Small Wars Journal

Finding Meaning Inside the Box: Understanding RPA Crew Resilience

Thu, 09/10/2015 - 1:46pm

Finding Meaning Inside the Box: Understanding RPA Crew Resilience

Robert R. Greene Sands and Megan L. Dove-Steinkamp

Drone or RPA pilots are leaving the USAF faster than they can be replaced.  Even more pay doesn't seem to slow the hemorrhaging down much.  Concerns of burnout, stress, mental health concerns and even moral injury have become a familiar litany highlighted in press releases and articles about the RPA pilot shortage crisis.  Data gathered to support a number of studies (most recently RAND) has been through traditional behavioral instruments and has focused on fixing the situation with addressing singular components.  We argue that this approach fails to address the need to build resilience that will help minimize issues and variables discussed in the RPA populations.  To better understand and appreciate how this program can be addressed and promoted, in-depth qualitative methods should be engaged to truly understand and appreciate current concerns as well as help build a sustainable program for the future.

With fires still burning in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US military faces a number of other regions with terrorist threats; including the dramatic rise of ISIS in the Middle East. Enter Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA, often called “drones”).  Although the need for troops on the ground has scaled back, the demand for RPA missions has increased.[i]  The use of RPAs matured in Iraq and Afghanistan and is perhaps the most critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform the Department of Defense (DoD) has, tracking targets and delivering strike capability. Indeed, the US Air Force asset has become an indispensable force-enabler.  As RPA missions increase, we learn more about the experiences of RPA crew members.  And what we learn is disconcerting.

There were 1350 RPA pilots as of the 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report on RPA pilots; a force that is supplemented with personnel from the Air National Guard.[ii] An RPA crew features a collocated pilot and a sensor operator and other, potentially geographically distributed, mission personnel (e.g., a mission commander, launch pilots, intelligence personnel).  An RPA pilot (an officer) and sensor operator (an enlisted airman) conduct missions from inside an isolated computer station (“the box”) located on one of a smattering of Air Force bases in the continental US.  Additional RPA crew members are distributed across bases overseas where the RPA are launched, and among the ground units who call in and direct flights. [iii]

The details of RPA missions are largely classified, but we do know a few things about the experience of RPA crew members.   First, RPA crews face a high operations tempo; crews are flying six or seven days a week, up to 14 hours per shift.[iv]  RPA personnel report sleep deprivation, overuse of stimulants, emotional and physical exhaustion, anxiety and burnout.[v]  Second, promotion and advancement for RPA crew members is far behind that of manned aircraft crews.  Perceptions of career stagnation may prevent qualified personnel from continuing in or seeking to enter RPA-related occupational specialties.[vi] Third, “deployment” is on station. Families follow RPA personnel on deployments.  Imagine the jarring disconnect between firing a Hellfire missile and just hours later sitting down to eat with your spouse and children.  In addition, almost ¼ of RPA crew members are Air Guard – which yields additional issues and concerns (e.g., little or no rotation assignments, commute).  Lastly, the “remote control” nature of RPA-related work has resulted in stigmatization.[vii]  Others – both within and outside of uniformed service – have touted RPA-supported battle as a “coward’s war” and likened RPA work to playing videogames,[viii] where RPA crews sit in lounge chairs at a safe physical distance, thousands of miles from harm’s way.  This perception does not acknowledge that these crews, isolated from social supports and prohibited from discussing the classified nature of their missions, must watch video footage of the effects of, for example, a Hellfire missile on intended and unintended targets as the feed is beamed back in real time from their aircraft.  These, among other stressors, can affect job performance and the wellbeing of RPA crews.[ix]  Indeed, initial studies have underscored similarities in terms of both risk of trauma and prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for RPA crew and members of other uniformed service populations within the Department of Defense (DoD).[x]

Much has been written on the psychological distress associated with the high operations tempo of RPA missions and the career trajectories for active and Air Guard RPA personnel, particularly as these apply to RPA pilots.[xi]  However, less is known about the lived experience of RPA crew members.  The nature of on station deployment presents an unusual set of demands for combat operations.   RPA personnel do not directly engage in physical combat, but nonetheless take actions that can result in others’ loss of property and life -- which includes the potential to cause harm or death to those who might be innocent.  Recently, this potential made headlines as we learned that an RPA mission was associated with the loss of US citizens who were being held hostage within the strike zone.[xii]  Morally injurious experiences, such as perceived violations of personal ethics, may produce elevated risk for developing PTSD and related symptoms.[xiii]  Studies suggest that physical distance from combat and kinetic activity may exacerbate these risks. Unlike collocated manned crews, isolated RPA crew members may not have opportunity to utilize the support afforded through broader social network and cohesion of larger unit.  Social support is further constrained by the potential for others to hold negative perceptions of RPA work and thus, the legitimacy of RPA crew members’ reports of distress. 

