO win but against whom–is it possible? a radical change in strategy needed? All said and done drones are not much useful. can anyone name the valuable targets taken out by drones other than B. Mehsud?
why is it is so hard for the (human and electronic) intelligence to find out where the hell are these three chiefs–OBL, Jawahiri, Mullah Omar.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

@Rajeev, you said:

“@If civilians are along side enemy combatants then they parish with them. Now if you target known civilians with no enemy present then that is a totally different story.
Give them Hell!
- Posted by John Rhodes

-John Rhodes: what has US done from Afghan civilian POV? other than Karzai govt.
No talk of Afghanistan reconstruction that can win Afghan’s hearts and minds.
Yes I do hear as much as Afghans here that US cares less about their deaths.

I hope US/NATO win but against whom–is it possible? a radical change in strategy needed? All said and done drones are not much useful. can anyone name the valuable targets taken out by drones other than B. Mehsud?
why is it is so hard for the (human and electronic) intelligence to find out where the hell are these three chiefs–OBL, Jawahiri, Mullah Omar.”

–>Most of these Militants are cowards anyways, mentally weak, uneducated poor types, who think that they will get 72 virgins in heaven. Some of them are psychopaths, hellbent on killing just for fun, drunk on religious hatred and supremacy and thus excusing themselves in the name of religion and God.

Rajeev, have faith, Robotic warfare is in its infancy. It will not be long before you have Drones which are insect sized infiltration units, which will recognize the voice patterns, word match, facial topography match, and such things. Those little “micro” drones with sensitive cameras and listening devices will provide a mountain of potential targets quickly. Drone technology is evolving and eventually smaller drones will be able to target and hit individuals and avoid killing the innocents beside them, resulting in pinpoint capability. It is coming and not in the far future. The drones you see today, were already invented 20 years ago, just imagine what they have already developed. No militant will be safe, when they are awake, in a cave, or when they are fast asleep. All this will be done without collateral damage.

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

Wanted in North Carolina, American Disappears in Pakistan: New York Times
http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09  /04/wanted-in-north-carolina-with-a-cou rt-date-in-pakistan/?hp

Pakistani police can only jail Layers, Journalists and Politicians. Pakistani Govt is saving and using terrorists as cash-spinning machines.

The reason for drones to police Pakistan.

Posted by Rana | Report as abusive

The reason for drones to police Pakistan.

Pakistani police can only jail Layers, Journalists and Politicians. Pakistani Govt is saving and using terrorists as cash-spinning machines.

Wanted in North Carolina, American Disappears in Pakistan: New York Times
http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09  /04/wanted-in-north-carolina-with-a-cou rt-date-in-pakistan/?hp

Posted by Rana | Report as abusive

Pak starts production of drone jets with Italy collaboration
http://www.sananews.com.pk/english/2009/ 08/21/pak-starts-production-of-drone-jet s-with-italy-collaboration/

But has another problem. Every target on the ground is a friend or an asset if ISI. So no targets to kill, but anyway, good flying experience and ego boosting till go complete bankrupt!

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive

New angle of terrorism just found in Pakistan.

http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp  ?page=200997\story_7-9-2009_pg1_2

“Tamil Tigers paid for attack on Sri Lankan team: PM

during his recent visit to Libya – that the Tamil Tigers had funded terror attacks in Pakistan, including the commando-style attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team at Lahore’s Liberty market roundabout. The PM said that both countries were investigating this possibility, adding that the LTTE may have funded other attacks in Pakistan as well”

So officialy Pakistani terrorists are on sale now, Islamic Reason is Lost somewhere.

Or wait a minute is that Pakistan trying to say “Drone Sri Lanka instead” ??

Posted by singh | Report as abusive

Sanjeev: The future of insect drone technology, please see youtube clips.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSCLBG9Ke X4&feature=related

Israeli Bionic Flying Robot for seeking and hunting Militants and Terrorists:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAVtuTOKG sA&feature=PlayList&p=BFA36C58163E5244&p laynext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=12

In short, coward militant cave dwellers will have no place to hide or sleep. It is only a matter of time. All hideouts and such places are not impenetrable and not infiltratable.

These drones will provide pre-emption and Justice from a distance to keep the world safe. This will be one of many ways to keep the enemies of civility, enemies of rationality, enemies of civilization and enemies of mankind in a dwindling state.

Militants do not stand a chance, the future history will show that the Militants and terorists will be defeated and democracy and human rights will prevail.

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

Global Watcher:
@Rajeev, have faith, Robotic warfare is in its infancy. It will not be long before you have Drones which are insect sized infiltration units, which will recognize the voice patterns, word match, facial topography match, and such things. Those little “micro” drones with sensitive cameras and listening devices will provide a mountain of potential targets quickly. Drone technology is evolving and eventually smaller drones will be able to target and hit individuals and avoid killing the innocents beside them, resulting in pinpoint capability. It is coming and not in the far future. All this will be done without collateral damage…..”
- Posted by Global Watcher

Global Watcher: I hope you are right. That will be valuable. My view is that the human intelligence network of is invaluable (US has mostly electronic intell). ISI has been the teacher of the terrorists being sought for last 8 yrs. How many High value targets of A-Q or other terrorists Pakistan ISI has helped in catching. I know that one HVT Abu Zubaiyda (OBL’s close associate who was running A-Q business sitting inside Pakistan) was caught by CIA/FBI/Pak agencies in a safe house in Pakistan Punjab. But his arrest happened only when USA and other allied spy agencies had clear evidence of his whereabouts. ISI just simple let him work–this is the view of pakistani expert rasheed Ahmed who wrote “Descent into Chaos”. I will be surprised if ISI does not know where the cream of A-Q and Taliban is. That US-Pak link is weak.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

@Rajeev,

“ISI has been the teacher of the terrorists being sought for last 8 yrs. How many High value targets of A-Q or other terrorists Pakistan ISI has helped in catching.”

–>Eventually, the ISI or Pak Army will be called out directly by the U.S. It is almost 1,000% certain that eventually the U.S.’s final stop will end there, with a mountain of electronic evidence, that will face Pakistan society right in the face. I wonder what they will do, prosecute the guys down the hallway, who they see everday at work?

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

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