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The Drone War's Bottleneck: Too Many Targets, Not Enough Pilots
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The Drone War's Bottleneck: Too Many Targets, Not Enough Pilots

National Security

The Drone War's Bottleneck: Too Many Targets, Not Enough Pilots

The Drone War's Bottleneck: Too Many Targets, Not Enough Pilots
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Much of America's military campaign in Iraq and Syria is conducted by drones. NPR's Scott Simon talks with U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh about the shortage of drone pilots.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Much of America's military campaign against militants and terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen is conducted these days by drones - unmanned aircraft that collect intelligence and can deliver lethal strikes in conflict zones. The people who steer those aircraft are pilots, but they are in remote locations that are many miles from where they fly the drones. Now the U.S. Air Force says they're running short of drone pilots during a time when there are calls to expand the number of drone missions. About 240 drone pilots leave the U.S. Air Force each year, only about 180 new ones are trained. General Mark Welsh, the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, joins us from his office. General, thank you very much for being with us.

GENERAL MARK WELSH: Scott, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What's so stressful about this work that so many pilots leave do you think?

WELSH: What makes the work hard and the reason we have 240 people leaving each year - some are for family reasons, some are just because they've reached what they believe is a logical end of their time in the service. And other times it's because they're just flat tired, Scott. A typical person doing this mission over the last seven or eight years has worked either six or seven days a week, 12 hours a day. And that one or two day break at the end of it is really not enough time to take care of that family and the rest of your life. And we haven't been able to make them confident that we're going to be able to change the pace. That's the real problem.

SIMON: Now, I - of course, I know drone pilots aren't flying passenger planes, but a drone pilot does have to make some life-and-death decisions. Is it wise to have them fatigued and stressed out and working?

WELSH: Oh, absolutely not, Scott. That's not - that's the - kind of our problem. Remember that we went from basically a dead start over the last 15 years where we didn't have these capabilities to now having a remarkable capability to collect intelligence and information using these platforms and all these great people. And so we just - as an institution we have to get ahead of that. It's been hard to do as the demand grew so rapidly.

SIMON: I know they're not in combat, which is its own category to acknowledge and respect, but is it possible for a drone pilot to develop what some people would call post-traumatic stress?

WELSH: Oh, I think it's beyond possible. I think it's happened. This is one of the kind of second-order effects that we probably didn't anticipate when we first started this work. I don't think there's any question that it's a factor. I don't believe it's an overriding factor. We don't have a great number of people who have manifested these kind of symptoms and problems, but we certainly do have some.

SIMON: Do drones offer the appearance of risk-free combat?

WELSH: Well, inside our business, Scott, they don't. There's nothing risk-free about anything we do. And when you're talking about decisions that may affect life and death, I think we take this very seriously. There is nothing in this enterprise that discounts the value of life on the ground - all life, by the way - friendly life, enemy life and then, of course, civilian non-combatant life and property. It's something that is very deeply ingrained in our folks as they go through training.

SIMON: But to press you a bit on this, General, I wonder - does drone warfare offer, to some Americans, the appearance of being able to strike militarily almost anywhere in the world and not have to worry about suffering casualties and consequence?

WELSH: Yeah, it's one of the reasons that we don't like the term drone warfare, Scott, the - because drone does imply a level of autonomy that is not the case. It does imply a lack of thinking and a lack of human involvement. A primary reason we call them remotely piloted aircraft is because there is somebody flying them. There is somebody in that decision loop. In fact, there are lots of somebodies in it who are adding the human judgments that we think are critical when you're in the business of life and death.

SIMON: General Mark Welsh, who is U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff. Thanks so much for being with us, General.

WELSH: Scott, thanks.

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