Interview with an RPA Sensor Operator

Interviews with Drone operators are rare. Many quotes and interviews in the media are recycled from only a handful that do exist. This is an interview with an active duty operator.

What follows is an interview I undertook with an active duty RPA sensor operator in 2014 and is an accompaniment to my two posts on the psychological impacts of RPAs. Part one here and Part two here.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 drone prepares for launch. (Air force photo)

So to get an interview with an active operator was the difficult task that lay ahead of me when researching for my “Humans Behind and Beneath the Eye of the Drone” article. Perhaps it was the generally unfavourable view that much of the mainstream media has taken to drones, or the scorn of others in the military suffered by those who do speak out, tied in with the heavy restrictions on what can be said whilst maintaining Operational Security. However after weeks of searching, numerous phone calls and a lot of work someone came forwards for a Skype interview for this article. What follows is his story (all information anonymised).

If you feel comfortable, could you tell me about yourself and how you became a MQ-9B sensor operator?

When I first started in my Air Force career, I had always told myself that I wanted to be in a new Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC; i.e. job) by the time I reached the mid-point to my retirement. My previous job was in computer networking & communications; a typical Monday through Friday, nine to five job that took me all around the world on assignments and provided me with all sorts of certifications that would translate to the civilian job market well. However, the one thing that always bothered me about that AFSC was having to play the “Kevin Bacon Game” to link my actions at work with the Air Force mission of “bombs on target”.
The tenth year came (eligibility for retirement is 20 years) and I stuck to my word. I started the retraining process which consists of perusing through a list of AFSCs that are experiencing different levels of manning. The best opportunity to be selected for retraining is to select an AFSC that is in the “critically manned” category. Initially I wanted to be an Aerial Gunner, the guy that mans the machine gun on the side of helicopters…but that AFSC wasn’t listed that year. My attention was then drawn to the 1U0X1 AFSC; Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Sensor Operator and I did as much research on it as I could online. Fortunately, one of my civilian co-workers was a retired former Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (SNCO) who happened to have connections with one of the SNCOs at the local RPA squadron on our base. He contacted him and asked if he minded giving me a tour of the place and job since I was considering retraining into it. During the tour of the squadron, I remember asking the SNCO many of the same questions you’ve asked me. I also remember relaying my concerns about my current job being “seven degrees of Kevin Bacon away” from the Air Force mission; and I’ll never forget his response of “in this job, you’re only one degree away from dropping bombs on targets.”

As you work long shifts, I imagine that it can’t be ‘go time’ all of the time, what do you do during the time between mission critical times? Is there a lot of waiting around?

Generally, every crewman arrives to work for their shift and proceeds to the Squadron Aviation Resource Management (SARM) office where the Airmen there notify them if they are up-to-date on all of the necessary requirements (i.e. procedures tests, ratings, certifications, etc). From there, we enter the secure side of the building and proceed to the giant screen showing the daily flying schedule which shows which crewmen are on what mission, GCS, and the respective times associated (take off, landing, etc). Then it’s off to the mass briefing room where everyone receives the daily intelligence briefings about the missions; where we’re flying, the target(s), the unit being supported, the altitudes, etc. From there everyone splits and gathers with the rest of the crewmen assigned to their respective mission and they have a more private crew brief. The crew brief is where the pilot, sensor operator, and Mission Intel Coordinator (MIC) further go into the details of the mission execution, divvy responsibilities and expectations which can vary from “I need you to plot coordinates and monitor the flux capacitor and temperatures, etc” to “calculate the speed of the vehicle during follows and give me range estimates to the intersections” and everything in between. Eventually, we work with the same fellow crewmen long enough that we get to know each other well enough that the crew briefings become shorter in duration. If you work with the same guys for a long time, you already know what they expect from you and vice versa.
After the crew brief, the pilot and sensor operator squeeze out the last minute pee breaks, fill their tumblers with fresh coffee, grab their small lunch pale, headset, and quietly walk out into the Ground Control Station (GCS) for the changeover brief with the outgoing crew. The sensor operators (hereby referred to as “sensor”) always switch out first; the outgoing sensor will brief the incoming sensor on any issues with the aircraft, cameras/sensors, settings, where the target is on the screen, etc. After the sensors swap out, the pilots do the same on their side.

Working so closely with a pilot in the GCS, what kind of relationship do you guys have?

