back to article US Air Force drone pilots in mass burn out, robo-flights canceled

The US Air Force has reduced the number of drones it keeps in the air because their stressed-out pilots are quitting in large numbers. In February, the Air Force said it was planning to increase the number of daily drone flights over the Middle East and Asia to 65 a day, possibly rising to 70 a day dependent on need. But …

  1. Triggerfish

    Wonder what you're judgement is like on flying hr 11, it can't be good.

  2. Kevin 6

    as someone who works 12 hour shifts I have to ask are the people in charge of this completely out of their fuckin minds?

    Everyone I know at work once we hit hour 9-10 our concentration drops faster then a penny off the Empire state building hell people also start having issues keeping their eyes open(work night shift), and the toll is quite high stress wise. Now add in the stress of having to be alert non-stop... honestly they should be in 6 hour shift rotations at max 4 days one week, and 3 the next. Sure they would need more pilots, but the results would be drastically better.

    1. seven of five Silver badge

      > Sure they would need more pilots, but the results would be drastically better.

      And they should care about this why?

      Drones are cheap, losing one does not produce those nasty black bags and when they hit the wrong tent it is not an issue either. Why bother?

      1. Yag

        Drones may be cheap. Shooting misidentified civilians or friend ground forces is not.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "Drones may be cheap. Shooting misidentified civilians or friend ground forces is not."

          I honestly think you've got that the wrong way round. In the very infrequent event that compensation is paid to foreign victims it will be paltry, perhaps a couple of thousand dollars, and as a general rule governments try to avoid paying any compensation for troops killed in official war scenarios, whether friendly fire or not.

          As such, in the case of civilian or friendly casualties, the drone is the most expensive part, and the most expensive cost of the mission is the munitions. But compared to fast jets, drones are still cheap.

          1. nematoad Silver badge
            Unhappy

            "In the very infrequent event that compensation is paid to foreign victims it will be paltry...the drone is the most expensive part..."

            Spoken like a true accountant.

            What you do not seem to see is that these foreign victims are actually real human beings, like you and me. I leave it to you to decide whether the victim's families would rather have the "compensation" however small or their loved one back, alive with them. I know which choice I would make. and it isn't the financial one.

            I wonder if one of the stresses reported isn't a sense of guilt.

            1. Christoph

              "What you do not seem to see is that these foreign victims are actually real human beings, like you and me"

              Not to the US military they aren't. You're thinking in European terms, where human rights apply to all humans in all places at all times. Under US law, rights apply to US citizens. Foreigners don't count as real people. Rights only apply in limited places - for instance not in Guantanamo.

              If a drone hits a few innocent bystanders or a bunch of children playing, they just deny it and shout about the terrorists they've killed.

            2. Jeffrey Nonken

              Ledswinger

              "...the drone is the most expensive part, and the most expensive cost of the mission is the munitions."

              nematoad

              "What you do not seem to see is that these foreign victims are actually real human beings..."

              I think Ledswinger was being cynical, not compassionless. Rather than suggesting that human life is cheap, he's suggesting that the drone program leaders think that way. Collateral damage? Pfft. Whatever, as long as our budget isn't harmed.

              He's not saying human life has little worth, just that it's seen by the decision makers as having little cost.

              Don't shoot the messenger.

          2. Yag

            You are right about the pure financial cost. But you are forgetting something major in our democracies : Public support.

            Remember the Vietnam war...

            1. LucreLout

              @Yag

              Public support. Remember the Vietnam war...

              There is massive public support for drones.

              No matter how the battle is fought, if one side are hiding in amongst civillians, then a lot of civillians will die. Particularly if the fighters are dressed as civillians. It's always been that way, hence the battlefield of days gone by where uniformed combatants would assemble to fight.

              Drones don't change the level of civillian casualties, they just reduce the losses on the side not hiding amongst the civillians. Public opinion won't turn against the drones because that would require more of our sons & daughters, brothers & sisters to come home in body bags: the war will still be fought.

              Civillians have always died in wars.... the only way that will change is when we, as a species, stop fighting them. I don't forsee that happening any time soon, sadly.

