Sadaullah Wazir must be 18 or 19 years old by now. He might have been starting his first or second year of university. “My life was very good,” he said in 2011. “I thought I would become a doctor.” His legs are gone, stripped by a U.S. drone strike when he was 15. The result was prosthetics, painful walking and constant headaches.
Like Wazir, many residents of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan spend every day in the shadow of the valley of death, wondering if high-explosive damnation will come streaking out of the sky to claim them or a loved one. Some of these people might be classified as combatants by U.S. authorities, but they cannot see, hear or surrender to automated bombs fired from remote-controlled planes. The pilots of America’s newest war machine might not have a face. But they certainly have eyes and hands.
What is a drone? Since around 2001, many Western nations have employed remote-controlled aircraft, officially designated as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. These airplanes were mostly used for high-altitude reconnaissance, although the U.S. has been arming their craft since the Afghanistan campaigns in 2001.
The piloting team controls drones via satellite. A dish is mounted on the aircraft, which uploads a real-time video feed and radar to a satellite that bounces the information back down to squishy human pilots, safely tucked away in a bunker, surrounded by control boxes and monitors. The quality of U.S. communications hardware and the diaspora of U.S. military bases allow drones to be launched from anywhere on the globe and controlled from opposite ends of the hemisphere.
The two primary drones employed by the U.S. are named the Predator and the Reaper. This factoid doesn’t tell us much about the technology except that the U.S. military name their toys like 12 year olds, but it should tell you what these machines are designed to do.
The Predator weighs about 2,200 pounds loaded and flies at a max cruising speed of 217 kilometers per hour. I know what you’re thinking: what a slow piece of crap. My Civic goes faster than that. Well, your job is probably delivering pizzas, or writing for a student newspaper in exchange for pizzas. The Predator’s job is to fly at heights far greater than any combat helicopter (over 25,000 feet in the sky) invisible to the naked eye and for 24-hour stretches that would fatigue a human pilot, like some kind of flying Jaws.
The Predator’s big brother, the Reaper, flies almost three times faster and carries 15 times more weapons, except its weight restricts a single flight to 14 hours. If the piloting team spots a target and Obama is having a bad day, they pulverize it with Hellfire missiles or a laser-guided bomb, and probably say badass stuff like, “kill confirmed.” Hellfire missiles were first designed as anti-armour weapons to be used against tanks and such. However, like most U.S. military technology, they were built with the paranoia of fighting a great and formidable foe, like Megatron from Transformers. When the U.S. realized that the aerial war in the Middle East was not going to consist of brilliant dogfights and strafing runs but surveillance and the occasional hail of death on peasant rebels armed with Kalashnikov rifles, the Air Force adapted the missiles for precision use with uavs. Go figure.
Air force pilots train their bodies for a long time before taking their birds through any sort of fancy Top Gun maneuver. This is not just to look good playing beach volleyball. If you or I rode in the cockpit of a fighter jet and did a barrel roll, we would puke all over ourselves and black out. Cardiovascular health, muscular strength and extended acclimatization are necessary for airmen to survive the rigors of G-force strain and fluctuating air pressure levels.
Obviously, you cannot afford to lose consciousness while piloting an airplane. Fatigue is a major issue for all pilots, as their lives and the lives of others depend on staying focused every second they remain airborne.
Some of you might recall the joke that goes, “My grandfather was an airline pilot. He passed away peacefully in his sleep yesterday. His passengers did not.”
Others might remember the horrible Tarnak Farm friendly fire incident in 2002 that sent home Canada’s first casualty from Afghanistan — a night-time bomb drop by an American fighter squadron who partly blamed fatigue (and the subsequent use of amphetamines) on their mistake.
Drones promise to fix all of that. By rotating pilots in and out with shifts, an alert and rested individual can operate a drone so long as it has fuel. Once armies discovered the utility of the airplane during the First and Second World Wars, military leaders have tirelessly looked for a way to make aircraft and pilots more efficient. For them, unmanned flight has been an unrealized fantasy until now. Nothing is a more effective force multiplier than control of battlefield airspace. To any state under attack, losing control of the air — even briefly — can mean permanently losing control of the ability to scramble fighters.
