Saturday, March 13, 2010

Praxis: Drones -- Interview with a drone pilot.

Two American drones. The one in front is a Predator and the one behind is a Reaper.


Here's an interesting article, with photos, from the German magazine, Der Spiegel. My thanks to Irregular Typeay for bring it to my attention.



Interview with a Drone Pilot

'It Is Not a Video Game'

US Major Bryan Callahan is a pilot. But while he sits in front of a monitor in America, his plane is flying over Afghanistan. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he speaks about what flying drones is like, the difficulties of waging war in shifts and the daily stresses of his job.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Major Callahan, you started out flying F-16 jets. Now you are flying remote controlled drones -- also known as RPAs. What are the differences?

Major Bryan Callahan: The first big difference is to get your brain around the fact that you drop yourself into an airplane that's already airborne and on target on the other side of the world. Then you fly that for a period of time, and then you just hand it over to someone else. Before, when you're flying a regular plane, you go in, you do your briefing, you walk out the door, you go up, you exercise your mission, you land and you debrief. Now you walk into work, and you essentially tap a guy on the shoulder, get a quick lowdown about what's going on and then continue the flight, and then a few hours later someone else will tap you on the shoulder and relieve you. It's very different. It takes a little while to get used to.

An MQ-1 Predator drone belonging to the US Air Force during a training mission: The CIA uses this type of unmanned aircraft very frequently in its attacks in Pakistan.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it harder or easier?

Callahan: In some ways it's harder, in some ways it's easier. If you fly an F-16, it's a high-performance airplane, and you're responsible for a lot of different weapons and sensors. You fly, and an hour later you come back. It is a very finite execution. With an RPA, you may very well be working that operation for weeks. It takes a lot of coordination, there are a lot of other agencies involved that I had never dealt with before. It's very much more networked. An RPA is not nearly as high-performance, as robust, and when you're trying to fly that from the other side of the world with a little bit of delay, you can't just look out the window. That can get challenging, mentally.

The miniature aircraft can transmit high-resolution images from several kilometers up and from thousands of kilometers away. Here, a pilot's heads-up display in a ground control station shows a truck captured by a camera on an MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And afterwards you just drive home.

Callahan: In the morning you carpool or you take a bus and drive into work, you operate for an eight-hour shift, and then you drive back home.

An American airman checks a Hellfire missile mounted on a MQ-1B Predator drone. Such drones are used by both the US military and the CIA.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it not difficult to switch back and forth from war to civilian life every day?

Callahan: Yeah, people talk about that plenty with their families. We'll probably be studying the effects of that for a long time to come. Before you were at war 24/7, and when you're home you're home. This is different. I do e-mails in the morning, rush to the airplane, come out, go to the BX (editor's note: Base Exchange), get myself a hamburger, do some more e-mail, do it again, drive home. It's an adjustment.

A mechanic examines the targeting pod of a Reaper drone. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for up to 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. The Reaper is being used in a number of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you deal with that?

Callahan: Pilots are pretty good at compartmentalizing. They teach you that early and often. You need to tuck those things away and put them where they belong. We're pretty good at it.

Militant groups have boasted of shooting down American drones. They publicize their supposed feats in videos posted online or distributed in other ways. It is not always possible to ascertain whether the unmanned vehicles were shot down or crashed for some other reason.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is it you're tucking away?

Callahan: There's stress, but it's different. With an F-16, you're talking about an hour straight of pure adrenalin rush, part of it is personal survival, keeping yourself upright and safe. With an RPA it's more of a slow burn. But you still get pretty well invested in what it is you do. You get more attached than you would think from being in Nevada.

A Shadow 200 drone: This unmanned vehicle is much smaller than other Predator models and is launched on a rail. It is currently being used in a number of capacities, including as an aerial reconnaissance vehicle in Iraq.


Callahan: For instance, you're trying to protect those guys on the ground. You try to help those guys with whatever situation they're in. There are cases where you can't do anything immediate, and you may feel helpless.

A ground control station for a MQ-9 Reaper drone. From here, the aircraft are flown by a pilot and a sensor operator. Studies have shown that, despite the fact that they do not face the same physical danger as pilots in real airplanes, the pilots of these vehicles experience almost the same amount of stress.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does your own physical safety make a difference for you?

Callahan: It sounds strange but being far away and safe is kind of a bummer. The other guys are exposing themselves, and that to me is still quite an honorable thing to do. So I feel like I'm cheating them. I'm relatively safe. If I screw up or miss something, if I screw up a shot, I wish it was me down there, not them. Sometimes I feel like I left them behind.

This image, which purports to show a shot-down American drone, was published by a militant group in Iraq. There are also videos showing leaders of jihadist groups disassembling drones that were shot down or crashed and using them in lessons presented to militants.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are the benefits of drones, exactly?

Callahan: There are many. For instance, I can really give the ground force commander some time to figure out what to do. With an F-16, I got about 30, 45 minutes playtime, and the commander may only get a partial picture of what's going on. A drone shows up with a pretty good spread of weapons, and you get four hours of playtime. So I don't need to destroy my target right away. I can watch that guy, I can see who his friends are. When it comes time to strike I can strike everything. I can buy the ground force commander time.

