Drone Schooled

Last year, Corey Mead sat in on an Air Force drone pilot training class:

Patrick, a senior instructor who spent years piloting drones and engaging in “super secret squirrel stuff” in Afghanistan, led the class. Tall, angular, and pale, with a jutting nose and a wide, quick smile, he was relentlessly energetic, alternately instructing and cajoling the students. “The first thing to think about,” Patrick told the class’ two students—Paul, a pilot, and Justin, a sensor operator—“is the intent of the attack: what does the attack controller, or whoever’s in charge, want to happen on the ground?” The Air Force requested that I use first names only in exchange for weeklong access at Holloman as part of my research for a book on the future of warfare.

And the future, I learned, is like the past: In matters of war, there is tension between what members of the military feel is right and what their work requires. I observed this in the discord between trainers’ rhetoric about how much they disliked killing people—they repeated this to me frequently—and their unabashed excitement, also expressed frequently, about the times they were able to launch strikes and kill “bad guys.” Hating killing, but enjoying the chance to kill. The competing impulses may have seemed irreconcilable, but they were everywhere.

About an hour into class, Patrick told his students that different units would allow them different degrees of control over their attacks. “Sometimes you’ll be handcuffed,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Run in from this specific angle, and drop a guided bomb unit on that specific point of impact.’” Other times, he said—and this is more enjoyable—“They’ll go, ‘I want you to kill those guys right there,’ and you’ll get to tailor your options to what makes sense to you.”