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Military Law

Jul. 8, 2024

The trauma of killing remotely

The public should be aware of the sacrifices and consequences of drone warfare, and the courts should be prepared to address the mental injuries of drone operators who may encounter legal issues.

4th Appellate District, Division 3

Eileen C. Moore

Associate Justice, California Courts of Appeal


“Drones are just another weapon, and they turn out to be a very effective weapon that puts no American troops at risk, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t use them against identified enemy targets.”

- Colin Powell

Drones are the fastest-growing segment of aviation in the United States. There are almost 900,000 drones registered with the Federal Aviation Administration and there are hundreds of thousands of drone operators. A Remote Pilot certificate is required for individuals who operate drones and it’s the FAA that issues the certification. The Air Force is now training more pilots for its drones than for its fighter jets and bombers combined. In the Air Force, drone pilots range from second lieutenants to majors. In the Army, they can be enlisted personnel.

There are various issues recognized concerning killing with drones. This article will primarily discuss the mental effects on drone operators. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell notes, killing with drones removes concerns about the loss of American lives. However, we cannot forget the trauma suffered by those we ask to protect us by killing remotely.

A recent Rand Report stresses that having a public aware of the full spectrum of sacrifices asked of and made by service members and veterans is vital to ensuring that policies provide veterans with access to programs and services needed to assist with recovery. Our courts are trying mightily to keep up with treatment for the mental injuries suffered by our combat forces when they come home and find themselves with legal problems. However, we shouldn’t forget those who engage in combat but never leave home. They are killing other human beings as part of our national defense, suffering from mental injuries as a result. We are likely to see some of them in our courts.

New era of warfare

Combat by drones is here. It is becoming increasingly clear that all major military missions in the future will rely heavily on the use of drones. And it’s not limited to the U.S. launching them. In fact, the U.S. is busy developing interceptors to protect us from drone attacks by our enemies. Also, along with other nations, our country is creating a new force to protect ships that have come under attack by drones.

Last December, sailors aboard the USS Carney shot down 14 Houthi drones and missiles that were aimed at merchant shipping in the Red Sea, and the USS Mason crew shot down another. Attacks on international commerce by militants have continued since then, resulting in the U.S. and its allies shooting down scores of Houthi drones in the Red Sea. On June 14, the Associated Press reported the U.S. Navy, trying to keep international waterways open, faces daily drone attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis, the most intense running sea battle the Navy has faced since World War II.

Distance from physical danger

The workstations for U.S. drone operators are typically air-conditioned and thousands of miles away from real action. It is thought that the farther away from the actual killing, the less personal risk there is for remote operators who make the decision to click the kill button. Perhaps that’s true so far as physical injuries, but maybe not for mental injuries.

In his book “On Killing Remotely,” Marine Lt. Col. Wayne Phelps says killing probably began with hand-to-hand combat, then rocks were used, then sharpened rocks affixed to sticks. Methods “progressed” to spears, bows and arrows, and then edged weapons such as swords, knives and axes. Once gunpowder and guns were invented, killing became more remote, from catapults to canons to muskets and machine guns. After that was the atomic bomb, rockets and missiles. Today we have drones.

For thousands of years, people have continually moved themselves farther and farther away from the point of physical engagement during battle. Nonetheless, remote pilots are experiencing mental reactions to warfare as strong as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD.

Phelps opines that it isn’t the physical distance from the fight that impacts the operators the most. He says it’s the operator’s cognitive or empathetic distance that is important. According to an article by Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph L. Campo, remote aircrews are mentally engaged in combat and psychologically involved despite the distance.

Expert studies about stress on remote combatants

In an article about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Chappelle, Goodman, Reardon and Prince, the authors state that remote crew members perform their duties within the protective borders of the United States yet are continuously exposed to high levels of combat. The exposure is through remote, electronic streams of real-time video and auditory surveillance of the battlefield and various regions of conflict across the globe.

The article states that the act of killing results in clearly observable emotional and social consequences, regardless of whether the killing occurred from 30 feet or 3000 feet away from the enemy. The piece concludes that remote operators may be at a higher risk of PTSD symptoms as compared to other ways of killing.

A Defense Department study found that pilots of drone aircraft experience mental problems like depression, anxiety and PTSD at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. An Air Force survey found that 46% to 48% of its drone operators reported high operational stress. Their job is obviously far different from that of a person engaged in manned combat. The main role is sustained surveillance. But that heightened vigilance also involves sudden shifts between being a silent observer to being a combatant. It’s a sort of psychological whiplash.

Unique problems for drone crews

Unlike traditional pilots, drone pilots may not experience the adrenaline rush. However, also unlike fighter pilots, drone pilots don’t get to fly away after they’ve hit their target. Drone operators continue to observe after they strike, and are thus exposed to disturbing carnage, death and destruction.

