Predators and Reapers: Saving troops from harm
March 23, 2010
The U.S. Air Force may be on the verge of a cultural, psychological and organizational shift of seismic proportions. The shift has to do with the growing efficiency of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) as a weapons platform in the War on Terror.
But first, some semantics: Initially, these aircraft were called: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). But since they are flown by both genders, “unmanned” is rather sexist. “Unpersoned” would be more accurate, albeit awkward. Moreover, they are actually a form of aircraft. So, for purposes of discussion, we will call them: Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).
The RPAs are being flown over Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. The best known is the Predator, which is often armed with the Hellfire Missile. The RPAs can loiter almost indefinitely above a suspected terrorist hideout. When the RPA “pilot” is given the order to fire, he or she can rain, well, hellfire down on unsuspecting targets.
Untold numbers of terrorists have been picked off this way without exposing American lives to direct combat. Therefore, the RPAs provide two huge benefits: They kill terrorists, and they save American lives.
These benefits conform to a trend in military thinking that began with the horrors of the American Civil War when military strategists began to understand the devastating impacts of the new repeating rifles, Gatling guns and exploding artillery shells. That led the U.S. Army Infantry School to teach: “Don’t send a man when you can send a bullet.” The armed RPA is a perfect example of doing just that.
Unfortunately, during the 20th century, we did not have the RPA technology to get the soldier or Marine off the battlefield. While the 21st century advent of the armed RPA is a major step in that direction, there is still the need for soldiers and Marines to perform highly dangerous tasks such as bursting through doors and taking down the terrorists lurking inside. That requires traditional valor.
While the RPAs will not totally eliminate the need for fighter planes or fighter-bombers or interceptors flown by human pilots, the RPAs are likely to reduce the number of aircraft needed for some of those missions. In addition to the loss of cockpit seats, the Air Force must come to grips with the cultural question of how to define combat valor. The valorous fighter pilot has always been at the top of the Air Force food chain, ranking over bomber pilots, transport pilots and tanker pilots.
Think of the “pilot” who sits safely in a darkened computer van secured inside a base in Iraq or Afghanistan or sits in a similar van near Las Vegas and then fires a Hellfire Missile into the mouth of a cave or into the top of a terrorist-occupied apartment building. How is that person to be recognized? While their “flying” of a Predator or a Reaper may be distinguished, does it merit the Distinguished Flying Cross? Should the Predator or Reaper “pilot” draw flight pay and/or combat pay? How much actual pilot training do they need, if any?
What about the mental anguish of taking a human life? Soldiers and Marines on the ground and pilots flying in close-air support are often in kill-or-be-killed situations that help them assuage pangs of remorse about what they have been ordered to do.
But what about the Predator or Reaper “pilot” based in the United States? Let’s say he or she blows away a speeding pick-up truck full of Afghan terrorists, then clocks out after “work,” picks up the kids for their soccer match, and then goes home for dinner. Ouch. Send for a shrink.
Any weapons system that accomplishes the mission while saving American lives should be welcome; however, the RPA presents cultural, psychological and organizational challenges that will need to be addressed.
– Nationally syndicated columnist and retired Army officer, William Hamilton, is a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, a former Research Fellow at the U.S. Army War College and a member of the Association for Intelligence Officers.