Squadrons typically fly the same missions for the same supported unit for continuity purposes. Most missions are simple Pattern Of Life (POL) scenarios where the same targets are followed and monitored for months on end to unravel their network of locations, contacts, etc. On those missions, the mood inside the GCS tends to be a more relaxed “here we go again” environment. The conversation can range from sports, to upcoming weekend events in the city, etc. The relationship between the pilot and sensor varies as with any other job. Sometimes the crew vibes well together and has excellent chemistry which can help pass the time during dull POL missions; other times it might be hours of silence between the crew. Ultimately though mission related communications (aircraft warnings, mission updates, radio communications) trumps all and takes priority over everything.
The official term we have is “strike posture”; the unofficial term is “fangs out”. It’s the moment of the mission where the crew sits up straight, eyes come wide open, palms start to sweat, and the radios come alive with instructions, coordination, and everything else. Since the very first day of a RPA operator’s training…we are told to be ready at all times since that strike posture moment can happen at any time, and it’s true; the mission can “spin up” at a moments notice. It can happen (and has) any time from the moment immediately after swapping the outgoing crew and taking the seat, to several hours into the boring old POL mission where nothing was happening. It can be a pre-planned strike against a high value target coordinated amongst numerous units, agencies, players, etc…to a spur-of-the-moment support of a “Troops In Contact” (TIC) scenario; the latter of which REALLY increases the pucker-factor by five since time is not usually on the side of our guys on the ground taking fires.
On the very first day and all throughout our Basic Sensor Operator Course, the instructors would tell the class “let it be known…that in this job, the chances are VERY high that you may be called upon to take a life; if any Airman here is uncomfortable with that possibility, there is no dishonor in informing the cadre and choosing a different AFSC”.
‘The mission can “spin up” at a moments notice. It can happen (and has) any time from the moment immediately after swapping the outgoing crew and taking the seat, to several hours into the boring old Pattern Of Life mission.’
All throughout every part of the long, hard, road to “Combat Mission Ready” status, every crewman ponders how they’ll react when the time comes for a live shot. Will my nerves take control of my hands? Or will I stay calm, cool, and collective? During technical training at the various schoolhouses, we trained on complex simulators and eventually on actual RPAs. On the simulators, the cadre ran the scenarios professionally and excelled at increasing the pressure at any random moment. They would operate the simulator to reproduce any number of various possible outcomes we could face on operational missions; from vehicle chases through busy city streets, to complex operations involving attack helicopters, tanks, snipers, civilians appearing seemingly out of nowhere, you name it. Once we moved up to training on actual RPAs, the scenarios were then ran by the cadre alongside a contracted company consisting of retired special operators that had “been there, done that”. Each was a former Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) qualified operator that specialized in controlling airpower and calling in air strikes from either airborne assets or ground artillery. They role-played as the bad guys; dressed in traditional middle-eastern garbs, manning specialized compounds out in the middle of the U.S. desert built specifically for our training. They did everything from leading us through vehicle chases to staging mock battles against other members of the company dressed in their former military uniforms for the added touch of realism. The training provided by the schoolhouse and contractors to RPA aircrews is still top-notch and remains a great asset, which operational RPA aircrews continue to train with when available.

Could you tell me a little about the best and worst moments in your experience as a MQ-1B sensor operator?

Two of the greatest misconceptions about RPA operations by the general public are that the aircraft operates autonomously (it doesn’t) and that we have the authority to shoot at will (we don’t).
Long before the days of RPAs, manned aircraft required the clearance of a Forward Air Controller/Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) with JTAC certification. Contrary to Hollywood’s common theatrics of aircrafts dropping bombs willy-nilly on enemy positions…in the real world, the JTAC rules all. Any ordnance expended without his authority is done so only in the most severe and rare instances; which to date neither my co-workers nor myself have ever encountered. The JTAC is the guy on the ground with the big radio strapped to his pack. He is a master of his trade that speaks the “aircrew” and “grunt on the ground” languages. When the ground force commander (with the aid of the military lawyers) has determined that a target needs kinetic action, he tells his JTAC to make it happen.
‘Men firing at our guys, had become free to walk away into a small village to potentially kill again in the future. Our own rulebook bound us.’
The Rules of Engagement are the laws of the land; and God help anyone who breaks them because the military legal system certainly won’t. One of the worst moments of my time as a sensor operator came when we were called in to provide close-air-support for a TIC in progress; we arrived just in time to watch as the enemy stashed away their weapons and thus became “unarmed”. What had been previously been men firing at our guys, had become free to walk away into a small village to potentially kill again in the future. Our own rulebook bound us, and as much as everyone wanted to launch a missile before the insurgents reached the village…we couldn’t without the JTACs permission, which never came.

The argument that is often heard about the use of RPAS’ is the danger of detachment with the analogy of being like ‘video games’ and that it makes it easier to kill. I know this is often met by the fact that often you will have to stay and watch long before and after any action like that is taken and so have a greater view of the consequences. Especially when compared to conventional bombing by airstrike. Could you tell me a bit about how you feel about this?

