6 Myths About Drone Warfare You Probably Believe
Drones are here to stay, and why not? Hollywood paints them as tiny rocket planes that zip around the world ejaculating death from above, and there's no possibility of a pilot getting hurt. That might partially explain the 61 percent approval rating drones enjoy in America.
But no matter how you feel about targeted killings and unrestricted drone warfare, I can guarantee you don't know shit about how these flying deathbots really work. My name is Brandon Bryant, and I spent six years fighting America's wars via robot. Here's what you probably didn't know ...
(Once you've learned how little you know about drone warfare, why not learn how little you know about cold war spies in Cracked's new De-Textbook.)
It's as Traumatizing as Being a Combat Pilot
On the very first mission I ever flew, we saw what's called "The Eye of Sauron" -- a spot where a fiery tire was used to soften asphalt in order to plant an IED. The cool metal against the hot asphalt created an eye effect. A convoy was heading straight for it, but we couldn't communicate with them. They were jamming all radio frequencies in a (useless) attempt to stop any bombs from detonating. I don't think I've ever felt more helpless than I did in that moment.
Five American soldiers died when that convoy hit the IED.
War is ugly. While fighter pilots swoop by it and drop a payload of vitamin E(xplode), drone pilots have to stick around and stare at the aftermath. Following a bunch of soldiers on a raid of some house? You'll get to sit back and watch while people fight and die on camera. There's a reason defense department studies find that drone pilots suffer from PTSD at the same rate as regular combat pilots, even though they're sitting in a chair thousands of miles away from the action.
The violence is only part of it. The work itself is grueling. You can't sleep. You can't read (I broke that rule more often than not). You can't do anything to entertain yourself but look at the screen. Now do that for three to five years, 11.5 hours a day. If you ask to take a break, you'll be told, "The guys overseas don't get breaks." By the time you've flown a few thousand missions, you might start dreaming in infrared. You'll certainly have trouble telling the difference between your dreams and the real world.
"Oh God, is this a real joystick or indecent exposure?"
Ever had one of those nights where you chain yourself to a video game until you pass out, and then you have dreams about that game? It's like that. Only the video game is your job, so you're actually dreaming about work every single night. But that just brings us to the next point ...
It Isn't Like a Video Game
The video game comparison gets used a lot with drone warfare, and it seems like it should work that way. You're sitting behind a screen, looking for bad guys and firing missiles at them. The fact that those missiles and bad guys are real doesn't change the fact that you're just sitting at a computer in the military equivalent of a nerd cave.
So many Reapers have been lost to pilots ramming mushrooms and turtles. That shit is deeply programmed.
But operating a real drone in a real war is less like playing a video game and more like watching YouTube videos of a road trip filmed via Russian dashboard cam. You can't make out faces or license plates, and the guy flying the drone doesn't even get that much. He sees something like this:
That lime-green field goal post covering the screen? That tells the pilot he's turning.
Wait, did you think the pilot was the only one involved in flying the thing? Not at all. The optics guy (me!), called a sensor operator, has to make sure the pilot's ADHD doesn't detract from the mission via visuals that look closer to GoldenEye 007 than an engine of war. But if that still kind of sounds like a video game to you, there is a key part missing: the bit where you actually play, i.e., find your target and blow it up.
We don't get to pick our targets. Instead, someone else watches the footage while we fly along and, every now and then, decides some building or person we've spotted needs to have projectiles thrown at it. They call several more important people until eventually someone whole countries away from my chair makes the decision to fire. And even that doesn't happen often.
You will believe a button can taunt a man.
See, drones are actually "piloted" by a team of people on several different continents. Planes get a shitload more complicated when the dude running them is 6,000 miles away. Since you can't safely launch an aircraft with so much lag in the signal (more on that later), every drone is actually launched by a separate pair of operators on the ground somewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq.
So two different crews means four operators per drone. But if you think that's all it takes, you haven't been to the DMV in a while. Every crew also has a mission coordinator who gives us our intel and a "customer" who has some very good reason for our $16 million robot to circle wherever it circles. There's also a screener who writes down a summary of each mission for our bosses, because they like to read the drone equivalent of the Twilight series every day of their lives.
"... the Drone sparkled in the sunlight, like the penis of some huge gray vampire."
The point being, it takes a short bus full of people to decide whether those farmers hauling missile-shaped boxes are nefarious or not. Add it all up and drone pilots work half-day shifts with few breaks and no phone privileges, and 85 percent of the time there's no action. My greatest accomplishment as an operator was being part of the longest Predator mission ever flown. It had no missiles, just a buttload of fuel. We launched, flew the entire shift, left for the night, came back the next day, and jumped in on that drone -- which was still in the air. I flew it my entire shift and landed it that night.
So maybe it is like a video game -- if you only play flight simulators in half-day stretches with a thin film of Vaseline over your screen.
And if your Kinect was the size of a person.
It Doesn't Look Like the Movies, Either
The first time I saw Hollywood's take on a drone was in one of the Transformers movies. There's some big shootout with a robot scorpion and, right as Michael Bay gets ready to climax, a Predator drone jets onto the scene for some deus ex rocket-pissing machina:
And that soaring dildo of murder is controlled through this bank of awesome-looking computer monitors ...
... in a crowded control room filled with a standard array of Important-Looking Military Guys, one of whom does his uniform shopping at Target:
Things look pretty much the same in The Day the Earth Stood Still, only there's a random helicopter parked in the middle of the room. The movie-army operates on the same principles as a bunch of 11-year-olds playing with Micro Machines.
Somewhere, off in the distance, the top of a skull-shaped rock breaks open to reveal missile batteries.