These mental health concerns are associated with additional second-order consequences such as increased risk-taking propensity, alcohol misuse and aggression, which can contribute to a variety of mental health problems among the families of RPA crews.[xiv]  This is not just a military problem.  The experiences of RPA crews are affecting our military families, our loved ones and significant others, and our communities.   This is a matter of public interest and deserves increased awareness.    

No surprise, the RPA force is hemorrhaging pilots; many opting for early outs rather than contend with the stressors inherent to their jobs.   In January, Chief of the Air Force General Welch and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James reported an alarming set of statistics.[xv] Mission demands require the RPA force to increase by 300 pilots a year.  Each year, 180 new RPA pilots are trained and enter the force.  Each year 240 pilots are lost to attrition.  Do the math: USAF is not only failing to meet the demand for new pilots each year, but experienced pilots are leaving more quickly than they can be replaced.  It is unclear how USAF will meet its projected demand for 1700 pilots by 2017.  The personnel shortage compromises USAF’s, and more generally, the DoD’s reconnaissance and strike capability.  Concurrent with General Welch’s report, the USAF announced four initiatives to mitigate the ever increasing pilot shortages: 1) an increased Air Guard and Reserve participation, 2) increased opportunities for former RPA pilots to volunteer to fly for six-month periods, and 3) delayed return of pilots loaned to RPA units to their manned airframe units, and 4) increased pay.[xvi]  While these efforts will undoubtedly supplement the force, they are unlikely to solve the personnel crisis in its entirety.  Nor will these initiatives improve the experiences of RPA crew members who remain in their positions.  The recruitment, development, and sustainment of a qualified RPA force depend upon improving how RPA crews and crew members manage adversity. 

The US military has acknowledged this need, investing in programs geared toward developing psychological resilience among our service members, civilians, and military families (e.g., US Army’s Ready and Resilient Campaign).[xvii]  Resilience builds on strengths (rather than deficits) that are already present in the situation and its participants, so as to promote proactive (as opposed to reactive) strategies for managing adversity (e.g., combat-related stress).  Resilience implies (timely) rebound to previous level of functioning as well as learning and positive transformation.[xviii]  Finding meaning despite adversity can lead to healthier attitudes, strengthened competence, increased job satisfaction, and reduced turnover intentions. The resilience framework can be extended to interdependent groups, such as RPA crews.  Many scholars and practitioners have suggested that work groups experience a collective phenomenon similar to psychological resilience.[xix]  A group context might trigger or suppress individual responses.  For example, an individual may gain access to a greater number of environmental resources (than he or she would otherwise have had access to) as a member of resilient work group.  Therefore, the in-depth examination of psychological resilience among RPA crews should simultaneously consider both the collective resilience of RPA crews and the potential for interactions among psychological and collective resilience.   

The demand for RPA missions is not going to go away – the question of whether it should go away is left open for others to debate – nor are the host of stressors associated with RPA-related work.  The RPA crisis cannot be repaired through structural change alone.   The provision of promotion opportunities and increased pay, for example, may draw more individuals to RPA-related occupational specialties, but do not address the potential psychological distress inherent to this type of work.  We caution that RPA combat carries unique stressors; it is not likely that the knowledge and tools developed for use with personnel in traditional combat roles will generalize to the RPA population.  Traditional external supports (e.g., unit cohesion) may not be available for RPA crews, perhaps particularly for pilots and sensor operators who are physically isolated in the box, to buffer adverse experiences, stigmatization, and moral injuries.  Current USAF efforts to mitigate the personnel shortage (e.g., supplementing the force) can be strengthened by applying a resilience framework to contextualize the experiences of RPA crews.  This examination of the RPA population should include methods of inquiry that allow access to lived experience beyond traditional surveys and focus groups.[xx] Future efforts must afford opportunities for RPA crews and crew members to find meaning inside the box, so that they might improve their lives outside of the box.

End Notes

[i] Brannen, K. (2015). Air Force’s lack of drone pilots reaching ‘crisis’ levels. Foreign Policy, 15.

[ii]. Farrell, B. S. (April, 2014). Actions needed to strengthen management of Unmanned Aerial System pilots [GAO-14-316]. United States Government Accountability Office Report to Congressional Requesters.

