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]


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