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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.
[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
[vi] Farrell, 2014
[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.