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Confessions of a Drone Operator: The Men Who Deal Out Death from a Computer

There is no way around it, and there's no escaping it; drones are here to stay.

A US drone passes near Kandahar on January 1, 2009


Unlike others of his age who might be at home playing violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse, and Kindergarten Killers, Airman First Class Brandon Bryant wasn't playing.

The year was 2007, not long after Bryant's twenty-first birthday.

"He was an experiment, really," reads the subhead of GQ's story titled " Confessions of a Drone Warrior". "One of the first recruits for a new kind of warfare in which men and machines merge. He flew multiple missions, but he never left his computer. He hunted top terrorists, saved lives, but always from afar. He stalked and killed countless people, but could not always tell you precisely what he was hitting."

According to GQ's Matthew Power, "Since its inception, the drone program has been largely hidden, its operational details gathered piecemeal from heavily redacted classified reports or stage-managed media tours by military public-affairs flacks."

Power's story centers on Airman First Class Brandon Bryant, who upon receiving orders from "a mysterious chain of command that led straight to his headset," targeted a small group of men in Afghanistan and launched his first drone.

"He was told that they were carrying rifles on their shoulders, but for all he knew, they were shepherd's staffs. Still, the directive from somewhere above, ... was clear: confirmed weapons. He switched from the visible spectrum—the muted grays and browns of 'day-TV'—to the sharp contrast of infrared, and the insurgents' heat signatures stood out ghostly white against the cool black earth. A safety observer loomed behind him to make sure the 'weapon release' was by the book. A long verbal checklist, his targeting laser locked on the two men walking in front. A countdown——then the flat delivery of the phrase 'missile off the rail.' Seventy-five hundred miles away, a Hellfire flared to life, detached from its mount, and reached supersonic speed in seconds.

"It was quiet in the dark, cold box in the desert, except for the low hum of machines.

"He kept the targeting laser trained on the two lead men and stared so intently that each individual pixel stood out. ...As he watched the men walk, the one who had fallen behind seemed to hear something and broke into a run to catch up with the other two. Then, bright and silent as a camera flash, the screen lit up with white flame."

Operating out of a "windowless metal box of a Ground Control Station (GCS) at Nellis Air Force Base, a vast sprawl of tarmac and maintenance hangars at the edge of Las Vegas," Bryant told Power: "The smoke clears, and there's pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there's this guy over here, and he's missing his right leg above his knee. He's holding it, and he's rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it's hitting the ground, and it's hot. His blood is hot. But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same color as the ground he was lying on."

'Behind a computer with a joystick'

In a piece published in New Mexico's The Daily Times (Four Corners News) titled " Retired military drone operator shares experience of remote piloting", reporter James Fenton interviewed retired Lt. Col. Bruce H. Black, "who spent two tours flying cargo on C-130 planes in Iraq and Afghanistan. ...But [whose] longest combat operation was spent behind a computer with a joystick just outside Las Vegas, Nev."

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