WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Flying drone aircraft over Afghanistan from the comfort of a military base in the United States is much more stressful than it might seem, even for pilots spared the sacrifice of overseas deployment and separation from family and friends.
America’s insatiable demand for drone technology is taking a heavy toll on Air Force crews, according to a six-month Air Force study, with just under a third of active duty pilots of drones like the Predator reporting symptoms of burnout and 17 percent showing signs of “clinical distress.”
That’s when stress starts undermining their performance at work and their family lives.
“Clinical distress takes it to a different level,” said Dr. Wayne Chappelle, who co-authored the study. In comparison, about 28 percent of returning U.S. soldiers from Iraq were diagnosed with “clinical distress,” the Air Force said.
The Air Force study also turned up a surprise for some top brass - the main source of stress for crews manning the Air Force’s drone fleet wasn’t firing Hellfire missiles or taking out targets on the battlefield.
Although a small number of pilots were seen at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, the biggest factor wearing down drone crews were things like long hours and inadequate staffing, which have pushed the Air Force’s 350-odd drone pilots and the crews supporting them to their limits.
“We’ve kind of been in a surge mode with our remotely piloted aircraft since 2007 in terms of crew ratios that aren’t as good as we would like them to be,” said Lieutenant General Larry James, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
In 2007, the Air Force was flying just 10 to 15 combat air patrols, known as CAPS in military-speak. That means that at any time there were up to 15 drones in the air peering down at different parts of world, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
That compares to more than 60 CAPS at any given time the Air Force flew this past summer, a temporary surge which the Air Force rolled back to 57 to help relieve some of the stress, James said.
Although the United States formally ended the war in Iraq last week and is gradually drawing down in Afghanistan, that doesn’t mean demand for drones will decline. Indeed, the opposite appears likely.
“As you lose eyes on the ground, you may want more eyes in the air,” James said.
Although combat was not reported to be one of the main “stressers” for any of those surveyed, it had affected some drone crews - who witnessed, and maybe even participated in, some of the most grizzly aspects of war from afar.
The bulk of what drone crews do is surveillance, monitoring suspects or compounds. But they also sometimes take out targets.
That means pressing a button that can lead to someone’s death half a world away, then ending your shift to meet family at, say, a child’s soccer practice. The transition can be difficult for soldiers at places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
“We try to select people who are well-adjusted. We select family people. People of good moral standing, background, integrity,” said Lieutenant Colonel Kent McDonald, who was also involved with the study.
“And when they have to kill someone, and when they’re involved with missions when they’re observing people over long periods of time, and then they either kill them or see them killed, it does cause them to re-think aspects of their life and it can be bothersome.”
Among the most alarming aspects of the study were the results of one particular category of drone crew - sensor operators for Global Hawk drones.
Thirty-four percent of them reported burnout and 25 percent showed clinical distress, the study found. But Air Force officials blamed this partly on experiences from actual combat in previous, manned missions.
“Unfortunately there were members from the Global Hawk center operator community who were deployed in another capacity and they did experience combat,” McDonald said of the survey group. “There were a couple of members lost they were very close to.”