Comparing the job of a RPA crewman to a video game is about as tantamount as comparing a professional guitarist to your neighbor’s Guitar Hero playing child. The two might appear to use similar interfaces; but the difference couldn’t be further from the truth. To be perfectly honest, most RPA crewman are bothered by the comparison when they catch a whiff of a video game reference.
Once a crew engages in a kinetic strike and the situation calms down; they’re usually promptly replaced by a fresh crew…so that the strikers may start the process of writing the After Action Report (AAR) while the details of the engagement are still fresh on their minds. The AAR contains everything; pilot & sensor settings, the video & audio recordings, every small detail is included which will be later scrutinized…to see what could have been done better, what went right, etc.
MQ-1B aircrews do not have much of a choice in the ordnance carried by the aircraft. It will always be some sort of modern variant of the supersonic AGM-114 Hellfire. To that end, we’ve become masters at weaponeering it. We can control (to a degree) nearly every aspect of its employment, from the sonic boom time, impact angle, time of flight, and more. If the JTAC tells us that he requires the missile to have a 30-second flight time before impact, we make it so. To that end, we are also very aware of the missile’s main limitation, its limited warhead payload requires precise weaponeering and steady hands to achieve the JTACs intended effects. Our video archives are filled with many past examples where the aircrew miscalculated a number, or perhaps the sensor’s hand twitched and the missile impacted just slightly wrong enough to allow the intended target to simply run out of the explosion seemingly unscathed. We take the weapon and it’s consequences deadly serious.

In terms of the general culture of you guys working with RPAS’, what is that like? Especially in regards to combat missions?

After my first kinetic strike, I remember sombrely taking out the small picture of Saint Michael the Archangel that I always carry to work, and quietly saying the invocation prayer to him. There are no high-fives; no room full of cheering squadron members to wish the strikers a job well done. The most one will usually get is a respectful nod as he walks by, nothing more. After the AAR was complete and our crew was dismissed for shift, I drove straight to the base church, walked into the private prayer room, kneeled, recited a few prayers, and had my personal conversation with God. I vividly remember asking him that he please ensures that every kinetic strike from that moment on afterwards remain just as somber as the first; to this day…they’ve all been so.

A topic that many people raise is the apparent separation between being at home with family and then driving to work and controlling an aircraft that may be thousands of miles a way and perhaps already midway through a mission to then coming home again at the end of your shift. Could you describe what that is like, especially from a mental/emotional point of view?

Truth be told, I personally haven’t had any issues with maintaining a regular role as husband to my wife after shift. She knows what my job is and has a generally good idea of what goes on when the uniform is donned although she’ll never of course know the specific details. The conversation after work is generally light and kept simple.
“How was your day, honey?” she’ll actually ask. To which I’ll typically and vaguely reply with “another day full of buildings to watch” or “craziness…chasing bad guys through the desert, etc”.
On the far in between occasion that our mission has gone kinetic, she’ll know because I’ll have texted a message to her phone letting her know I’ll be late from work and making a visit to the church. The details need not be shared between her and I…but we both take solace in knowing that life taken on the job is not done eagerly or easily. Every crewman is constantly reminded of the availability of the base psychologist’s services…and the lack of repercussions against their career if they wish to partake in any extra sessions with them. In fact, after every kinetic engagement it’s mandatory that the crewmen converse with the psychologist within 24 hours of the strike.
Oddly enough I’ve never felt that my feelings have become bottled up inside of me or restricted in any way.

Finally — what do you think about the accuracy/general credibility of the general media coverage of RPAS?

Generally the media portrays the RPA as an entity in and of itself; not at as a piece of the bigger system it really is. Somewhere out there in the battlefield there are entire legions of intelligence analysts, targeting cells, ground commanders and more that are working together towards a common objective. The RPA and its crew are simply another tool in the Air Force’s arsenal of precision strike platforms.
The majority of the time the media is so uninformed that they can’t even take the time to find the proper image of the RPA they’re reporting on; news articles reporting on the deaths of Al Qaeda senior leaders are often accompanied by a picture of a RQ-4 Global Hawk (a completely unarmed RPA).
The enemy has quickly adopted this to their own advantage. We’ve watched in real time as insurgents killed while engaged in combat against coalition forces have had their weapons quickly removed by other insurgents posing as innocent villagers and replaced with gardening tools. The next day they’ll have media outlets reporting on the death of innocent gardeners killed during a failed RPA strike…and the public eats it up.
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