Featured, Online, Student Articles — April 24, 2015 at 3:36 pm

The Hidden Cost of Drone Combat: Soldiers’ Mental Health

*Tommy Tobin

If you envision a soldier on the front-lines of combat, you might picture an arid desert where the slightest lack of focus could mean the difference between life and death. You could picture someone exposed to the grotesque horrors of war, defending their fellow warfighters from ongoing threats. What if this same soldier commuted to the job while balancing shift-work and life at home?

Such is the reality for America’s drone operators in bases around the country. Operating crew often live two separate lives: living at home and driving to work flying planes halfway across the world for long periods of time.

Military decision-makers should take into account the psychological strain facing drone personnel when crafting policy. A Pentagon study found that these drone crewmembers suffered from depression and PTSD at similar rates as pilots of manned aircraft. This problem will only get worse as America’s use of military drones is set to increase.

The targeted use of drones has become increasingly central to the national defense and counter-terrorism policies of the United States. Since 2008, the number of drone operators has tripled. In 2011 alone, the Air Force trained more forces to operate drones than to fly fighter jets or bombers combined. According to the Air Force’s internal memoranda, the near insatiable demand for drones has meant that the current fleet of operators is stretched to its “breaking point.”

For policymakers, drones seem cheaper and less risky than manned counterparts in warfare. The political calculus is straightforward. Compared to traditional aircraft pilots, drone operators are approximately $500,000 less expensive to train, on average, according to a recent GAO report.

Public officials are understandably loath to send “boots on the ground” into emerging global conflict zones, notably in the fight against ISIL. At little to no physical risk for our airmen, the country can exercise its military muscle.

All too often, advocates of drones ignore the full costs of this new type of warfare on those that we task to carry it out. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Daniel Byman argued that drones present “no risk” to American troops. No physical risk, sure.

In protecting our country, soldiers’ experiences take many forms. For drone operators, the scars from battles waged halfway across the world aren’t physical, they’re psychological. These soldiers operate largely in secrecy, frustrating efforts at obtaining adequate mental health assistance through regular channels.

The psychological strain facing these drone operators is real. The mental health concerns within the fleet are so pressing that a 2014 study in Military Medicine recommended embedding mental health professionals within drone operation centers.

These soldiers are not playing video games; their situation is more nuanced. Unlike traditional bombers, drone personnel have often watched their targets for days if not months. After the engagement, drone crews are also tasked with observing the destruction and watch as loved ones and associates care to the wounded and the dead. The high-stress environment of the work, the low morale, and long hours amplify the mental strain for these shift-work warriors.

The concerns about emotional and psychological scars of battle for our veterans remain a much-needed topic of concern for our country. Drone crewmembers are military professionals burdened with substantial psychological strain, yet they are stigmatized even within their ranks. While some drone operators have gone public with their PTSD diagnoses, others fear being grounded or ostracized if they seek assistance for their mental health.

So dire is the situation within the drone fleet that the Air Force may be looking at a crisis of attrition. In 2013, attrition was three times higher in the Air Force’s drone program compared to its manned aircraft programs. According to the Military Times, the Air Force is seeing the need for its drone grow at exactly the same time as the number of operators available is decreasing.

Supporting our troops means putting systems in place to give them the resources they need. While we wrestle with the many questions of ethics and law raised by drone warfare, we should recognize that there are soldiers flying these aircraft. These soldiers are facing substantial psychological strain and have constrained access to needed mental health resources.

Drone warfare is not without risk to our troops, and the potential psychological harm should be a consideration for decision-makers. If our military is going to increase its use of drones—and consequently the number of drone operators—we must also understand that we should provide those who serve with the necessary mental health support systems.


*Tommy Tobin is a student at Harvard Law School researching the process of moral disengagement in military drone operations with the guidance of psychologist Albert Bandura OC.

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