When Israel attacked Egypt in the Six-Day War of 1967, their first action was to raid Egypt’s airfields. Egypt had one of the most well-developed Air Forces out of the Arab states, but after Israel flattened their planes to the ground they never regained air superiority. Afterwards, Israel took the liberty of endlessly raiding Egyptian supply lines and fuel depots as well as infantry and tank columns which devastated the Egyptian forces.
To any attacking state, loss of air control means leaving men and vehicles on the ground exposed to fire from fortified positions, often isolated from supplies or the possibility of retreat. When Syria, Egypt and their allies attacked Israel in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, it was their inability to break the Israeli Air Force that cost them their initial offensive and eventually the war.
There are other well-known examples of the kind of havoc unchecked airplanes can wreak during war — the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for instance. However, the Yom Kippur War and the Six-Day War are the two best examples of modern, reasonably well-matched militaries going toe-to-toe. The outcomes of these wars illustrate the importance of air superiority in tipping both the physical and psychological scales of an armed conflict.
The closest I have ever felt to being bombed was having my friends pop a bag of Froot Loops by my head while I was trying to sleep, but all of my research suggests that the experience is absolutely terrifying. The difference between knowing that there are friendly faces in the sky, ready to swoop down and deliver you from evil versus wondering if thunderbolts from Zeus will fry you without warning greatly affects a soldier’s psychological resiliency.
During the Yom Kippur War, the Egyptian Air Force put up a vicious fight and destroyed many more airplanes than the Israelis expected to lose. These losses terrified Israeli high command, partially because airplanes rank among the most expensive pieces of military equipment pound-for-pound, but more so because of the loss of experienced pilots, many of whom were veterans of the Six-Day War.
Pilots take a long time to train and represent a significant investment for militaries. They are placed in charge of critical machinery and often have access to intelligence reports that can jeopardize a great deal if captured. Successful pilots enjoy a great deal of social status in the military and can affect national morale when lost. One of the most famous captives of the Yom Kippur War was an Israeli pilot named Avraham Lanir who was tortured to death for vital information that, as far we know, he refused to divulge.
Drones are generally cheaper to produce than conventional aircraft. The cost of a Predator drone is around $4 million. A Reaper drone costs around $17 million, but still compares favourably to last-generation aircraft such as the F/A-18 Hornet, which can cost anywhere between $29–60 million depending on the model.
The U.S. does not have a drone to fulfil every air combat purpose, and the operating cost of an aircraft varies wildly (some stealth bombers run close to $1 billion for a single unit). But the main reduction in cost is political thanks to the reduction of risk for the pilot. No more pilots in flag-draped caskets, pesky journalists swarming military spokespeople with questions. No more lawsuits from bitter family members. No more costly search-and-rescue, behind-enemy-lines missions for downed pilots who know that Dick Cheney wears Spider-Man pyjamas, or that George W. Bush made the nuclear launch codes “12345” and Obama didn’t bother to change them.
Subbing out men for automated weapons like drones has the potential to reduce U.S. casualties, but casualties were what encouraged the American public to condemn war to begin with. I’m not saying that casualties are good. They’re awful. But when war is too convenient for one side it becomes too easy to keep going to war.
The irony of drone technology is that its ability to safeguard lives might threaten prospects for long-term peace. According to a 2009 statement from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, drones “are the only game in town” for disrupting insurgents.
While it is disturbing that Panetta compared drones to a game, considering how much drone piloting resembles a video game (and how badly the Air Force tries to recruit clueless young men based on this fact), this statement has only proven more accurate as time goes on. The U.S. is building more combat drones and performing research to expand roles drones can fill.
Drone pilots can work in complete safety, without the distractions and fears of combat. The Navy has developed a drone prototype capable of air-to-air dogfighting, landing on a carrier deck and refuelling itself in midair. The potential advantages of a superior air UAV are immense, given that dogfighting is often more dangerous and physically demanding for pilots than any other type of mission. From a sociological perspective, drones could prove useful to the U.S. military’s image, which has undergone something of a botched makeover in response to easing of American gender and racial barriers.
