Droning On

Curious by nature, I’ve wondered about lots of things, and later in life, I wonder about the necessity and effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, as a tool for security. Plainly, I see the need for this weapon platform for use in war, and understand, to some degree, the use for border security. What I don’t understand is the use of a drone to spy on the everyday U.S. citizen.

I recently ran across a story and interview of 27-year-old Brandon Bryant, a drone operator who, from 2006 to 2011, flew his UAV from Air Force bases in Nevada, New Mexico and even in the Middle East, Iraq to be specific.

Bryant never fired any missiles, but it was his duty to fly around the combat area and film what was about to happen, along with the impending results from a missile strike.

Bryant has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,” Bryant recalled. “And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.”

Part of his duty as a UAV operator was to watch this guy. As his body grew cold, Bryant said that his thermal image changed until he became the same color as the ground.

Tough as I think I am, this story and image is a little difficult to understand and stomach.

As an operator, Bryant said that he was troubled by the physical disconnect between a daily routine, and the violence and power of the faraway drones. He also said that, as part of a warfare team that launched missiles, he took part in aerial combat that was responsible for an estimated 1,626 deaths.

“You don’t feel the aircraft turn,” he said. “You don’t feel the hum of the engine. You hear the hum of the computers, but that’s definitely not the same thing. Some say that drone strikes are like mortar attacks. Well, artillery doesn’t see this. Artillery doesn’t see the results of their actions. It’s really more intimate for us, because we see everything.”

“While the American military prefers to capture, interrogate and prosecute terrorists, there are times when this isn’t possible,” said Barak Obama during a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. “Terrorists hide in locations where putting boots on the ground just isn’t an option. Drone strikes,” he said, “come when a threat of terrorism comes from a country where the government has only tenuous or no influence.”

The continued use of drones is controversial, at best. Recently, the President of the United States said that drone attacks are a necessary evil, but, he said, one that must be used with more temperance as the United States’ security situation evolves. I wish he were referring specifically to use in a wartime situation, but I got the feeling that UAVs could be something he would use freely in the United States.

I believe drones will continue to be used. Recently, the White House, for the first time, said that four Americans had been killed on counterterrorist drone strikes overseas, including one person targeted by the United States.

I’m sorry to say that drone surveillance isn’t always able to help American troops, though their capabilities give the operator an opportunity to see the battlefield in a completely new light, and from higher views.

Bryant and his team were supposed to use their drone to provide support and protection to patrolling U.S. ground troops, but he recalls seeing insurgents bury an IED in a road, and watching as a Humvee drove over it.

“We had no way to warn the troops.” Three soldiers died that day.

After hundreds of missions, Bryant said he “lost respect for life,” and began to feel like a sociopath.

“I don’t feel like I can really interact with that average, everyday person,” Bryant said. “I get too frustrated, because A: they don’t realize what’s going on over there. And B: they don’t care.”

“When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America—and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot—his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team,” Obama said.

Drones will be employed, but only when there is an imminent threat; no hope for capturing the targeted terrorist.

Where do we, as Americans, stand on the issue? Although 65 percent of respondents said drones should be used against suspected terrorists abroad, only 41 percent said drones should be used against American citizens who are suspected terrorists in foreign countries.

When it comes to drone strikes, I think the United States better be aware of what other countries are doing, and what capabilities they have, as well. China and Russia are just two of the powers that will have their own fleets of UAVs that can and may be used against suspecting foes. Even supportive governments will have hard choices to make by passing intelligence along to the United States. The government would prefer to move away from CIA strikes, which are secret and deniable, toward drone attacks controlled by the armed forces, which would be more transparent. I’m certain the killings will go on as long as there is conflict.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Security Today.

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