Volume 31, Issue 2, Summer  2017

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.


Leave a Comment
Miguel H. Morris, Lt. Col.(USAF, Ret.) 5/1/2012 10:16:41 AM

It would seem that you suggest that drone pilots sitting in an office in the states that goes home to their family each day are in the same danger as the one who flies a aircraft over the target. I suggest the Maj is thinking of the perks more than the risk. I believe it’s called "Flight Pay" because you have to fly to earn it. As an enlisted man, I did.

M. J. Lamb, USAF (ret) 5/1/2012 10:36:24 AM

Understand the keen point of technology changing the definitions of warfare. However, if Maj. Blair believes combat risk does not include imminent threat of losing life or limb, maybe he would understand better while under direct fire from SAMs and AAA fire with nothing but thin sheet metal and a seat cushion in between. Respectfully, an Op. Desert Storm "responsible combat" mission Vet.

Dave Blair, Maj. USAF. 5/1/2012 12:59:53 PM

I appreciate the vigorous responses. However, ad hominem responses do not move us forward in this discussion. Pointing out that I have served in both manned and unmanned aircraft in combat zones, and that I have more combat hours than home station hours in the AC-130, I respectfully request we table rebuttals based on my qualifications and rather focus on my arguments. Thank you.

R.T.Howard, LtCol USAF (ret) 5/1/2012 1:19:07 PM

While recognizing the usefulness of RPAs, to bill their controllers as being in combat just isn't true. One must experience it firsthand.

Robert A. Horton, Lt Col. USAF 5/2/2012 2:34:31 AM

Dave, I admire your discussion of this issue and well-reasoned arguments. I agree this is a discussion that the USAF as a service needs to debate, especially with changing paradigms of warfare. Interestingly enough there are MWS flying in the combat space well above any reasonable threat that are getting the accolades of combat. Meanwhile, RPA brethren are facing the continuous, tough mental realities of the non-blinking eye and warfare. While I don’t agree with all of your arguments, I do believe you have articulately framed the core of the debate. – MC-130H aviator

Aaron Schram 5/2/2012 11:43:04 AM

An element of risk that has been overlooked is that of personal injury due to the nature of manned flight. Whether caused by mechanical failure, pilot error or kinetic engagement, risks faced by an aviator upon crash or ejection greatly exceed those of an RPA pilot. Just using the Major's F-22 example, I know of no RPA pilots that have been killed by physiological factors such as GLOC or hypoxia. Also no RPA pilot will ever have to face a SERE scenario.

Lt Col Julie Spears, USAFR 5/2/2012 6:22:31 PM

Agree with the arguments; however, it's my understanding that RPA crews are already receiving Aerial Achievement medals (since 1997), so I'm not fully understanding the purpose of the paper. Is it simply to counter prevailing cultural biases? If so, the same argument should logically extend to cyber warfare, which I'd argue would have an even tougher time justifying awards/decs than the RPA community.

Lt Col Matt Martin 5/3/2012 2:12:08 PM

This is a great and timely article. In fact, the actual name for "flight pay" is Aviation Career Incentive Pay with the emphasis on incentive. As the author points out, the thing we as warriors and patriots should be fixated on with laser-like focus is not some chivalric notion of who's a hero and who's not, but combat effectiveness. It is essential that we seek out every possible asymmetric advantage against the enemy. Our mission after all is to fly, fight, and win—not to prove how brave our pilots are.

Dave Blair, Maj, USAF 5/3/2012 2:59:21 PM

Great points, thanks all for engaging this discussion! Thoughts: 1. Definitely an increased level of risk due to the physical act of flying, war or peace regardless, as we unfortunately know all too well. I should have better explained 'differential risk' - conditional increase of risk due to combat is comparable btw manned & RPA, not baseline risk. Links to Flight Pay discussion - is FP for aviation risk, or skill-set retention? If aviation risk, then undermines FP for RPA, but also for staff. 2. Great point on Cyber. Totally agree logical extension if life, death effects, agency.

William H Roberts, CDR, USN (Ret) 5/4/2012 7:22:08 AM

Major Blair-- Recommend a look at _Iron Coffin: War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor_ by David Mindell.

Gary Goldsmith, Maj 5/7/2012 8:24:14 AM

You really can't be serious, can you? I would expect more common sense from a Harvard man. Maybe less emotion. And I know your qualifications. Good luck, Dave.

Maj Cory Shackelton, USMC 5/7/2012 7:47:21 PM

Seriously? Since UAV operators are in "combat" should they be eligible for a combat distinguishing device on their awards? I'm sure that would go over well, standing next to a young Marine with 2xPurple Hearts and a Navy Comm with a "V" - while a UAV pilot with an Air Medal with a "V" tries to tell this young Marine that he faced the same combat dangers. Are there long lines of terrorists waiting to take you hostage, threatening to cut your head off with a pocket knife when you walk out of your trailer/office in CONUS? I didn't think so.

