I met Matthew Atkins, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, recently at the Hoover Institution, where he is currently a military fellow. Lt. Col. Atkins has worked in targeting and intelligence a fair bit. And following some conversations at Hoover, he sent me this brief essay, whose conclusions and opinions are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official position of the US Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force, or Air University:
Numerous articles have recently decried the impersonal nature of using "drones" to conduct strikes on terrorists and insurgents. The authors surmise that using remotely-piloted aircraft makes killing cold, clinical, and impersonal. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The ultimate expression of killing comes in hand-to-hand combat, where you can smell and feel your opponent; this carries with it a certain chivalrous concept that closing with and destroying your enemies is virtuous. However, this form of fighting and killing carries too much risk by modern standards, and has been largely abandoned in our recent forms of warfare.
While there will always be examples of intense physical combat from the battles in Fallujah or the outpost assaults in Kamdesh, those are the exception and no longer the rule. Good soldiers always seek to exploit the advantage of overwhelming firepower, something that American forces now hold in abundance. Close air support, artillery, helicopters, mortars, and armed ISR platforms present our ground forces with a dizzying array of tools to safely kill from a distance. This is the new normal, and has been employed with devastating effectiveness in our post 9/11 conflicts.
So, to whom falls the burden of intensely personal killing? Pilots, snipers, artillery, and special operations forces are most likely to be the ones that deliver the killing blow. The weapons of choice nowadays are Hellfire missiles or small-diameter bombs that are precisely engineered to kill people while minimizing collateral damage. But most of these operators deliver their munitions from a distance, and oftentimes know nothing of their target other than a grid coordinate or laser designator spot. The nature of warfare actually has shifted that burden to the finders of targets, the intelligence and special operations personnel that identify the people that need to die.
Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism are intensely personal forms of combat, ones that call for intimate knowledge of people's lives and behavior. In order to deliver maximum pressure on an enemy network and minimize collateral damage, intelligence personnel spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours watching and studying potential targets. Precision and accuracy are essential, and the consequences of killing the wrong individual can have strategic repercussions. Finding targets by watching and listening is by nature intensely personal.
This method of killing takes a toll on our nation's watchers and finders. You eventually come to know everything about that individual, to include his family life and personal habits. And when you recommend that target folder for approval, you do so with the explicit knowledge that you are recommending the death of not just an enemy of our nation, but a person. This creates an intense moral and psychological burden that intelligence personnel carry with them every day, a persistent stress that is compounded over years and multiple deployments.
That stress is amplified even more amongst the aircrew and intelligence personnel that comprise our remotely-piloted aircraft fleet. They have the unique confluence of both being part of the intelligence process and delivering the fatal blow. They watch for days on end, learning everything about their intended target. And when the approval is granted for a strike, they execute the Hellfire shot and watch the results in high-definition. This is the most intimate and personal form of warfare short of an intense room-clearing operation, and one likely to increase in prevalence as we reduce our physical presence in major combat operations.
This highly personal nature of killing creates unique stresses in remotely-piloted aircrews because they are literally engaged in killing and combat in the day, and coaching little league baseball at night. Being physically deployed to combat provides a certain degree of resiliency because of the focus you have on doing your job with no distractions. For the duration of your tour you are a finely-honed man-hunting machine with absolute dedication to your craft. When your tour is over, you stop hunting and go home.
Remotely-piloted aircrews don't have that luxury; they go home every night to their families and carry on a somewhat normal life. They do so with the underlying knowledge that tomorrow they will be back in the booth, back in combat, and carrying out their lethal tasks.
It is clear that our ongoing counterterrorism missions are not cold, sterile operations that make it easy to kill. On the contrary, our RPA and intelligence personnel are engaged in an intensely personal hunt where they can count the children of the terrorist they seek to target. The human in the loop always makes the decision. And the human in the loop always bears the consequences of making that life or death decision.