Drone warfare: An interview with Unmanned author Dan Fesperman

An MQ-1Predator unmanned aircraft somewhere in sky over Asia. (Wikimedia)

(In 1915, a new kind of war was taking shape over the skies of Europe as, for the first time in history, airplane pilots offered generals an eye in the sky with the ability to bomb the enemy below. Today, the platform of choice for the US Air Force is the unmanned drone. This week, the Baltimore Post-Examiner spoke with Dan Fesperman, the author of the novel, Unmanned; about drone warfare, pilot burnout and real-life drama. A former foreign correspondent with the Evening Sun and the Baltimore Sun, Fesperman covered The Gulf War, the conflict in the Balkans and the early months of the US action in Afghanistan. Fesperman will be speaking this Saturday night at Olney Theatre about drone warfare prior to a performance of Grounded.)

Baltimore Post-Examiner ~ Your book, Unmanned, is about drone warfare. It’s a fictional work, but deals with factual matter. Would you talk a bit about how the book came to be?

Dan Fesperman ~ I had read some piece and got fascinated with the whole idea of these guys going back and forth from the suburbs of Las Vegas to Creech Air Force Base, which is out in the desert. These guys would drive to work and figuratively go to war for eight hours a day in these trailers, in a very intensive job. Then they would get into their car and drive home and not be able to talk to anybody about what they had been doing all day, which was all classified work.

Author Dan Fesperman. (Wikimedia)
Author Dan Fesperman. (Wikimedia)

How wrenching – the psychologically difficult transition they would have to make every day.

Maybe they had seen some strange or terrible things they had to deal with. They’d get adjusted to their families, then they’d have to get up the next day – depending on what shift they were on – and go right back into the fighting. Even though they weren’t under personal risk, I thought, ‘That’s new; this is something that has never been done before. I wonder what it’s like for these people who are flying these things?’

BP-E ~ What did you learn from interviewing the pilots?

DF ~ When I got out there and finally had access to these pilots, I talked with a couple at length for 2-3 hours. What struck me even more vividly was the blend that these jobs had of complete intimacy with the subjects they were tracking. The pilots would watch a place – maybe a small Afghan village – for hours or even days at a time, looking for potential targets, and they talked about how they would get to know characters. They couldn’t really see facial features, but they could see the way the people walked, how they were dressed, what houses they came out of, so they would get familiar with the people. They could say, ‘Oh, those are the three children who live in this house; the ones who help their mom every day’. Or, ‘This is the boy who takes the goats out into the pasture.’ They became intimately familiar with these places, then they might have to do something to destroy one of the houses or kill one of the families if the wrong people showed up or were living there. Yet the pilots were 7000 miles away. Looking into their monitor they were looking nine hours into the future.

With this odd, unprecedented dichotomy, you had incredible intimacy and amazing remoteness. It was a very psychologically strange blend of these two different ways of looking at it. It struck me that there has never been any job like it in the history of warfare. It plays a lot of tricks on their minds. There is a high burnout rate and a lot of depression.

BP-E ~ It’s an intriguing premise for a book or a play.

A drone pilot may control his aircraft from 7000 miles away. (Wikimedia)
A drone pilot may control his aircraft from 7000 miles away. (Wikimedia)

DF ~ One of the pilots I talked with had been taken out of the F-16 program, and that’s how I set up my character. The pilot said the plane was so beautifully designed for the pilot – the ultimate ergonomic experience – that you could practically think a thought and make it happen. You’ve got this great freedom, and you are the top of the food chain in the Air Force. Then, instead of that, you get stuck in this trailer sitting in what looks like a chair in a dentist’s office for eight hours at a time, not moving at all but flying this slow, wobbly little drone on the other side of the world.

A lot of pilots were taken kicking and screaming into this program. Once they were in, they saw the value of it as a weapon, but I don’t think any were ever sold on it as a wonderful job to do. It really changed the whole nature of the Air Force. Most of the new aircraft being built are drones.

BP-E ~ You’ll be speaking this Saturday at the Olney Theatre about your book and drone warfare. Olney’s current show is a production of Grounded, by George Brant. Grounded is about this very subject – a former F-16 pilot (in this case a woman) who is transferred to the drone program. Have you seen the play yet or had a chance to talk with the playwright?

DF ~ I haven’t, but I’m looking forward to seeing it. I have friends who saw it in Baltimore and I hear it’s quite good.

BP-E ~ Both your book and the play deal with the issue of pilot burnout. Are there any statistics about that problem?

Megan Anderson in the role of burned out pilot in the  stage play Grounded. (ClintonBPhotography)
Megan Anderson in the role of burned-out pilot in the stage play Grounded. (ClintonBPhotography)

DF ~ There are. I’m not sure of the numbers, but I believe it is somewhere between 1/4 to 1/3 are dealing with depression or high levels of stress. At some point, they started bringing in chaplains and psychologists to deal with the problem, but I don’t think the Air Force really knew what to expect. I think they probably looked at it initially like it would be easier, since the pilots are out of harm’s way. I can see how the Air Force would have thought that, but this is really a very different type of deployment.