J. Chesire ( CDR USNR, Ret.) 5/7/2012 11:47:28 PM

As a veteran of 197 aerial combat missions in SEA, and having watched too many of my colleagues shot down and either killed or captured, I find such self-serving rhetoric offensive. While we all admirably serve, some serve far differently than others. Please not socialize and dilute one's tip of the spear experiences with rear echelon warriors. BTW, anytime I hear "combat hours" rather than "combat missions" I become suspect. Did WWII bomber crews log hours or missions? Those that lived anyway, through 25 missions, eh?

Bunky 5/8/2012 7:47:00 PM

How does that kool-aid taste?? This article has got to be a joke right? No way is a UAV pilot in a box facing the same risks as pilots operating manned aircraft over enemy territory. Matter of fact, he isn't facing the same risks of any manned aircraft in which a crew could face in flight emergencies, bad weather, etc with their lives on the line.

LT Red Miller, USN 5/9/2012 9:33:57 AM

I can appreciate the contributions that a UAV driver brings to the battlefield, namely increased SA and the sometimes required direct support. However, to equate the risk faced by a UAV driver to one of a pilot flying over actual bad-guy country is ludicrous at best and insulting at worst.

Jonathan J. Ritsema, Capt, USAF 5/9/2012 10:20:28 AM

Heavy aircraft who "scrape the top of a combat zone" still run the risk of SAFIRE (MANPAD on a mountain), IFE's requiring a divert into a hostile airfield, and returning to an operating base with intelligence operatives and insurgents just outside the wire, risking a further SAFIRE threat upon takeoff or landing. All with 20+ people on board. RPA crews earning medals for impact on the GWOT is one thing, but simple ORM dictates a different conclusion for being considered "in combat."

LCDR, USN 5/9/2012 8:20:06 PM

You're waging a losing war at the cost of what little credibility the AF retains amongst its service peers. You may have one or two AF buddies patting you on the back, but the rest of us look at this as drivel--especially those of us with actual flight time in theater--and we're amazed that you can even attempt to rationalize your line of thought. Heck, my platform has four turboprops and I'd never even try to put myself in the same boat as the pointy-nosed guys that have faced combat ops, or much less the Marine or trooper that's kicking in doors and dodging incoming rounds.

USAF vet 5/9/2012 9:50:49 PM

Obviously somebody in a RPA control room doesn't have the same exposure to danger as somebody in an aircraft. Aside from that, the only thing that matters is dead bad guys, and I'm not really picky about who or how it's done.

Dave Blair, Maj, USAF 5/10/2012 2:30:23 PM

@ Capt Ritsema. What you're describing is combat responsibility - collective risk instead of individual risk alone. Like an Infantry officer, you bear the weight of knowing if you make a mistake, those men will pay for it. Even if you do everything right, the enemy may take some nonetheless. I argue this is similar whether a platoon is in the back of your aircraft or under your protection on the ground. Quoting a friend: 'A convoy hits an IED in a road an RPA crew scanned... you don't think the crew feels guilt or understands combat as they watch their brothers loaded into rescue helos

Clint 5/10/2012 11:28:21 PM

I wonder if he would express these same opinions to the family of someone killed flying a combat mission. For someone who has such impressive credentials, I’d expect a little less emotion and a little more logic. So, UAV pilots are at greater risk than the men who fly single-engine fighters over the enemy or those who fly an airplane weighing over half a million pounds with 20,000-foot peaks looming ominously in the distance? I wonder how he’d feel if he were actually “over there.” This sensationalist claim (and others like it) makes his argument laughable.

Tim Paschke 5/14/2012 8:11:34 PM

A well-considered article. I especially liked the call for recognition of valor to focus on the effects rather than the platform. I think the author may have taken a step too far, though, in comparing risk between manned and unmanned flight. Perhaps history will prove the opposite, but we have happily not yet suffered an attck on RPA operators. To dismiss the inherent risks of manned aviation seems unnecessarily adversarial. I would've liked to learn more about the impact of repeated high-stress combat engagements, day after day, interspersed with the demands of non-combat life.

James A. Fernandez A1C 5/19/2012 10:28:38 AM

I see the dangers for the RPA pilots not being so much a physical danger as much as a mental one. It should be taxing on any pilot, no matter the platform, to engage the enemy and potentially take a life. The RPA pilots still complete vital tasks for our country, but just like many of the other responses have already stated, the physical dangers they face are obviously not the same. Possibly, due to this new problem, a new category needs to be created for these pilots, that still diligently serve their country. This would honor them while not potentially diminishing the status of other pilots.

R Castrop, USAF (Ret) 6/5/2012 12:40:07 PM

In the end, all this talk will be moot. Although we’ll still need manned aircraft for some critical activities (e.g., transporting people), human physiology will not match advancements in unmanned/autonomous machines. As technology improves the relatively slow, flimsy RPAs now used (to great effect), rivaling then surpassing manned systems, it will all be over. Watch the X37 and its successors as a harbinger to the end of manned low earth orbit spaceflight, then try to compete with a hypersonic RPA flying a 30 hour mission.