[iii] Farrell, April, 2014.

[iv] Brannen, K. (2015). Air Force’s lack of drone pilots reaching ‘crisis’ levels. Foreign Policy, 15.

[v] Bumiller, E. (December 18, 2011). Air Force drone operators report high levels of stress. New

York Times.

[vi] Farrell, 2014

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Watson, J. (September 29, 2014). Emotional toll taxes military drone operators, too. Associated Press: San Diego, CA.

[ix] Farrell, 2014; Hardison, C. M., Aharoni, E., Trochil, S., Hou, A., & Larson, C. (February, 2015). Identifying sources of stress and dissatisfaction in Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) pilots, sensor operators, and intel personnel [PAF-1P-282]. RAND: Project Air Force.

[x] Otto and Webber, 2013

[xi] Hardison, et al

[xii]Diamond, J.  (2015).   U.S. drone strike accidentally killed 2 hostages.  CNN Politics (23 April).

[xiii] Stern, J. (2014). PTSD: Policy Issues. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 31(2), 255-261.

[xiv] McNabb, C.  (2014). Trip Report Follow-up to USAFSAM Occupational Health Stress Survey 2013.  Findings for ISR Agency Gained ANG Units (2 July), Otto, J. L. and Webber, B.J. (2013).  Mental health diagnoses and counseling among pilots of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the United States Air Force.  Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, vol 20, no. 3.

[xv] Martinez, L.  (2015). Air Force Moves to Ease Drone Pilot Shortfall and Heavy Workload.  ABC News (15 January).

[xvi] Associated Press.  (2015). Air Force taking steps to fill drone pilot shortage.  Fox News Politics (15 January).

[xvii] United States Army’s Ready and Resilient Campaign Summary (R2C). (2013).

[xviii] Meredith, L.S., Sherbourne, C.D., Gailott, S.J., Hansell, L., Ritschard, H.V., Parker, A.M., Wrenn, G. (2011). Promoting psychological resilience in the U.S. military. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.Norris, F. H., Stevens, S. P., Pfefferbaum, B., Wyche, K. F., & Pfefferbaum, R. L. (2008). Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capabilities and strategy for disaster readiness. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41, 127-150.

[xix] e.g., Norris, F. H., Stevens, S. P., Pfefferbaum, B., Wyche, K. F., & Pfefferbaum, R. L. (2008). Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41, 127-150.

[xx] Ungar, M. (2003). Qualitative contributions to resilience research. Qualitative Social Work, 21(1), 85-102.


About the Author(s)

Robert R. Greene Sands, PhD, is one of the foremost experts in cross-cultural competence (3C) and culture-general in the DoD and has worked closely with several DoD organizations to develop and deliver innovative blended learning programs in culture and language.  Several iterations of his courseware have been utilized by different Services, Special Operations Forces, US Army, US Air Force, US Marines, and Foreign Area Officers, among others. Sands developed the first-ever Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in cross-cultural competence, Operational Culture: Thinking Differently about Behavior in the Human Domain.

Anthropologist Sands is currently CEO of LanguaCulture, LLC and adjunct professor at Norwich University.  His prior experience includes positions at Air University and Air Force Culture and Language Center, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Language at Norwich University and adjunct professor in the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies Program.  Sands’s research and writing on the various aspects of culture and language is represented in seven books (with one in press), numerous journal and book chapters.  He is also a preeminent speaker and lecturer and is often delivering addresses to various organizations and learning institutions on his research and experience, to include TEDx and other television and video appearances.  His most recent book published by Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) featured a re-envisioning of the Special Forces language and culture learning program, Assessing SOF LRC Needs: Leveraging Digital and LRC Learning to Reroute the “Roadmap” from Human Terrain to Human Domain.  Sands founded and is co-editor of the Journal for Culture, Language and International Security.  Dr. Sands received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois.

Megan L. Dove-Steinkamp is a student of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the University of Connecticut.  She is currently completing dissertation research focused on resilience in the armed services.


Bill M.

Sun, 09/13/2015 - 11:17pm

moved below

Bill M.

Sun, 09/13/2015 - 11:20pm

In reply to by Mike Byrnes

These are very insightful insights into an increasingly dysfunctional, or perhaps more accurately a disturbing, Air Force culture. Whether management of of our nuclear weapons, future air craft programs (including the JSF and CV22), and it's RPA force, the overall trend appears to be one of deception and a strong desire to cling to desirable war paradigms, instead of innovating to solve real problems. There are many great leaders in the USAF, but it seems that the cream of the crop seldom rise to positions where they can effectively manage the force's future. Although this all seems to rhyme with what I read in John Boyd's biography. Different time and different problems, but the same approach.

