Ten Thousand Feet and Ten Thousand Miles:
Reconciling Our Air Force Culture to Remotely Piloted Aircraft and the New Nature of Aerial Combat
The impact and scope of modern remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) demand a reexamination of our cultural assumptions about combat. The needs of combat gave rise to our RPA force, yet institutional incentives inform the members of that force to the contrary. Conventional wisdom holds that RPA crew members are not in combat because their lives are not in danger. This “combat risk” logic is deeply problematic in two regards: (1) technological defenses such as stealth and highly permissive aerial environments do not diminish the reality of combat for manned aircraft, and (2) given the global nature of terrorism and the priority that our enemy places on thwarting RPAs, the argument of lower differential risk is simply untrue. Instead, I propose a logic of “combat responsibility.” Under this model, an individual is engaged in combat if he or she meets two criteria: (1) direct agency in life-and-death outcomes (2) while engaged with the enemy during wartime. This definition captures RPA kinetic strikes and escort duties yet still encompasses manned sorties in combat zones. Thus, we institutionally affirm that an RPA crew, while manning its weapon system, is very much at war.