That's all the invention of Hollywood's most thoroughly cocained minds. The stark reality is that drone operators are stuck together in a tiny metal box that smells like ass. Your "office" is 8 feet wide, 7.5 feet tall, and 30 feet long. Most of it is filled with computers. You need a special code to get into each box, and you're pretty much alone with your partner for the duration of the shift. It's always kept at 68 degrees, so you're cold. And the lights are typically off. Over the years, the stench of each individual person gets sucked into the seat. A couple pilots and I came up with a mathematical equation for how many farts each seat absorbed over the course of the year. It was around 17,000.
Do not light a match in here.
This is what the "cockpit" of a drone really looks like. If you'd like to know what it smells like, visit the last day of Comic-Con and start sniffing chairs.
It Forces You to Predict the Future
I mentioned lag earlier -- this is one of the technical reasons drone warfare is the worst video game you'll ever play. There's typically a two- to six-second delay for any action. This means we don't see Joe Insurgent's left turn down that road until long after he's made it. Ever tried to play through a major lag spike in World of Warcraft or Call of Duty? By the time things clear up, you're usually face-deep in testicles or well on your way to wiping the raid.
In a shocking oversight, the Geneva Conventions say nothing about teabagging.
But when you're controlling a drone, paying for everyone's repair fees isn't an option, and your 12-year-old-like swearing vocabulary isn't going to get you points with anyone's mom. You have to get good enough at reading people to guess their movements. And you have to do this via a shitty camera several hundred feet above that person.
There was one time we were following a vehicle in downtown Baghdad. Bad weather messed with the satellite and made us go "lost link." The video screen froze, the telemetry froze. The entire computer system just locked up, and we didn't know if it was on their end or our end or somewhere in between. Our airborne missile-humping Terminator circled harmlessly in the sky above the target, drifting on thermals like a stoned metal eagle.
"It's medicinal, yo. My sensor has glaucoma."
Ten minutes later, the link came back. We managed to find the vehicle again, but the people inside it were gone. So we had to just sit there and watch the vehicle until they came back. We were there for hours, until my shift ended and the next group of guys got to sit in my uncomfortably warm chair and wait for our target to get back.
Two teams of trained soldiers spent hours staring at a parked car, not fighting the war on terror, all thanks to lag. Welcome to the yawning face of modern warfare.
You'd get more excitement out of a double shift at your local library.
It Turns You into a Voyeur
Operating a drone is the ultimate voyeuristic experience. You are an incredible peeping tom. We've actually watched people have sex. It took us a while to figure out what was going on. The heat signature kept getting warmer, and these two people kept moving closer together, and finally one of our guys said, "I think someone's having sex."
And we were all like, "Noooooo ..."
"If I enjoy this, does it count as fraternizing with the enemy?"
Don't start judging us until you've spent a few hundred hours hovering over an Afghan village. It's impossible to not notice people living their lives. That terrorist you're watching is also a dad. He Andy Griffiths his son through important life moments and bangs his wife as often as you'd expect from someone without access to Netflix.
It's one of the things that really bother me about drones being used by law enforcement. There's almost nothing you can't see when your flying robot has heat vision. No department will set out to record people having sex from their backyards or through open windows, but a few lucky drone cops are going to see that stuff, and one of them will be dumb enough to post it on YouTube.
"Hey, guys, over in this backyard: nipples!"
And while the final death of privacy is scary and all, there's an upside to the drone surveillance state: Big Brother will have to watch us poop. There's a video that was openly shared between drone squadrons of a local with diarrhea taking a shit. Imagine the after effects of a Taco Bell binge, but in INFRARED. This guy just squats in a field, bends over, and it was like a machine gun. Or a fully automatic shotgun. Use your imagination.
We've included an infrared image of the Gulf Stream, in case it's helpful.
So if you want a picture of the future, imagine a man shitting his guts out into a ditch while miles away a cop sits in a farty old chair and watches. Forever.
The Guys in Charge Don't Really Understand Drones
Drones are some of the highest-tech instruments of war ever designed. In fact, they're TOO high-tech for the brass to understand very well. They accept that new technology is inevitable, but they'll be damned if they're going to learn how it works. Think about when your grandparents finally caved and signed up for AOL. That's how well our officers understand drones.
"No, sir, I'm afraid it can't 'do some wicked Batman shit.'"
Did you know that drones can't really function in bad weather? Anything greater than a light breeze pretty much makes it impossible to fly or launch. Don't feel bad if you didn't know -- our bosses didn't either. They'd send us up during a storm and ignore all our experienced explanations as to why that was rock-fucking stupid. "Don't tell me why you can't do it, tell me how you're GOING to do it" they would say. And we'd end up circling in the sky for 12 hours until we ran out of fuel.
It's stupid, flying in weather. It's the stupidest thing I've ever seen anyone try to do. These are not tough, maneuverable helicopters. They are kites with missiles attached.
"Oh shit, seagulls! Pull it back."
But our officers just knew it had a camera and missiles and stayed in the air a long time. They didn't care about anything else. And that ignorance ended up costing the taxpayers millions. Like, "fund a large school district" millions. When I was in Iraq, some genius decided the right place to store our fuel was in steel barrels, exposed to the sun. The fuel went bad, and seven aircraft crashed as a result.
And we'd just painted the damn things.
And this won't get solved soon -- drone pilots are very scarce, and they're also unlikely to be promoted. So we're years away from seeing any overlap on the Venn diagram for "people who understand drones" and "people who command them." But really, what could possibly go wrong?
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Robert Evans is Cracked's head of dick joke journalism and writes many of the captions you enjoy every day. He can be reached here.
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