              1. Yag

                Re: @Yag

                This is a misunderstanding.

                I was not refering of the lack of public support for drones.

                I was refering to the loss of public support for fatal mistakes caused by drone operators, mistakes that could be avoided by not having them doing 12-hours shifts.

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

                  Re: @Yag

                  A few of us complain, but most people, while they will say it is bad if you confront them, they really just don't care.

              2. Cynic_999 Silver badge

                Re: @Yag

                "

                No matter how the battle is fought, if one side are hiding in amongst civillians, then a lot of civillians will die.

                "

                Quite possibly. Now think about the statement made in the article that the drone pilots stop off at Walmart and go home to wife & kids in Suburbia. They are soldiers on active duty hiding amongst civilians, are they not?

          3. Alfred

            Compensation?

            Compensation? That's not the price you pay for murdering a dozen innocent civilians. The price you pay is that their friends and relatives are pushed towards terrorism. Every time we murder some innocent civilians going about their lawful business, we strengthen terrorism. We recruit for them (and, frankly, understandably so; if the US was routinely murdering innocent people near me, from the sky, without warning or due process or accountability, I suspect I'd end up damaged enough that I'd want to make someone pay).

            We make terrorists. This is how we make them. The price of our incompetence is terrorism. The price of our foreign policy and associated murdering is the death of our own civilians in the future.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Unhappy

              Re: Compensation?

              yes, but it is unlikely to be anybody but plebs that suffer retaliation - so they don't care

            2. Dan Paul

              Re: Compensation? @alfred

              In a war where no one wears a uniform on the "enemy" side it is almost impossible to tell who the combatants are. That's not our fault, it's the fault of the combatants who chose where to fight from.

              When the enemy hides in the middle of a civilian area, innocent people will die. That is a fact of ANY war, not just this one. Expecting they are safe because of their location is risking "innocent lives".

              Launching rockets from the courtyard of a residence is the act of cowards who are ultimately responsible for any death or injury to those who live there.

              Propaganda is rampant in these wars as any dead can be called "innocent civilians" because they don't look different.

              Blaming our service people for the activities of the enemy is the biggest act of cowardice you can commit!

              1. Alfred

                @Dan Paul

                "Blaming our service people for the activities of the enemy is the biggest act of cowardice you can commit!"

                I am a reservist of some fifteen years and I have been deployed overseas somewhere hot on active duty in a shooting war. Don't you dare come all Daily Mail / Fox News with me, pretending that to disagree with foreign policy is to somehow be dishonourable to forces personnel.

                Second point; bleat about how it's not nice that the bad people hide in amongst innocent people all you like. It doesn't change the FACTS. And the FACTS are that we routinely murder innocent people and in doing so we cause terrorism. I don't give a damn how cowardly it may or may not be for OpFor to hide in amongst innocent people. That's completely irrelevant to the FACT that by murdering innocent people, we cause terrorism.

                I could extend your argument to its logical conclusion; these drone pilots are launching their attacks from within the civilian population, so when terrorists turn up and kill pieces of that civilian population, it's the fault of those drone pilots. Utterly ridiculous. Grow up.

              2. YARR
                Boffin

                "War" ?

                Are these drone pilots actually fighting a war? Has the US congress signed an act of war against another nation? If so, then any retaliation against the US or US citizens would also be an act of war rather than an act of terrorism.

                If on the other hand, the drone pilots are fighting terrorism (and they must have a legal agreement with the nations where they do so), how do they determine who is a terrorist? Are the people they're killing known to have committed acts of terror? Do they survey the population at a distance from their drones, then decide that someone looks suspicious, so they should be killed?

                Presumably US citizens are OK with someone from a faraway land flying drones over the US and deciding whether they should live or die?

              3. P. Lee

                Re: Compensation? @alfred

                >When the enemy hides in the middle of a civilian area, innocent people will die.

                Do you mean in a city such as Washington DC?

              4. Mike VandeVelde
                Boffin

                @Dan Paul

                "That's not our fault, it's the fault of the combatants who chose where to fight from."

