In Creech Air Force, Nevada, pilots sit in dimly lit cargo containers and fly drones. Via sophisticated video cameras attached to the underbody of the drone, pilots can watch over large areas of territory, identify potential insurgents, and kill them with hellfire missiles.
Distance in war has long been praised by military leaders as a means of enabling combatants to kill more effectively, and without the psychological damage that comes from killing in close quarters. The history of warfare has continually been on a trajectory whereby technological advances have enabled killing to occur from further and further away. Archers were arguably the first combatants to kill from afar, before riflemen and snipers took their place. During World War Two, bomber pilots commentated on how easy it was to kill, normally because they were miles away, by the time their lethal cargo exploded. Infamously the navigator of the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, claimed to have “come off the mission, had a bite and a few beers… and had not lost a night’s sleep over the bomb in 40 years”.
It therefore seems natural to regard drones and their pilots as following this trend. Drones allow war to be conducted in safety on the other side of the world, and many commentators claim that this distance removes pilots from the moral consequences of their actions. The reasoning behind this arises from how the drone camera depicts those beneath its gaze. The birds-eye-view offered by the most prevalent drone camera in operation – the Multi-Spectral Targeting System camera (MSTS camera) – renders targets faceless. They become grainy pixelated silhouettes, and this not only objectifies and dehumanises these potential targets, but also imbues drone pilots with a god complex. As former drone pilot Brandon Bryant argues, “we are the ultimate voyeurs”. Under these conditions killing-by-drone may be regarded as psychologically easier than killing face-to-face.
However, this analysis is overly simplistic. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) manifests itself in drone pilots at a similar rate to other combatants. Distance is not affording drone pilots the protection from their actions as many expected. Again, the answer to this quandary may also lie in the imagery relayed onto the drone pilot’s monitor. The drone camera intimately entwines the drone pilot with the geography underneath them. Unlike bombers before them, they experience the destruction inflicted by them unfold in real-time, and are operationally obliged to monitor the ground afterwards to confirm fatalities. Drone pilots are forced to watch as the previously dehumanised decontextualized birds-eye view of the human body, quickly disintegrates into a plethora of skyward facing limbs and body tissue. Night operations render this violent imagery even more traumatic, as pilots watch body parts rendered hot-white via infrared, slowly fade to darkness as life is extinguished. In short, drone pilots may be further away, but they see much more.
Drone operations are a highly networked phenomenon, which incorporate a variety of actors into the kill-chain. Although pilotless, the drone is operated and supported by several hundred personnel in a variety of locations, and commentators have suggested that this may function to divide and dissolve the moral culpability of killing-by-drone, rendering it less traumatic. On the most basic level, moral responsibility is divided between the drone pilot and their sensor operator who is responsible for positioning the drone’s laser onto the target, for the missile to follow, once the drone pilot has pulled the trigger. On a more complex level, images from the drone camera are not just viewed by the drone pilot, but are shared between ground troops, and more importantly, a number of senior commanders, mission controllers and military lawyers operating at Central Command’s Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) in Qatar, who ultimately grants permission to kill. However, despite this division of killing, drone pilots and their sensor operators still remain vulnerable to PTSD and severe feelings of guilt after killing.
Killing-by-drone may be psychologically more traumatic than initially imagined by military strategists, and this problem may be compounded in the future, by technological advances to the drone camera. Whilst these technological advances may mitigate collateral damage, they may also enable drone pilots to see the lethal consequences of their actions in greater detail than before. For example, the innovative ARGUS-IS camera will remedy many of the MSTS camera’s limitations. Namely, its limited focus, and omission of the wider context from the decision making process. One drone pilot, for instance, recalls the “horror” felt when he saw two young boys bicycle into the visual field before a hellfire missile struck its designated target. The 1.8 gigapixel ARGUS-IS camera will enable drone pilots to surveillance the ground in ultra-high definition, and by stitching multiple images together, will drastically broaden their field-of-view. Whilst these developments will decrease the probability of collateral damage – itself a catalyst for PTSD – they may also unintentionally facilitate the voyeuristic intimacy between drone pilot and target, that counteracts the protective shield of distance, and encourages psychological trauma.