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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—three...two...one...—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."

From "a mobile trailer at Creech Air Force Base, Black flew an unmanned aerial vehicle, the MQ-1 Predator, commonly referred to as a drone": "It was like the Wild West again. It was a brand new weapons system, no (regulations). They became the most requested asset in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Black said. "To this day, we're flying the prototype. Everything is on a keyboard. You're flying the computer and the computer flies the drone. Everybody calls it a video game, but it's not that good."

Black is apparently enthusiastic about the use of drones, claiming that he "was shooting two weeks after I got there and saved hundreds of people, including Iraqis and Afghanis. ... It didn't take long for you to realize how important the work is. The value that the weapon system brings to the fight is not apparent 'till you're there. People have a hard time sometimes seeing that."

Black also denied that drones, as outlined in a recent Amnesty International report, have killed civilians. Instead he cited an example where he saved an Afghan family from being attacked.

Black also acknowledged that his experience was mightily surreal: "You're right in the middle of a fire fight, your shift ends and your relief opens the door and walks in and you wonder, 'Where am I?' It's surreal. I'm hearing the shells hit the humvee that (the ground troops are) in and I was shocked to realize I wasn't in an airplane. I wasn't in Afghanistan. My family lived here (in Farmington) and I'd fly home on the weekends. You're doing combat -- six days on, three days off -- somebody's counting on you for life and death. You get back home and you've been inundated with trying to strike this guy, save this guy, and your wife says, 'Honey, should she wear a pink or blue tutu?' Or I'd walk into, 'Honey, your truck leaked oil on the driveway,' and I know that's important, but I'm sorry. I just can't get excited about it. Nobody's going to bleed because of that stuff."

Our drones are here to stay

There is no way around it, and there's no escaping it; drones are here to stay. There's little doubt that these pilotless vehicles – used for military reconnaissance and surveillance or heavily armed with missiles and bombs -- will continue to be used well into the future. And as the technology expands, expect that drones, cheaper to produce and operating sans a flight crew, will be used more and more frequently militarily, as well as for nefarious non-military purposes like attempting to smuggle contraband into prisons.

While we hear reports often enough about drones taking out this or that terrorist, we are often not privy to stories about drone attacks resulting in the deaths of civilians. However, no matter how far back in the newspaper and no matter how short the article, stories about drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries are likely to become more common in the years ahead. (It is worth noting that Pakistan recently unveiled its own domestically produced drones.)

More drones, more of the time

The real number of civilian deaths caused by drones is often hard to come by: Pakistan's Ministry of Defense recently put the number at 67, the New America Foundation estimated 176, Long War Journal put the number at 133, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates 500 to 1000.

According to NBC Connecticut's Troubleshooters, "the Federal Aviation Administration estimates nearly 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles could be filling our skies by the year 2020." In 2015, the FAA is expected to release an update version of rules "on who can operate drones and for what purposes."

"With enormous potential growth and expenditures, drones will be a center of our policy for the foreseeable future," GQ's Matthew Power pointed out. "(By 2025, drones will be an $82 billion business, employing an additional 100,000 workers.) Most Americans—61 percent in the latest Pew survey—support the idea of military drones, a projection of American power that won't risk American lives."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement.

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