Drones and Its Impact

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The idea of utilizing unmanned lethal technology in warfare has been heavily debated for a number of reasons. As the newest way of fighting, drone warfare currently has little legal restrictions that dictate what a government can or cannot order their soldiers to do (Thompson). One of the most prominent debates revolves around the psychological effects drone warfare has.

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Drone warfare not only has a negative psychological effect on the drone pilots, it also holds a psychological impact on the everyday citizen who becomes witness to these drones (Owen). In order to determine the ethics of drone warfare, governments must also consider the psychological damages that this new technology can bring. If governments wish to incorporate drone warfare, they should also implement ways to control the psychological impacts this technology holds.

Despite drone warfare being considered new technology, many researchers have already conducted studies in regards to the psychological impacts. First of all, even the support personnel of the drone pilots, who do not kill the people they see on their screens, are psychologically affected by drone warfare (Otto). In theory, this should be a relatively easy task. They would not suffer from killing someone and they are still providing valuable information for the military. However, what should happen in theory does not. Though they are not killing anyone, these support personnel are forced to watch some of the most terrible things that can be done to another human being (Otto). In a survey conducted by the Air Force, they found that almost one in five of every drone operator has been witness to a rape in this year alone (Otto). For some, they have witnessed more than 100 different cases of a person being raped or killed (Otto). These factors lead to these support personnel having a greater chance of being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (Thompson). In comparison to the 2.1% of non-intelligence support personnel who get PTSD, 2.5% of intelligence support personnel are clinically diagnosed with PTSD (Thompson). Despite this happening, the drone operators have no choice but to continue watching what is happening (Otto). As their job, it is their duty to keep watching as they continue to watch out for threats (Otto). 

Next, drone warfare has lead to built up stress in the pilots. Despite working in the safety of a building, these pilots experience the same amount of stress that a regular soldier would. With only what they see on the screen as their guide, these pilots must determine whether they are attacking a group of terrorists or a group of innocents. After doing so, they are expected to return home unaffected by their previous actions. When the Air Force conducted the PCL-M, the military’s test and evaluation for PTSD, they found that 1.6% of RPA operators experience a form of PTSD that could be considered an existential conflict (Chappelle). Because of all the guilt that is brought forth by their actions, drone pilots are much more susceptible to getting what is considered moral injuries (Chappelle). Those who get moral injuries have feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, loss of self-worth, existential and spiritual issues, and questionings about their morality (Chappelle). These feelings end up bringing about devastating consequences. Similar to Vietnam War veterans, drone pilots also exhibit patterns in regards to emotional distress that is associated with their killings (Prince). With a higher frequency in killings, drone pilots become more susceptible to thoughts of suicide by two times in comparison to pilots that are considered to kill a moderate amount of people (Prince). 

Not only can drone warfare cause post-traumatic stress disorder, it can also lead to mental fatigue. Chappelle, a psychologist specializing in military personnel, conducted a number of studies utilizing the Fatigue Scale, Fatigue Assessment Scale, Checklist Individual Strength Concentration Subscale, the World Health Organization Quality of Life Assessment Energy and Fatigue Subscale, and the Maslach Burnout Inventory Emotional Exhaustion Subscale in order to measure the fatigue experienced by drone operators. The tests showed that 53.6% of crew members in charge of artificial intelligence in warfare met the criteria for shift work sleep disorder (Chappelle). Shift work sleep disorder causes difficulties adjusting to a different sleep/wake schedule, which results in significant issues with falling asleep, staying asleep, and sleeping when desire (Chappelle). Not to mention, 51.5% of the tested drone operators were found to be above the cut-off of the Epworth Sleepiness Scale which measures how sleepy a person is during the daytime (Tvarynas). This fatigue leads to a higher possibility of work burnout. The Maslach Burnout Inventory-General Survey conducted four different studies in order to measure the possibility of job burnout in drone operators (Tvarynas). Three aspects of occupational burnout are explored with the MBI-GSs: cynical behavior, emotional exhaustion, and productiveness (Tvarynas). In these three studies, the survey found that of the drone pilots, 14-33% experience emotional exhaustion, 7-17% suffer from cynicism, 0-6% are below the diagnosed cut-off for occupational productiveness (Tvarynas). 

Another psychological aspect that should be considered when determined the ethics of artificial intelligence in warfare is the effects on the innocents caught in the crossfires of combat engaged by drones. In countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, citizens are becoming increasingly familiarized with the sound of a drone flying above (Owen). Using artificial intelligence to fight wars has brought up a considerable issue: artificial intelligence is unable to differentiate between enemies and innocents (Owen). These drones hover above the villages, infringing on their right to privacy and bringing with them a source of fear and lethality (Owen). In a study led by Stanford University and New York University researchers called Living Under Drones, citizens of the region of Waziristan confessed to living in constant fear of the buzzing above their heads (Owen). When hearing the drones in the sky, some of these citizens were prone to anxiety attacks and the majority of them suffered from insomnia (Owen). This constant fear disrupts their previous daily lives as well. Nearly all Waziristan children do not go to school and previous daily activities are avoided unless direly needed (Owen).

