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UAVs: Turning pilots into viral addicts and the rest of us us into war junkies

‘Predator Crack’ and ‘Gorgon Stare’ Feed the Addiction

Let’s face it, UAVs are pretty cool. Names such as ‘Predator’, ‘Reaper’ and ‘Avenger’ (my personal favourite), mean that they appeal to a certain generation and gender – basically, guys who grew up playing the X-box. UAVs such as the ‘Hummingbird’, whilst interesting, don’t have quite the same appeal… give them a name like ‘killer’ or ‘psycho’, however, and watch the YouTube hits clock up. Mention UAVs and certain images pop into the mind: either a UAV in flight or the infrared images of a Hellfire missile striking a target. There’s a certain quality which means that you cannot pull your eyes off the screen… wanting to see if the missile hits. The vaguely worrying thing is that it’s not just us that do this. So apparently, do the pilots.

 

‘Predator Crack’ – the worst kind

While the live video feed from a UAV circling high above the battlefield for hours at a time offers unprecedented intelligence to both the troops in the field and commanders back at base, this technological advance has some negative aspects. The images that are beamed back from the UAV are focused on one small area rather than the whole battlefield. According to Steve Call, author of Danger Close: Tactical Air Controllers in Afghanistan and Iraq, this limited scope of the UAV feed is often overlooked and leads to the problem where the feed is viewed as the “big picture” rather than just a segment of it. This is cited as causing contention, with commanders back at base assuming that they know more than the troops in the firefight due to their aerial view, forgetting that the scope of the feed is limited.

The high quality live feed offered by UAVs has led to an issue reportedly labelled by US troops in Afghanistan as ‘Predator Crack’. This term refers to the addictive quality of the UAV feed and it’s distracting nature. While pilots and commanders back at base focus on the feed from a UAV and its select representation of the battle below, they can become fixated on action that their feed reveals. This can lead to the pilots and commanders losing situational awareness of the overall battlefield and lead to endangering the lives of the soldiers on the ground. A hypothetical example would be where, as a firefight rages at one end of a valley, the Predator pilot focuses on a small group of enemy fighters fleeing from the battle (or ‘squirters’ as they are known). As the Predator follows these men, maybe highlighting them with their target designators so that the soldiers can identify them from civilians later on, the pilot has not identified a group of enemy reinforcements approaching the flank of the soldiers in the valley. In this example, “Predator Crack” has led to the commanders and pilots losing their awareness of the battlefield and focused valuable aerial assets on tracking a small group of men, rather than providing warning of enemy flanking action.

The USAF’s integration of its new camera pod, christened ‘Gorgon Stare’ – a reference to Medusa, whose stare turned people to stone – may fuel the addiction rather than alleviate it. The ‘Gorgon Stare’ video pod will provide the pilot and commanders at base with up to twelve different angles, meaning that, in theory, they can maintain situational awareness over a larger area. The addition of multiple addictive video feeds may cause three issues. Primarily, there will be more potential for the pilot to be distracted by ‘squirters’, as he will have more capacity to follow their movement across the battlefield. The second concern is that the sheer amount of video footage may produce lots of raw data but that it may slow down the identification of genuine targets. Finally, since the pilot, an analyst and a commander can all choose to view different camera feeds, the inclusion of the ‘Gorgon Stare’ may lead to increased tension. Alternatively, it may lead to better co-ordination and help ease inter-service rivalry.

It’s the detachment factor . . .

The distances involved between the pilot in Nevada and the UAV in Afghanistan may lead to a certain amount of detachment for the pilot. Whereas a pilot flying in a warzone will be staying close to the theatre, the UAV pilot in Nevada can go home to his family at the end of his working day. This detachment may cause the pilot to become desensitised to his targets. For members of the ’X-Box Generation’, the piloting of a UAV in front of several large computer screens will just be like childhood, when hours were spent shooting and bombing anything that moved. It is possible that these factors, when combined, do not lead to the UAV pilots being as efficient and sensitive as they could be (although a certain amount of de-sensitivity is necessary for them to perform their role).

While UAV technology continues to develop, it will be necessary for armed forces around the world to ensure that their UAV pilots are as efficient as possible and provide the services that the troops on the ground need. As UAVs are developed with increasing autonomy, ethical considerations and debates are likely to come to the forefront. For an interesting take on the ethical debate, see Peter Singer’s paper on ‘The Ethics of Killer Applications: Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Morality When It Comes to New Military Technology?’

 Neil Waghorn writes for DefenceIQ.com

3 responses to “UAVs: Turning pilots into viral addicts and the rest of us us into war junkies

  1. Reaper Pilot June 9, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    As a Reaper Pilot, I have to disagree with some of your assumptions that we are not aware of the surrounds of our image, and that we are not trained to think out side the video ‘box’, and we are not trained and think tactically. As for the continued reference to the X-Box Generation, you are in a fantasy world. The Reaper is a deadly machine and is treated with utmost respect by all that fly it. The RPA community is constantly critisised for being in a virtual world. That virtuality goes the moment you step into the GCS as a crew-member (and not as a guest or observer). The job is serious, the missiles deadly, the lives are real.

  2. Neil Waghorn June 9, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Thank you for the feedback. I’m sorry that you disagree with the comments. The piece was designed to highlight the potential negative side effects of a crucial and important piece of kit, while stressing that these were only possible side effects. Would you disagree with idea of the video feed being distracting, if not for pilots but for commanders or observers? Neil

  3. Surinder Singh June 10, 2011 at 6:38 am

    Surinder Jun 09 at 1205.The Article is very relevent to high light the fact that though a UAV is an effective Recconaisance and a deadly killer device and provides the live video of a small part of the overall battle field. Too much concentration on the UAV picyture can lead to a commander losing focus on the overall situational awareness of the area of influence of his unit/formation.
    In fact it is universally acknowledged that a UAV is employed in conjunction with a number of complementary Sensors covering the entire Area of Influence working on different EM Spectrum & a UAV is “cued” onto a potential target.

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