Chapelle et al note that combat-related duties of remote crews include identifying, tracking, targeting, and killing enemy combatants and destroying the enemy. Remote operators sometimes witness on real-time video the torture and death of civilian bystanders and U.S. forces by enemy combatants. Post-strike battle damage assessments often involve witnessing grief reactions in friends and families of those killed and observe first responders recovering bodies and body parts. Such surveillance is often vivid and prolonged. Exposure to remote trauma is both universal and unique to remote warfighters.

Drone operators also spend a long time watching the target beforehand. Phelps says the longer the drone operator surveils the target, the greater the chance the operator forms an intimacy. They are required to closely follow the target and get to know how he goes about his life. The target might be playing soccer with his son after spending the day making IEDs. There is a sort of emotional attachment. It’s harder to kill when one observes the target’s humanity. The operator establishes the target’s pattern of life to find out what is normal. In that way, abnormal behavior can be detected. Phelps writes about one operator who took a day off from work and discovered another operator had killed his target. He felt devastated and angry as though someone had stolen his kill from him. It was a strange sense of loss and an unresolved issue with him. Another target took his child with him every time he left home because he knew the Americans would not strike when a child was present. But one time, he left without the child and that’s when he was killed.

An even larger stress on drone operators is watching non-targets face danger. Campo’s article says watching friendly forces in danger resulted in the highest rate of changes in psychological response for his study. Phelps says some drone operators watch rapes, torture and execution and there’s nothing they can do about it. One operator watched an ISIS member kill multiple children for playing in a playground built by coalition forces.

Another reported problem involves the lack of being able to compartmentalize because the remote crew is not in a combat situation among combat comrades at the time of a killing. Many of the drone operators Phelps interviewed witnessed the killing of about 50 persons. Yet, because of their non-combat settings, they are expected to live normal lives. The average drone operator is male in his early 30s. He is in the Army or Air Force and is married with children. The operator might be asked to pick up milk on the way home or get home and have to care for a colicky baby. That’s after monitoring a person to be killed, witnessing a kill or actually killing.

A recent incident must have had a profound effect on drone operators. On Jan. 28, three American service members were killed, and more than 40 others wounded during a drone attack on a U.S. outpost in Jordan. That was the first time U.S. troops were killed in the Middle East since the beginning of the war started by Hamas on Israel. President Joseph Biden said the attack was carried out by radical Iran-backed militant groups. The unique problem for U.S. drone operators was that they apparently confused the enemy drone with a returning American drone. Now they must live with the trauma of dead and wounded U.S. service members.

Drone operators feel they are second-class citizens

According to Phelps, drone operators are perceived as not being the equivalent of manned aviators. He points out that the media portrays them poorly, saying that in Amazon’s “Jack Ryan,” a drone operator is a “dumbass” who wants to meet the child of a target he killed, and that a film called “Good Kill” is full of inaccuracies, even though it claims to be based on true events.

It’s not just the civilian world that is unfair to drone operators. It’s in the military where they get the rawest deal. They are shunned and mocked. Phelps thinks it’s a mistake for drone operators to try to conform to the manned aviation culture. He says it makes the meat-eaters feel they are being dethroned.

The Government Accountability Office, GAO, reported that the Air Force, whose members often refer to remote pilots as the Chair Force, promoted remote pilots much more slowly than others. Drone operators also receive insufficient awards for their work.

In 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a Distinguished Warfare Medal. It was intended for those occupations that have a significant impact on operations but didn’t fit the traditional requirements for medals based on heroism or performance in combat, such as unmanned aviators and those who conduct cyber warfare. There was great controversy and outcry because it was the first new warfare medal in 70 years and a higher award than a bronze star. Critics dubbed it the Nintendo Medal. Shortly after the announcement, Panetta stepped down. The new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, canceled the Distinguished Warfare Medal. Instead of the high recognition envisioned by Panetta, remote operators are permitted an R-device to attach to existing medals to show they engage in remote combat.

Extraordinary stress of sailors

For nine months, the USS Eisenhower has been resisting the persistent Iran-backed, Yemen-based Houthi drone attacks in the Red Sea. Deployment of the crew has been twice extended and they fear another extension. Should the ship return to Norfolk, the Navy fears a negative effect on commercial shipping. The 7,000 sailors aboard the carrier are showing signs of fatigue. The Associated Press reported they are posting dark memes all around the ship.


Studies show that drone crews have a consistently higher incidence of psychiatric symptoms than their compatriots who operate manned aircrafts. They are burned out and exhausted. Adulations of bravery, courage and valor that traditional pilots receive are not bestowed upon drone pilots.

In his book “On Killing,” Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman says that in study after study, two factors show up as critical to the magnitude of the post-traumatic stress response. First and most obvious is the intensity of the initial trauma. The second and less obvious, but an absolutely vital factor is the nature of the social support structure available to the traumatized individual.

It’s already a reality that drone operators are treated disrespectfully in films and by members of the military. Grossman says that as a result of facing societal condemnation, Vietnam vets locked themselves in the prisons of their own mind, prisons known as PTSD.

When we ask people to fight for us, we need to be aware of the consequences of what we ask them to do. And our courts must be ready to deal with those consequences when a veteran gets sideways with the law.


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