- By Ralph C. Jensen
- Jul 01, 2013
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
“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
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
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.