As much as everyone used to love the handsome hotshot pilot, that ideal has fallen off the wagon lately as more and more people have realized that the U.S. hasn’t had a serious military rival in decades. All their pilots do now is rain on the parades of weaker, poorer countries.
Thanks to the lack of glory associated with killing from behind a computer screen along with the more relaxed, almost office-like atmosphere the Air Force has come to adopt, the old boys’ club at the Pentagon shouldn’t feel too threatened by including a greater number of minorities, women and disabled persons in the service. Perhaps now more black, paralyzed lesbians can help blow up Kandahar shepherds and goats all the way from sunny California. Huzzah?
Another dubious advantage that drones offer is the kind of anonymity that traumatized Delta Force snipers wish they had. The U.S. has made hundreds of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, yet we have no idea who the pilots are. This presents huge problems.
Anonymity makes killing easier and makes accountability more difficult. A former Lieutenant-Colonel Army Ranger and psychology professor by the name of Dave Grossman wrote a book titled On Killing that examines the various factors that militaries employ to shape a normal, empathetic person into a remorseless killer. Switching to decaf is not one of them.
Anonymity, physical distance, group expectations, class distinction and perceived value in killing the target are all among the most important predictors of whether a soldier will follow their orders, and drones fulfil all of these. Anonymity I just mentioned. Physical distance should be an obvious factor, as drone pilots operate far from their vehicle. Group expectations are important as well because drone pilots fly as a team, often under direct orders from the president.
Drone strikes enable class distinction because the targeted insurgents are not exactly privileged folks. As for perceived value in a target, well, pilots are told that the people they are targeting are important terrorist leaders.
In truth, drone operations are conducted with such secrecy that the public has no idea who is being killed at this point. But few people seem to care that civilians, such as family members or neighbours, are getting caught in the crossfire, perhaps because the lives of American soldiers are not at risk of retaliation during these operations, or maybe it’s just difficult to empathize with a grainy satellite image of a smouldering building, even if the remains of a few kids are inside.
Disappointingly, the majority of Americans appear to approve the use of drones in overseas combat — their fears are centered around the possibility that their government might use drones to spy on them. Never mind that your government is blowing up people without accountability, Obama might be watching you masturbate.
My issue with drones does not lie in the physical product, which is an engineering marvel and has many potential civilian applications. Miniaturized drone technology can save lives by performing surgeries inside internal organs. The possibility to improve commercial shipping is also enormous. Amazon has already begun developing a fleet of drones and maybe McDonald’s will start delivering “McDrops.” That is just wishful thinking on my part. But suggesting that we eradicate drone technology is an unrealistic solution. Drones are here to stay.
Other nations are already adopting drones faster than a computer can sing “Daisy Bell,” and like any potent military technology the law will lag behind legislation while world leaders squabble and panic behind closed doors. This has been seen throughout history, ranging from the crossbow to the type of firearms ammunition soldiers are allowed to carry to biological weapons like mustard and sarin gas to the atomic bomb.
The important task before Western governments right now is to pursue airtight methods of monitoring and regulating the use of drones in targeted killings.
As of January, around 2,500–4,000 people have been killed in Pakistan in around 300 drone strikes. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 500–900 of those deaths were civilians and that 168–200 of those civilians were children. The U.S. government has denied killing a single civilian with drone attacks. I try not to harbour delusions — war must be hell and civilians will always suffer. But the thought of someone in a cubicle wiping Cheetos dust off his thumbs before he presses a button and turns another person into paste is sickening. There is something particularly inhumane in diluting the cruelty of war with Orwellian gimmicks.
When I was researching tips on how to write a feature, I found a website that suggested that the most common type of features writing tells a story of a person overcoming insurmountable odds. Out of curiosity, I went back to Sadaullah Wazir, the boy at the beginning of this article who lost his legs in 2009 to see if he made it into medical school, got the girl and won the Millennium Falcon back from Lando. I couldn’t find anything for a while. Then, a small mention of him in a New York Times article, dated about a week after my 23rd birthday in May, 2013. I was mad that week because my phone was broken. Presumably as a result of his injuries, Wazir had died.