                They "chose" to fight from their homelands when foreign military forces invaded. Yes it sure would be nice if all the people who didn't like their country being invaded would all just gather together en masse in the middle of the open desert with their ak47s and rpgs so they could all be entirely annihilated in moments by a few missiles from safely afar, but they savagely ignore the plight of our poor poor consciences and try to do what little damage they can while remaining contemptibly alive, near their homes and families, leaving no other option but to "save the village by destroying it". Evil cowards with no honour, apparently.

            3. Florida1920
              Holmes

              Re: Compensation?

              We make terrorists. This is how we make them.

              And then the M-I complex makes more munitions and drones to kill them. It's called a business plan.

            4. Cynic_999 Silver badge

              Re: Compensation?

              "

              The price you pay is that their friends and relatives are pushed towards terrorism.

              "

              Correct. Which is a big bonus for the government. The more threats the population faces, the more power and control the government has. In the UK there are so many new laws passed each year that the judges don't have time to learn what they all are - and the government justifies pushing through at least 80% of those laws on the basis that they are necessary in order to protect us all against terrorists. Governments love wars and threats, and do whatever they can to ensure the country is never at peace for too many months.

            5. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Compensation?

              If you kill innocent people you just get more money to fight these new terrorists, so for the accountants, it is quite cheap, no problem whatsoever.

              In order for this to be expensive, they should be responsible for the actions, as they are not, no problem for them.

          4. Graham Marsden

            @Ledswinger

            >> Shooting misidentified civilians or friend ground forces is not.

            > I honestly think you've got that the wrong way round. In the very infrequent event that compensation is paid to foreign victims it will be paltry,

            It's not the cost of the compensation, it's the cost of the cover up full enquiry that follows...

        2. fajensen Silver badge

          Shooting misidentified civilians or friend ground forces is not.

          It's the American Way ...Even our grand parents knew to take cover whenever Americans were shooting.

          1. TRT Silver badge

            Surely the drones self-pilot to within a determined distance of the target area then switch to operator control for the decision making and strike?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "as someone who works 12 hour shifts I have to ask are the people in charge of this completely out of their fuckin minds?"

      No, they're lazy, budget obsessed, and not accountable for the consequences. It's vastly easier to schedule two shift rotas than three shift. And at a bean counting level it is widely believed to be cheaper. If there's some unintended consequences it is either "skinnies" taking collateral damage, or PSTD for some poor blighter who in the grand scheme has no power.

      There are non military parallels. Here in the UK, most state hospitals run 12 hours shifts for nursing staff, and junior doctors can be on duty for eighteen hours at a time, not infrequently without breaks. If on the other hand you're a private sector truck business, there's draconian rules on how long you can and can't drive, when and how long breaks must be, with mandatory recording. The longest a truck driver can drive is ten hours a day with two mandatory 45 minute breaks (and only ten hours driving twice a week).

      The curious thing is why the state thinks that doctors, nurses or drone pilots are less likely to cause harm than truck drivers? More likely that they set these rules up because there is no system for the public sector to be held to account.

  3. Charles Manning

    Switching in/out of war mode is hard

    For normal armed forces, the mobilisation/demobilisation process takes days.

    The soldiers etc need time to "de-pressurise" and readjust to civvy life. These processes have been developed over time because without them, the soldiers are more prone to PTSD, domestic violence, suicide and other undesirable behaviours. Similarly, there is a mobilisation phase needed to adjust to military activity.

    The drone pilots have none of this. They are expected to switch from the mindset that bombs children at a wedding to a loving family member during a commute. That is just not going to work well.

  4. Herbert Fruchtl
    Thumb Up

    'All right, I've got my war face on, and I'm going to the fight,' He's watching too many war movies and not talking to his men (and women). It's probably more like "I'm going to kill 50 people today, who can't defend themselves. Most of them are truly our enemies, but 10% are innocent bystanders, and 5% just hold something in their hand that could possibly be a weapon. That child on the car's back seat yesterday looked just like my daughter".