Col Mark Sanchez, USAFR, Ret 6/20/2012 12:42:58 PM

I applaud Maj Blair's reply to focus on the debate and to please refrain from 'comparing War Paint'. However, to add to the conundrum, while I was a Minuteman III Missile Combat Crew member (acutal duty title), we wore Combat Crew patches and received Combat Readiness Medals. We would have fought World War III from North Dakota. Interesting 'AOR'.

H. Clawson, AC130 Pilot Retired 6/20/2012 12:53:39 PM

Dave, you miss the main point. You mistake Combat Responsibility for Combat Risk. I understand SOF lives depend on what you do, AC130 or RPA. What you grossly ignore is the lack of personnel risk; RPAs never fear for their lives. Yes, a gunship takes risks an F-15E may not at cruise altitudes, but F-15s still take risks (witness strafe @ rob ridge). I never flew Ploesti, but please Honor Valor; or sit in the plane, w/ sun coming up, you can't see to defend yourself & the SEAL begs please don't leave; ITs not even close to the same.

Howg, E. Capt (USAF) 7/10/2012 3:02:21 PM

It is my opinion that while 'risk' is an important aspect of manned combat aviation and should be recognized, 'responsibility' is equally important. In Libya, unmanned aircraft made up .5% of the ATO lines but shouldered 50% of the ISR collection and were involved in 40% of all kinetic strikes. With so many enemy Main Battle Tanks, artillery pieces, SAM sites, AAA and Technicals left as a smoke pile of debris after the work of RPAs, an award or decoration that recognizes individual contributions would be fitting. Risk is honorable, but effective mission accomplishment is the end goal.

Smith A. Tsgt (USAF) 7/10/2012 4:53:19 PM

While I see no point in collecting ribbons and decorations. Most in this discussion are focused on risk. Per 36-2803 the Valor device not Air Medal is awarded to "appropriately recognize the noteworthy accomplishments of Air Force personnel placed in harm’s way during contingency deployment operations."

Buddy Lee 7/12/2012 12:04:03 PM

Dave: Keep stirring the pot. Judging from the responses you've done well in your goal. And for anyone who questions Dave's bona fides in regards to combat experience, please contact me and I can fill you in, as Dave is a pretty humble guy

Dave Witt, Maj, USAF 8/1/2012 12:10:54 AM

After five years as an RPA pilot, I respectfully disagree that stateside RPA crews are in a similar state of risk as manned crews, even accounting for the targeted threats against us here in the CONUS. Our deployed RPA crews I would consider to be in an equal amount of danger, depending on location. (Though I admit also I have no data to back up these statements.) That aside, I agree with large portions of this paper. It is absolutely essential to good planning to start at combat and work your way backwards to causes, and instill the proper mindset in our young people. And setting...

Dave Witt, Maj, USAF 8/1/2012 12:12:34 AM

...that aside as well, a small prediction: As the last of our top cover (Gen Schwartz) departs this summer, RPAs will go back to being what we were pre-Robert Gates: Neglected children kept out of sight because the service dislikes us.  Promotion rates are already abysmal and those few who make rank can’t get command of our own units. We will be an oddity and a dead end as a career for at least 5-15 more years because of the institutional resistance to RPAs as a concept. No amount of medals of whatever type will change that.

Mark Smedra, Maj (USAFR) 2/20/2013 4:40:31 PM

The fundamental problem with RPAs is that those flying them have no "skin in the game" (read Nassim Taleb for the moral and philosophical idea). OPRs and career advancement don't count as "skin in the game". Combat "risk" or "responsibility" is not the same, and RPA pilots should never be given the same prestige as those who flew and had "skin in the game." I'm not saying their job isn't demanding, difficult, stressful, etc, just like fighter pilots, but there is a clear distinction that even the general public readily understands.

Matt Williams, Maj USAF 4/5/2013 9:54:21 PM

Maj Blair, I will never disagree with you that RPA crew and the weapons systems themselves are very valuable assets to the joint fight. Your first points are valid indeed, but for your sake you should have stopped there. The minute you try to tell me RPA pilots are in more danger than pilots flying over Afghanistan, you scuttle your credibility. If you don't believe me I suggest you talk to the family of Capt James "Rusty" Steel and tell me how far you get. Based on personal observation, I would steer well clear of any Fighter Sq or TACP unit unless you plan on recanting your latter points.

Air/retired 7/1/2013 2:45:38 PM

Whatever the sort term, the long term will belong to the RPA due to its increased maneuverability, beyond anything the pilot of today's aircraft could withstand, all important assets when engaged in air to air combat. Some the valor will be lost, but the objective of winning the battle will be enhanced and that is the main objective.