Cyber warfare, particularly drone warfare, is the object of ongoing heated debate.
Critics point to its heavy human and financial costs. For supporters, however, drones are an accurate and cost-effective means of conducting war.
Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the NGO, Center for Civilians in Conflict, and Larry Lewis, an adviser to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently conducted a study based on classified material, which reveals that contrary to U.S. President Barak Obama’s claims, drones kill ten times more civilians than manned jet fighters.
Among the causes highlighted by the study is the insufficient training provided to pilots. This is driven, in part, by the lengthy time required to fully prepare aviators and the urgency with which they are needed.
Discussions around cyber warfare and the dehumanization of war seem, however, to forget the existence of these pilots, who make choices, take decisions, and are accountable for their actions.
Cyberwar has drastically changed the nature of such accountability and the actual role that soldiers’ bodies and physical strength play in war.
Albert Hibpshman is a United States Air Force (USAF) pilot of manned and unmanned aircrafts. During his recent deployment to Afghanistan, Hibpshman was a Mission Commander flying MC-12Ws [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircrafts] as well as a Group Liaison Officer, responsible for the coordination between five flying squadrons and Army, Marine and special forces units at bases spread throughout southern Afghanistan.
In this interview, Hibpshman gives his personal take and experience with contemporary drone warfare, and the human component of cyber warfare.
Francesca Recchia (FR): How did you become a drone pilot? What brings a pilot to leave behind planes and helicopters and start flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)?
Albert Hibpshman (AH): My USAF career began in pilot training, flying trainer aircraft with my instructors. After a year of training I went off to learn how to fly the KC-135 tanker aircraft [an aerial refueling military plane]. I spent three years flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting Aeromedical Evacuations and test programs. Being gone 3/4 of the time with a new wife and then a baby at home was hard on me. I volunteered to fly unmanned aircraft and since there were few pilots interested in UAVs at the time, I was moved shortly thereafter to one of the new squadrons to start training. My regular time at home, even after long days, gave me an opportunity to spend more time with my wife and be a part of my child’s life. At the same time, I was able to progress through the ranks, become a flight commander, instructor and volunteer as is expected from all good USAF officers.
FR: Drones represent a radical shift in the modes of warfare. What kind of training did you undergo to become a drone pilot?
AH: Training to learn the aircraft systems, sensors and communication systems are critical to understanding how to employ an unmanned aircraft on a military mission. We are trained in each of those areas, capitalizing on previous experience in manned aircraft. Training that includes being aware of aircraft programmed “communications out” flight path and altitude as well as regularly updating those programs are new habits that must become second nature.
FR: Which habits and notions did you carry with you from your previous “traditional” military experience?
AH: An aggressive cross check and skepticism are healthy habits that I’ve brought from previous manned aircraft flying. Respect for the aircraft and performance limitations as well as an understanding of the weather and how to work around it are essential to accomplish the mission under demanding circumstances.
FR: What would you say are the main skills required to be a good drone pilots?
AH: Drone pilots need to be good at multi-tasking, have a good understanding of what the aircraft should be doing and a quick cross check to see if it is in fact at the right place, going the right direction, at the correct altitude since there are no “seat of the pants” cues to alert pilots of a change. We need to work with our sensor operators to ensure the mission is being accomplished, while trouble shooting communications issues and working with the distributed ground crew for processing, exploitation and distribution of mission products. As a mission commander, I make every effort to allow my crew to excel and only interrupt them if something isn’t going according to plan, or if the plan changes.
FR: There has recently been an acknowledgment by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center that a very high percentage of drone pilots are victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. Is there any kind of psychological training that you receive? Do you have dedicated and specialized professional support and counseling while you are deployed?
AH: Our counseling is mostly self-initiated. There are counselors available to us, even while deployed, but we have to seek them out when we need help, want to talk or are unsure how to handle our reactions to a situation.
FR: I am quite fascinated by the particular understanding of distance and proximity that drone pilots experience. You may be thousands of miles apart from your target and yet incredibly close to it. You may be observing your target for days and weeks, learn about his habits and daily routines and yet be on a different continent altogether. How do you manage this?
AH: I have to remember that I am a military officer, called on to execute a mission. Intel briefs us on the specifics of why an individual needs to be killed or captured, so we know why the mission is being carried out. I suppose we get used to working with the Army to carry out their objectives without getting emotionally involved.
FR: On a similar note, when you follow a target for a very long time and develop an almost intimate knowledge of his life, how is to execute your orders and press the trigger? Does this physical distance but visual proximity make it any harder?
AH: I personally have never been asked to fire munitions, though the folks I’ve talked to who have, say they know the objective and reason why they must be neutralized, making it easier to “pull the trigger.”
FR: How do you deal with the physical distance from your target? Does war feel different from behind a computer screen?
AH: Physical distance can make it difficult to work in real time with troops on the ground, especially if communications are not clear or readily available. Computer screens, whether in the aircraft orbiting overhead or in a Ground Control Station, are equally real.
FR: Combat planes or helicopters often have architectural objects or locales as targets, whereas drones – because of their precision – may have a specific person as a target. How do you deal with the risk of collateral damage and with the potential margins of mistake?
AH: The local Ground Force Commander assesses the risk associated with target and the aircraft commander only strikes when given the order.
FR: War stinks. What does flying a drone smell like?
AH: Deployments for USAF pilots can be challenging and often involve spending as much time away as we are at home. For the “drone pilot”, we work 12-hour shifts, often during the night, on many weekends and holidays. A new challenge I face is that I’m vulnerable to be on the schedule every holiday or on wing safety down days [days of no flying where the entire base reviews flight safety, maintenance and other safety procedures]. Rest must be carefully planned or it is hard to get.
FR: Do you miss seeing the clouds from above?
AH: Yes. Like many unmanned aircraft pilots I spend time flying for fun by renting an airplane and going up with family or friends.
*Francesca Recchia is a staff writer at Muftah. Follow her on Twitter @kiccovich.