    But never worry, within 10 years this job will be taken over by an AI. Slightly less accurate, but nobody will be able to challenge it. Welcome to the rave new world.

    1. YetAnotherLocksmith

      Not sure whether to up vote or down vote that.

      I agree with what you are saying, but cannot condone what the words actually say.

      It will be drones vs the rest of the world, eventually.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    > ... and I'm going to the fight

    Or, in reality, sitting in a room watching a screen.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Let's face it.. watching a screen for 10 hours or more a day is boring, no matter what's on it. Piloting a real plane in combat has adrenalin, thoughtfulness, focus. There's no feedback from sounds and movement. And yes, these guys are at the bottom of the pecking order although the pecking order is getting shorter now that the A-10 is gone (or going away).

      And yeah.. screaming into the target at 300+ mph (depends on target and weapons) doesn't allow you to see what you did after the munitions left the bird. Drone pilots have to watch what they blew up. That part alone has got to be hard.

      Disclaimer: I flew as a door gunner in Vietnam. Watching people die no matter what side they're on is hard. Even harder to forget.

      1. Cynic_999 Silver badge

        "

        Disclaimer: I flew as a door gunner in Vietnam. Watching people die no matter what side they're on is hard. Even harder to forget.

        "

        When you believe that the people you are shooting at are very likely wanting to or are going to shoot at you, your action is easy to justify to yourself on the basis of self-protection. When you are fully aware that the people you are killing present no threat to you whatsoever, it requires a very different mind-set in order to become acceptable to yourself.

        1. Mark 85 Silver badge

          Very true. This isn't a video game and it's not actually being in a cockpit. My point of view is from the cockpit vs. drone pilots. They do get the short end of the stick. Playing a video game for 12 hours would be hard on anyone, but to know and to watch that every time you drop a munition, someone is getting blown to hell can't be easy on the mind.

          I'm not sure why, but the USAF drone pilots are all officers and qualified pilots with flying time beyond training. The Army, Navy uses enlisted types trained specifically for drone duty. I have no idea what the CIA uses for pilots. Given that, part of the USAF's problem is that their pilots have been knocked out the "real" AF and are now basically desk pilots. The pecking order in the AF is hell and they are at the lowest level of it and stuck there. I feel very sorry for them.

    2. Charles Manning

      Combat is safe

      Nope. Drone flying really is going into a fight. Perhaps even worse.

      It is really easy for the armchair experts to dismiss drone pilots as cowards etc because they can cause so much damage without putting themselves at risk and that "real soldiers" go into "real fights".

      The biggest dangers for any Western soldier's life (I'm using soldier as a catch-phrase for all military personnel) is suicide. At least twenty times as many US soldiers commit suicide as die in combat.

      When you're in real combat it is way easier to justify away killing someone with "it was him or me" and everyone will give you a pat on the back and tell you that you did the right thing.

      Not so easy for the drone pilot. That is one of very few extra stresses placed on drone operators apart from daily flipping between civvy and military life. No wonder that drone operators experience as much PTSD, but without as much understanding and support from their peers and society at large.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_veteran_suicide

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Combat is safe

        > It is really easy for the armchair experts to dismiss drone pilots as cowards etc

        I did neither.

        I was merely taking issue with the literal text.

        There's a real difference being in action and experiencing the very real risk that today you might die.

        I don't claim that the job is easy or that it doesn't cause problems for the soldiers involved.

        But let's not pretend that there's any direct comparison possible between front line troops getting shot at and bombed and these arm chair squaddies.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You will have to fight the fatty in the next chair if you want to hold on to you crisps and cheese-whats'its!

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They better get this figured out

    It won't be too long before long all combat missions will be flown by drones. The "real" pilots might be higher in the pecking order, but they're going to become a very rare breed a decade from now.

    I suspect the solution will be to have the drones become more and more autonomous, with humans eventually only need for target verification and bomb dropping. A few guys could control a couple dozen drones when they reach that point.

    Hopefully in a more reasonable 8 hour shift, as doing 12 hour shifts six days a week goes a long way towards explaining why wedding parties are getting bombed. Few people can consistently work those hours without making a lot of mistakes they wouldn't make if they worked half as much.

