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Thursday, May 10, 2018

flying unmanned drones .... pilots experiencing mental stress

I have recently posted on ‘drone challenge’ between Chris Gayle and Kevin Pietersen – where Chris Gayle was able to hit a ball fired by a machine on to aerial drone…. Drone, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), without a human pilot aboard. Its flight is controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle. They are usually deployed for military and special operation applications, but also used in a growing number of civil applications, such as policing and firefighting, and nonmilitary security work, such as inspection of power or pipelines. UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too "dull, dirty or dangerous"  for manned aircraft.  So one thought, it is easier operating ‘drones’- and they are away from human ennui and drudgery.

Al-Qaida’s most powerful franchise has announced the death of its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, in a US drone air strike in Yemen, the latest blow to the global jihadi organisation.The killing of Wuhayshi, nicknamed Abu Basir comes as a big blow to the outfit engaged in fierce fighting in Yemen with domestic opponents.  Arab media reports earlier said three suspected al-Qaida members were killed on 9 June in an apparent US drone strike in Mukalla, a south-eastern port city in Yemen.

Away, the military brass in charge of America’s drones say that there’s a shortage of pilots.According to The New York Times, a “significant number” of the 1,200 United States Air Force pilots are “coming up for re-enlistment and are opting to leave, while a training program is producing only about half of the new pilots that the service needs.”Col. James Cluff, commander of the Air Force’s 432nd Wing, invited the Times along with a few other media onto the decade-old nerve center of drone operations outside of Las Vegas recently and told them that the Air Force has pulled instructors from schools to the “flight line." The agency now conducts 65 drone flights a day, a number that is expected to drop to 60 by fall 2015.

With the rise of the Islamic State and other global hotspots, there is increasing pressure on the Air Force to provide more drone flights. But while drone operators get to see their families at night and are half a globe away from their targets, it still takes a toll.“Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Wal-Mart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home—and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home—all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman,” Col. Cluff said.

It is long distance war, one aided by technology, with no direct exposure to minefields and killing but after  a decade of waging long-distance war through their video screens, America’s drone operators are burning out, and the Air Force is being forced to cut back on the flights even as military and intelligence officials are demanding more of them over intensifying combat zones in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.The Air Force plans to trim the flights by the armed surveillance drones to 60 a day by October from a recent peak of 65 as it deals with the first serious exodus of the crew members who helped usher in the era of war by remote control.Air Force officials said that this year they would lose more drone pilots, who are worn down by the unique stresses of their work, than they can train.

The cut in flights is an abrupt shift for the Air Force. Drone missions increased tenfold in the past decade, relentlessly pushing the operators in an effort to meet the insatiable demand for streaming video of insurgent activities in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones, including Somalia, Libya and now Syria.The reduction could also create problems for the C.I.A., which has used Air Force pilots to conduct drone missile attacks on terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen, government officials said. And the slowdown comes just as military advances by the Islamic State have placed a new premium on aerial surveillance and counterattacks.

Some top Pentagon officials had hoped to continue increasing the number of daily drone flights to more than 70. But Defence Secretary Ashton B. Carter recently signed off on the cuts after it became apparent that the system was at the breaking point, Air Force officials said.The biggest problem is that a significant number of the 1,200 pilots are completing their obligation to the Air Force and are opting to leave. Officials say that since August, Predator and Reaper drones have conducted 3,300 sorties and 875 missile and bomb strikes in Iraq against the Islamic State.

What had seemed to be a benefit of the job, the novel way that the crews could fly Predator and Reaper drones via satellite links while living safely in the United States with their families, has created new types of stresses as they constantly shift back and forth between war and family activities and become, in effect, perpetually deployed. While most of the pilots and camera operators feel comfortable killing insurgents who are threatening American troops, interviews with about 100 pilots and sensor operators for an internal study that has not yet been released, he added, found that the fear of occasionally causing civilian casualties was another major cause of stress, even more than seeing the gory aftermath of the missile strikes in general.

A Defence Department study in 2013, the first of its kind, found that drone pilots had experienced mental health problems like depression, anxiety andpost-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.The exodus from the drone program might be caused in part by the lure of the private sector too.  The Air Force also has tried to ease the stress by creating a human performance team, led by a psychologist and including doctors and chaplains who have been granted top-secret clearances so they can meet with pilots and camera operators anywhere in the facility if they are troubled.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

17th June 2015.

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