Mike Byrnes

Sun, 09/13/2015 - 4:53pm

Nicely written. Several colleagues and I have just published on this topic as well, over at the Air and Space Power Journal ( As folks living this adventure, we'd note that the elements of the story that receive the most attention in any given analysis usually correlate to researcher's interests. Someone fascinated with the moral dimensions of remote and autonomous warfare will generally see an explanation for observed behaviors in the RPA community through that lens, for example. The anti-drone warfare activist will apply total confirmation bias to explain a manpower shortage as a way to justify their own personal feelings about the style of warfare. If you ask enough RPA crews across enough units as to get the broad picture, the explanation is much simpler and has almost nothing to do with ideology. There are two types of people in this community: volunteers and non-volunteers. Anyone who joined the Air Force to fly planes and was forcibly moved into the RPA is frustrated and disappointed they're not in an airplane; their arguments are predictable. The rest, who believe in this line of work, would gladly stay but are keenly aware that there IS NO career path plan for them. When you've flown 2000 hours in just 3 years, then go to teach at an RPA schoolhouse where even your performance reports are undercut by commanders from the fighter and bomber communities (who have little to no RPA experience), and then get orders back to Creech, the Air Force has told you it has no intent to develop you into an organizational leader and has instead reserved all of its goodies for other officers.

The public has only heard part of one or two of the missions the platform does (hint: the MQ-9 is tasked on the books to do everything from close air support to deep interdiction and strike coordination, to search and rescue, etc., not just hunt down terrorists... though it does that really well), so they have no idea how much work these crews are actually doing and how explicitly parallel it is to the air-to-ground work fighter crews perform. Lacking that information, most people have no idea why the "enlisted pilot" notion is exceptionally disastrous and will likely set this community back several years--its not the flying skills, its the level of authority to match the consequences presented by the mission type that makes that plan ill-conceived. Even if the hardware were identical across the services, the driving question about whether or not an officer needs to command the aircraft is: what kind of work are you doing with that system? Furthermore, our airmen are not stupid. Long term, they're not going to do a $75K/yr+ job for $35K... they're going to get their pilot qualification and get out (either retire if they're that close or separate if not) and make 5-8 times as much to fly these things as a contractor. Before we conclude that's greed, think about it from a perspective of taking care of a family: it's easy to make personal sacrifices, but much harder to ask them to sacrifice by passing up on a huge pay raise when you're thinking about their quality of life. The only thing USAF has succeeded at consistently with the RPA is to create the government-owned/contractor-operated (GO/CO) industry. To put it in perspective, the taxpayer is currently footing a bill for almost $250K a year per contract pilot--more than it pays its 4-star generals--for someone who may have been a Captain or Major the year before. The enlisted sensor operators are not far behind, and an airman with a pilot qualification now in hand would find just as little reason to continue in a career field the Air Force wants nothing to do with as their officer counterparts did. Congratulations: now the taxpayer can fund a former E-5 or E-7 at $250K a year instead of the salary they were paid to contribute to national defense. Why? All because the flying club--USAF--wouldn't share a silly little intangible like mutual respect (and the tangible actions that correspond to that attitude) with the RPA crews. Good luck justifying that pettiness in front of the legislature when the hearings start over this mess.

Dissent within the DoD about the value of RPAs generally comes from people with ideology rather than skin in the game: the reality check from the folks in harm's way is that after A-10, the MQ-9 is the next most requested asset from fielded units. The best value for the warfighter has been armed RPA for persistence and quick reaction, then calling up alert fighters when there was a need for additional firepower. The stark reality is that for the Air Force to get the RPA enterprise right and get the most value it can out of it--deeply integrating it tactically and operationally with its other assets--this will be a 2000 to 2500 crew (yes, 2000 pilots and 2000 sensor operators) industry. That's as large as the entire combined fighter fleet. The only alternatives are better automation and better Human-Computer Interfaces (HCI), endeavors the service cut from the budget, sniping money set aside for it to redirect it to the JSF project. USAF is facing a critical crossroads where it must either choose to accept transformation of its organization, models, ideas, etc., or keep passively resisting and failing at this business. Right now the attitude is "pay our RPA bill so it will go away and we can get back to F-35 and thinking about the kinds of wars we WANT history to hand us." The trouble, of course, is that history isn't handing them the big war that lets them repeat the Desert Storm anomaly.