    1. dan1980

      Re: They better get this figured out

      Figure it out?

      No, they'll just up their dependence on private 'defence' contractors.

    2. Chozo
      Devil

      Re: They better get this figured out

      CAPTCHA's would be a cheap fix

  7. DrM
    Black Helicopters

    Private firms?

    Do these private firms flying drones for the AF fly armed drones? Have we sunk that far into being a terrorist state?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What did I do today?

    Noticed one of the workstations was on an outdated AV install, you?

    I exploded a few kids, wasn't looking to but we were short of coffee and I didn't spot them, I think I got the target too but hey they dress as civies to hide so who's to really know eh.

    What AV are you using?

    -

    12 Hour shifts? find the guy who decided that was a good idea, dress him in local clothes and drop him somewhere remote where the drones are deployed towards the end of a shift, please.

  9. Paul J Turner

    Higher wortking conditions

    "... the pay in these outfits is typically better and working conditions higher."

    What, Krugerrands and flying at 30,000 plus feet? Or have you got your sentence muddled?

    "... the pay in these outfits is typically higher and working conditions better."

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: Higher wortking conditions

      IMO it makes sense either way, since my understanding is you can have poorer pay and lower working conditions.

      That said I expect grammar purists will disagree, so I'm donning my flame-proof suit in readiness :p

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    New variety of mental issues

    Could see a whole new range of PTSD cases cropping up from going from a combat situation (admittedly non lethal for the pilot but still probably stressful) to normality inside a few hours.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: New variety of mental issues: Other risks also available

      "Aaarrghh! Aaarrghhhhhhh! OMG ! I'm crippled! Man down! Man down!"

      ""Yes, soldier, you've got carpal tunnel syndrome. I'm afraid it's the disabled parking bay and demobilisation for you."

  11. TRT Silver badge

    Won't be too long...

    before they insist on taking the meat bit out of the loop. And then came SkyNet.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Is it just me or the Yanks becoming more like the French everyday? Soon it'll be can't work after 1pm because it's now lunchtime until 5, then it's onto the vino for the rest of the day/night.

    12 hour days? Luxury. If they don't like it, shift them out to 'gan and let them be shot at/bombed 24 hours a day/7 days a week. Now experience real stress.

    As for drone pilots being on the bottom rung - yep, that's where these Xboxs 'pilots' belong.

    1. James Hughes 1

      Already happens.

      On exercise some years ago, the British army chaps were about to attach the American base, when the food trucks turned up. Set out tables, got food ready. All the American soldiers decamped from position and went to eat. Note, ALL the American soldiers.

      Nothing like a paltry exercise was going to get in the way of their grub time.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    stressed-out pilots

    crash and burn: I'm hit, I'm hit! I'm on fire, I'm burning!!! Eject, eject, oh my G...!

    He's gone...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: stressed-out pilots

      how about landing a single-seat fighter on a meadow to pick up your shot up pal who's just crash landed (behind enemy lines) and taking off with him on our lap?

      my point is - PROPORTIONS. My train commute today's been hell, sure, but not exactly 14 days and nights of a cattle car journey to Kolyma.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Military pilots see EVERYBODY as inferior

    My boss is a former AF pilot -- not even a fighter pilot. (He flew those huge cargo airplanes.) He has little to no respect for my work, my opinions or my expertise despite having hired me as an expert in my field and despite the fact that I'm critical to his company's operations.

    Not just me, but I'm one critical component. And he has no more respect for the rest of his employees, including the other ones who hold the place together.

    Of course, it's always possible that he's just a prick.

    Anon for obvious reasons.

  15. HobartTas

    "drone operators work 12-hour shifts five or six days a week" As if this isn't bad enough regarding total hours worked (60/72) per week, the article linked to also stated that they were "sapped by alternating day and night shifts " which would really do wonders for your health as you could never establish a consistent sleep cycle. I'm actually more surprised at why people would even undertake such a job under those conditions in the first place.

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