A terrorist group also published this photo of what is allegedly an unmanned reconnaissance aircaraft, though it is not clear why it crashed. One thing is for sure: Such crashes are rare. Militants have not been able to develop successful countermeasures to combat these silent, deadly threats.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who makes the target decision?

Callahan: That depends on the mission. For the most part, it's the ground force commander who has the ultimate authority.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So there are no specific human targets chosen back here in the US?

Callahan: That's not really the M.O. of what we're doing, to look for a specific person. Our highest concern is to protect our people on the ground.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think that drones will ever completely replace troops?

Callahan: I don't think so. RPAs will not replace soldiers on the ground. That's a totally different piece of national defense.

The rockets launched from drones are highly destructive. This image shows the site of a missile attack in North Waziristan, Pakistan in March 2009, which left two dead. There is some dispute over whether they were locals or foreign-born militants.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But RPAs are getting more and more common.

Callahan: True. For the Air Force, RPAs are now part of our DNA. Initially we thought okay, let's give this a try. And then it grew and it grew and it grew. Now you can't go anywhere without finding a Predator or a Reaper. We're partly a victim of our own success. Also, we operate in a war that highlights the strengths of RPAs. Their weaknesses are not much of a problem right now. They may be in future conflicts.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which weaknesses are you talking about?

Callahan: For instance, you can't just roll your unmanned plane over and look out the window. I have to use all these very external cues, sometime we're literally using a map with pins, on the computer. In an F-16 I can use my eyeballs, I can build what we call situational awareness in two seconds flat. I have the ability to strike a target quickly.

An undated image taken from an unmanned drone in 2000 is thought to show Osama bin Laden, the tall figure on the right in white robes, surrounded by guards at a known al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan. At that time, drones were still unarmed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some have describe flying drones as turning war into a video game.

Callahan: Killing someone with an RPA is not different than with an F-15. It's easy to think that, to fall down that trap. We're well aware that if you push that button somebody can go away. It's not a video game. You take it very seriously. It's by far nowhere near a video game.

Interview conducted by Marc Pitzke in New York


B said...

Very, very interesting article.


Anonymous said...

Boo Hoo! Such stress, by an Air Force officer, sitting in a Barco Lounger flying a remote control drone on a daily 8 hour shift. Quit yer complainin'!

Such has ever been the disconnect between the flyboys and the ground-pounders. . . .

B Woodman

wv: sorions: a bunch of atoms after a workout at he gym.

Crustyrusty said...

He may have flown real aircraft before, but right now he's a poser and he knows it, trying to explain away how connected he still is with the battle space.

Sorry. He's not 50 feet at the speed o' heat with rocket propelled telephone poles trying to take him out while he's pulling CAS. Hell, just being IN the machine is a risk. The personal survival instinct ISN'T there, and that makes a world of difference.

Like B said, very interesting article, though.

K7C said...

We III'pers need any and all information on how to effectively defeat these menaces here at home. "Law" enforcement at all levels are beginning to take an interest if they have not already started employing UAVs to "patrol" the mundanes. Do we defeat the mechanics? Do we defeat the communications? Do we defeat the operators? It will mean full on assaults of the control stations and the launch/recovery sites, perhaps. I have seen firsthand what these machines are capable of, both good and bad, while participating in our imperial wars, so I am very afraid of the implications here at home.

Anonymous said...

Maybe raze the La-Z-Boy factory so that they have to sit in folding metal chairs? That'll teach 'em! In your face you arm-chair-nintendo-warriors!

I agree with Crusty, if it's easy to let the personal survival instinct slip away, then what other instincts might slip away. Morals? Ethics? Code of conduct? Just sayin...


Anonymous said...

I got in a VERY heated discussion over this on another forum a while back.

I stand by my premise.

Like it or not, the "pilot" here is playing a video game. Sure - perhaps he's aware that they're real people down there, but it's still just like a game - controller, chair, screen, etc.

The flyboys are already in a different world than the ground-pounders, and their kills are far away not up close where you can see and smell the gore.

With THIS, they're just figures on the screen to you no matter how much you may feel otherwise.

For NOW we usually have "real pilots" run these drones, but WHY? THINK - who would be best at this?


As to the rest (@Eric), see OSCard's "Ender's Game" if you haven't read it already - wraps this whole thing up nicely IMHO.

Anonymous said...

IF you can't affect the control center, you need to be able to see the things.

FLIR Pathfinder. Under $4K, and can see heat in the sky........

Anonymous said...

Concept vehicle: "The Liberty Guard Dog". A 26hp diesel, tail dragging, 3-wheeled remote controlled Patriot guard dog. It Barks at your command. Has an active NVG/NV disruptor (sequenced high intensity IR (830nm) broad spectrum LED array), 1/2" ballistic steel uni-body, Saiga IZ109 12 guage, an FN-FAL, and 12 gallon pressurized container of naphthenic/palmitic acid - propane assisted electronic ignition. Two channel video transmission, Radio controlled with IR emergency backup controls (within 600 yards - VFR only).

Just doing a little brainstorming.

jon said...

he doesn't mention it outright, but he knows that if you can hack drone communications, you can just feed them any old imagery you like, even make video edits in-stream. situational awareness indeed.