There are a number of variables that could have affected the results observed for the psychological effects of drone warfare. First of all, the number of available studies on this topic is incredibly limited. Drone operators are not permitted to reveal any information of their occupation unless they are revealing the details to someone with adequate security clearances. Thus, most studies are only conducted after being requested by the Air Force and still then the Air Force is in charge of the researchers, often employing the same researchers consecutively. Also, all the current available research concentrates only on a single person, instead of the group as a whole. Following the whole operations team in charge of drone warfare could provide a more clear understanding of how these psychological effects develop. Last of all, one limitation could be the language barrier between different countries. Other nations may have done studies on the topic, but these studies were not made available to this report in the form of English-language journals.

Despite the strategic advantages unmanned weaponry may bring, governments must take into consideration how this technology mentally affects not only the innocents caught in the warzone, but their own military personnel. Countries should begin to take action to create new policies that address the limits of using drones to prevent collateral casualties that lead to anxiety amongst the innocents. They should also ensure that the psychological needs of their soldiers are tended to, such as in the form increased accessibility of psychologists. 

Work Cited

  1. Chappelle, W., Goodman, T., Reardon, L., & Thompson, W. (2014). An analysis of posttraumatic stress symptoms in United States Air Force drone operators. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28, 480-487. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.05.003.
  2. Chappelle, W., McDonald, K., Prince, L., Goodman, T., Ray-Sannerud, B. N., & Thompson, W. (2014a). Assessment of occupational burnout in United States Air Force Predator/Reaper drone operators. Military Psychology, 26(5-6):376-385. doi: 10.1037/mil0000046.
  3. Chappelle, W. L., McDonald, K. D., Prince, L., Goodman, T., Ray-Sannerud, B. N., Thompson, W. (2014b). Symptoms of psychological distress and post-traumatic stress disorder in United States Air Force drone operators. Military Medicine, 179(8S), 63-70. doi:10.7205/MILMED-D-13-00501.
  4. Chappelle, W., McDonald, K., Thompson, B., & Swearengen, J. (2012). Prevalence of high emotional distress, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in U. S. Air Force active duty remotely piloted aircraft operators (2010 USAFSAM survey results). Technical report, USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, Brooks City-Base, Texas, December 2012.
  5. Chappelle, W., Prince, L., Goodman, T., Thompson, W., Cowper, S., & Ray-Sannerud, B. (2014c). Occupational health screening of the virtual warrior: Distributed common ground system intelligence operators compared with non-combatant support personnel. Technical report, USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, Brooks City-Base, Texas, February 2014. https://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA60
  6. Chappelle, W., Salinas, A., & McDonald, K. (2011). Psychological health screening of USAF remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operators and supporting units. Symposium on Mental Health and Well-Being Across the Military Spectrum, Bergen, Norway, 12 April 2011. https://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a582856.pdf
  7. Chappelle, W., Swearingen, J., Goodman, T., Cowper, S., Prince, L., & Thompson, W. (2014). Occupational health screenings of US Air Force remotely piloted aircraft (Drone) operators. Technical report, USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, Brooks City-Base, Texas, April 2014. https://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA60
  8. Otto, J. L., & Webber, B.J. (2013). Mental health diagnoses and counseling among pilots of remotely piloted aircraft in the United States Air Force. MSMR,20(3), 3-8.
  9. Ouma, J. A., Chappelle, W. L., & Salinas, A. (2011). Facets of occupational burnout among US Air Force active duty and National Guard/Reserve MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper operators. Technical report, USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, Brooks City-Base, Texas, June 2011. https://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA54
  10. Owen, Taylor. Drones Don’t Just Kill. Their Psychological Effects are Creating Enemies. The Globe and Mail. 8 April 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/drones-dont-just-kill-their-psychological-effects-are-creating-enemies/article9707992/
  11. Prince, L., Chappelle, W., McDonald, K., & Goodman, T. (2012). Main sources of occupational stress and symptoms of burnout, clinical distress, and post-traumatic stress among Distributed Common Ground System intelligence exploitation operators (2011 USAFSAM survey results). Technical report, USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, Brooks City-Base, Texas, September 2012. https://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA57
  12. Prince, L., Chappelle, W.L., McDonald, K.D., Goodman, T., Cowper, S., & Thompson, W. (2015). Reassessment of psychological distress and post-traumatic stress disorder in SR of military drone operators. United States Air Force distributed common ground system operators. Military Medicine,180(3S), 171-178. doi:10.7205/MILMED-D-14-00397.
  13. Thompson, W. T., Lopez, N., Hickey, P., DaLuz, C., Caldwell, J. L., & Tvaryanas, A. P. (2006). Effects of shift work and sustained operations: Operator performance in remotely piloted aircraft (OP-REPAIR). Technical Report, Air Force Research Laboratory, Brooks City-Base, Texas, January 2006. https://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA44 3145
  14. Tvaryanas, A. P., & MacPherson, G.D. (2009). Fatigue in pilots of remotely piloted aircraft before and after shift work adjustment. Aviation, Space, Environmental Medicine,80(5), 454-461. doi:10.3357/ASEM.2455.2009
  15. Tvaryanas, A. P., & Thompson, W. T. (2006). Fatigue in military aviation shift workers: Survey results for selected occupational groups. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 77(11), 1166-1170.

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