Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) have been used by the US military since the First World War. Assault RPAs were deployed in the closing stages of the Second World War, and the first major combat use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, commonly known as drones) was during the Vietnam War. UAVs are now the norm in warfare and are deployed both in-theatre and remotely.
The MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper are the primary UAV’s operating in Pakistan, and are flown almost exclusively from Creech Air Force Base from containers at Indian Springs in the Mojave desert, some 40 minutes by road from Las Vegas. UAV pilots sit in front of a monitor screen for hours on end and nothing usually happens; the experience is mostly dull and boring. Occasionally, however, this monotony is punctuated by an intermittent period of extreme activity when the ‘kill chain’ is set in motion and a target is neutralised by the release of a Hellfire missile.
‘Whiplash Transition’ denotes the journey of mind and body from being a ‘football dad’ at home to being ‘in the zone’ – that is , physically operating a UAV at a military base to follow or destroy targets abroad. After the pilot’s shift, operators travel off base to their homes in and around Las Vegas, ‘the entertainment capital of the world’. For many youngsters going on a ‘tour of duty’ means driving your car for 40 minutes to sit behind a computer and drag a mouse. It is this lack of demarcation between combat and personal/home life that is a contributory factor to operational stress and burn out. According to Wayne Chappelle PsyD, ABPP, Senior Aeromedical Clinical Research Psychologist for the USAF there are several other additional stress factors that can contribute to burnout, that are unique to telewarfare. They include crew shortages, fatigue, austere geographic locations of military installations supporting UAV missions, social isolation during work, sedentary behaviour with prolonged screen time and witnessing combat violence on live video feeds.