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Don't Call Them Drones, Say Pilots of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

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How does it feel like to fly one of the unmanned aerial vehicles that famously killed Anwar al-Awlaki and was recently captured by Iran?
Well, the first thing the pilots who fly these drones -- yes, the drones actually do require drones -- want to clarify is that, no, it’s not like playing Call of Duty or Battlefield.
GlobalPost spoke to three Air Force pilots at the Holloman air base in New Mexico, and all agree that the public has misunderstood unmanned aerial systems, because they are not truly pilotless.

“Is it as exciting as flying a fighter?” asked Lt. Col. Mike, another instructor at the base. “I would say no, it’s not. You’re not riding a rocket. You’re not sitting in an ejection seat. But the capabilities that this aircraft has and the mission it brings for the Air Force and the Department of Defense as a whole is incredible.”

“That’s one of the things I tell guys who’ve flown other aircraft,” he continued. “It’s not some kind of computer game. They need to have every bit of situational awareness just like in a normal aircraft. It’s certainly not easy.”

In fact, Brent said, it’s more challenging to navigate the UAV because of the absense of some of the sensations and resulting intuition you might gain from flying an actual plane you don’t have when flying a UAV, which can make the mission more challenging.

Meanwhile, now that the US has officially ended the war in Iraq, the question of where the thousands of UAVs, made by companies like General Atomics, Northrop Grumman (NOC), Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT), that were employed there will go has arisen, and there is no specific answer.
“Most of them, the ones that are organic to our ground forces, will redeploy with those forces. I can’t speculate about what decisions the Centcom [Central Command] commander may make or the National Command Authority [may make] but we have requirements all around the world, and when we move all of our troops and equipment out of Iraq there are requirements there still to be met and there are decisions made about what do we do with what’s available. Do we move them all back to the US or do we employ them elsewhere?” Major General Jeff Buchanan, chief spokesman for the Unites States Forces in Iraq, or USFI, told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
“What we won’t have is RPAs from the US military operating in Iraq any more because the USFI are leaving. So some of them will be redeployed and some will go elsewhere,” he continued.
Of course, the ethical issues of the employment of UAVs in battle continue to be debated. There’s the problem of liability and accountability if, say, a UAV misfires and kills innocent civilians. Is the manufacturer to be blamed? The programmer? Or the pilot?
As Patrick Lin at The Atlantic also points out, “UAV operators -- controlling drones from half a world away -- could become detached and less caring about killing, given the distance, and this may lead to more unjustified strikes and collateral damage.”
But, even with the Iraq war over, don’t expect the UAV program to be winding down anytime soon. As a 2009 report details, training a pilot to fly a UAV is significantly cheaper than training one to fly a manned fighter jet. And given the expected the cuts to the Pentagon budget over the next decade, every dollar saved could go a long way.
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