One observation I can make as a journalist who covered warfare is that when troops go abroad, everyone has a sense of mission. They’re all living it and breathing it. They wake up – they’re in a war zone. Even if you’re in the Air Force and flying a mission out of a base in Italy, still, everyone on that base is part of that mission, so when you get off duty, you can talk with others about it. It’s the same mind set. While that is tiring, and stressful in its own way, you don’t have to make that daily adjustment. When you’re home and going back and forth each day, it’s more of a wrench in your life.

With a pilot, when you are deployed and you’re up in the air destroying a target on the ground, you do have that compensatory emotion, “Well, I’m up there vulnerable myself. They might shoot me down. You do have that sense, as a soldier does, that it’s either them or me. When you’re flying a drone from a trailer in the Nevada desert, there is none of that; you’re doing this completely risk free. That’s gotta be more trying than when you know you just blew something up today and can think, ‘How fair was that?’. I know they don’t think of it as unfair, because it is war, and they do feel like it’s a legitimate target. Still, for the individual involved, I’m sure it’s tougher to deal with.

BP-E ~ But the intimacy for a drone pilot is a lot greater than for someone flying a modern bomber. In a sense, it’s like the fighter/bomber pilots of WWI and WWII.

DF ~ Yes, that’s right, but what makes it even worse is that, at least for the WWII pilot, you dropped your bombs and then got the hell out of there. These guys have to sit there and look at the damage. They have to do damage assessment – for hours sometimes. They see the bodies, the destruction, and they have to figure out if the right person is there. They have to linger and look at the fruits of their labor. It’s not a pretty sight sometimes.

BP-E ~ With drone warfare, it seems we’ve willingly entered into an arena with far reaching implications; not unlike the use of the atomic bomb. I mean, it’s fine til somebody else gets one.

A radio controlled aircraft. (Wikimedia)
A radio controlled model aircraft. (Wikimedia)

DF ~ Yeah, it’s great when you’re the only kid on the block. Now you’ve got a toy drone landing on the White House lawn. There was something in the New York Times this morning about how the people in Paris are getting the creeps because they’re spotting them around the Eiffel Tower; around the US Embassy. They don’t know where they are coming from. They’re hobbyist level drones, but nonetheless, these things can carry stuff too. It’s this great period where we think we have this ultimate weapon, and we’ve got this huge advantage, but now given cell phone technology and miniaturization, you’ve got to think, ‘When will someone do something destructive or stupid?’ Or some act of terrorism. It is inevitable. It will happen.

There is a scene in my book where a pilot goes out to a hobbyist group, and an engineer takes him out there, and he thinks, gee, there were six guys who enrolled in a flight school in Florida that started 9-11. How would these guys react if someone said, ‘Hi, my name is Osama and I’d like to learn to fly one of these drones’?

BP-E ~ Could you speak for a moment on the tactical effectiveness, the ethics and legality of using a drone?

DF ~ Legality? I’m not sure about that…

BP-E ~ Well, the Pakistanis have recently declared drones illegal.

A US Air Force drone. (Wikimedia)
On the ground – a US Air Force drone. (Wikimedia)

DF ~ Yeah, but they have drones of their own. They can say it’s illegal all they want, but when push comes to shove, I’m sure they won’t hesitate to use them. As far as effectiveness, they are great reconnaissance tools. There really has never been one that is better. With satellites, it’s a great camera but flies over something, and then it’s gone. With a drone, you can hover over a target for hours at a time, and when it’s ready to run out of fuel, you can bring another one in. You can have 24 hour surveillance on a specific target, so unless the enemy has something that can take it out – they’re usually at 10,000 – 12,000 feet or higher – there is nothing they can do about it.

BP-E ~ Certainly safer than putting up a Blackbird or a U-2?

DF ~ Safer and cheaper. If they get shot down, you don’t have any loss of life. When you think about peacetime applications, if you’re doing search and rescue; the boarder patrol is using them. They’re using them for wildlife counts. A lot of biologists are excited about this, because a helicopter survey that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, they can do for thousands instead. It’s just like the internet, a wonderful fantastic tool, but there will always be people who use it for the wrong thing.

BP-E ~ One final question which is being raised by civil libertarians: Do you see drones as a danger to the American way of life? Besides the concerns about potential terrorists, the government and a more militarized police force are both using them stateside now. Have we reached a turning point?

DF ~ I don’t think it’s a turning point; I think that anything with a potential to be abused or misused is a threat to people, but look at the internet and how it’s used to snoop on people. The same thing with cell phone technology and interception of communications. It’s a great tool to have, but if abused, then it’s a threat to people’s privacy. That’s just the nature of technology. It’s not so much a turning point or a threat to the American way of life as just another thing we have to figure out a way to minimize the dangers.

* * * * *

Dan Fesperman will be appearing this Saturday evening, February 28, at 5:00pm at Olney Theatre for a book-signing and conversation about his recent work investigating the unintended consequences of modern drone warfare. This event (which precedes a 7:45pm performance of George Brant’s play Grounded) is free to members of Olney Theatre Center, and $10 for non-members. Unmanned is available in Baltimore at the Ivy Bookshop and online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The Olney Theatre Center’s production of George Brant’s stage play Grounded runs now – March 22 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. Running time for the play is a gripping ninety minutes. Olney Theatre is located at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, Maryland. Tickets and other information may be found by visiting Olney Theatre online. Grounded is a co-production with Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, where it was seen last October.