9 Things We Learned from Pissed Off Drone Operators

With 'Eye in the Sky' in select theaters — here's what remote control combat is really like

According to senior military officials, the number of drone operators leaving the Air Force is threatening the readiness of the program. Credit: Sra Cory Payne/ZUMA

In "The Untold Casualties of the Drone War,” Rolling Stone profiled four former members of the drone program who publicly criticized America's use of unmanned aircraft strikes in an open letter to President Barack Obama. "This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilizations around the world," they wrote. With the release of Eye in the Sky — starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and Alan Rickman — where a moral debate on drone warfare roils between military elites, we decided to revisit what these four vets told us about the bizarre and sometimes horrifying nature of remote control warfare.

The Air Force Pumps Up New Recruits with Metallica
When former drone sensor operators Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas first arrived at Creech Air Force base outside Las Vegas, where much of America's drone war is conducted, they were ushered into a large assembly hall along with dozens of other new officers. The lights went down and the first five power chords of Metallica's "Creeping Death" blasted out from the speakers. A large screen in front flickered to life with images of massive explosions. Cars, buildings and people were swallowed up in sweeping crosshairs, as whoops and cheers rose from the audience in the auditorium. Haas and Bryant looked at each other. A tall, heavyset officer with a large square jaw switched off the screen. "Gentlemen!" the officer boomed. "Welcome to Creech. While here, it will be your job to blow shit up and kill people!" 

Drone Operators conduct surveillance on more than combat
A day shift at Creech starts at 7:30 a.m. After a morning briefing and short safety quiz, pilots and sensor operators head off to their ground control station, which is little more than a shack with two seats and a bunch of screens. Most shifts are uneventful, spent watching a drone circle a featureless landscape. "You knew you were in for a shitty shift when you saw the chairs already reclined," says Haas. "That meant you were probably going to be spending the day watching nothing on the screen. Or if you came in when it was morning in Afghanistan you basically got to sit there and watch as guys went into their backyards to take a dump. I must have watched 400 guys take shits."

Numbers on drone strikes are largely unknown
According to the most recent numbers released by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), 245 strikes were launched in 2012. Between 2004 and 2016, the CIA's drone program claimed between 2,000 and 4,000 lives in Pakistan, as many as 965 of them thought to be civilians, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The U.S. has also killed several of its own citizens with drones, most notably American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, taken out in Yemen in 2011, along with his 16-year-old son, who died in a drone attack two weeks later. Last year, a CIA "signature strike" in Pakistan accidentally killed Warren Weinstein, an American aid worker held captive by Al Qaeda.

Terrorists say drone strikes support recruitment
During the trial of Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American found guilty of attempting to detonate a bomb in Times Square in 2010, the judge asked how he could be willing to kill so many innocent civilians. Shahzad replied, "Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq… they kill women, children, they kill everybody." In June of 2013 after Taliban gunmen killed nine visiting climbers and their guide in the mountains of northern Pakistan, a Taliban spokesman told a French reporter that the group had deployed a squadron "to attack foreigners and convey a message to the world against drone strikes." According to Shahzad Akbar, a human rights lawyer in Pakistan, "Taliban leaders have said that every drone strike gets them more suicide bombers… As we speak, there is an operation taking place in North Waziristan where the Taliban are handing out free DVDs containing footage of drone strike victims."

Bernie Sanders is the only candidate critical of the drone program
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes targeted strikes as one of the nation's most effective counter-terrorism strategies. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have expressed some concerns about killing U.S. citizens, but their larger issue is with losing an opportunity to interrogate suspected terrorists. Trump, stereotypically lacking on specifics, has only promised a heavy bombing campaign in Syria and elsewhere. Only Bernie Sanders has expressed doubts about the program. In an interview with ABC, he acknowledged that drone strikes have some strategic advantages, but added: "There are times and places where they have been absolutely counter-effective and have caused more problems than they have solved. When you kill innocent people, what the end result is that people in the region become anti-American who otherwise would not have been."

Life on the drone base in Nevada sucks
One of the more bizarre aspects of manning a drone is that you are, in a way, in two places at once. While you spend the majority of your day flying 25,000 feet over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen or Syria, when you leave the base you are in a desert just outside Las Vegas. It is quite possible to go from killing people on the ground in Afghanistan to getting toilet paper at Costco. Bryant spent much of his downtime playing World of Warcraft. Haas drank so heavily that he got worried phone calls from his parents who saw his daily bar tabs on his monthly credit card statements. "The job wore you down," Haas says. "There were limits as to how much you could fly in a week and in a month, but nobody got to keep within those limits. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, it didn't matter to us because we were technically in a theater of war."

Drugs and alcohol "fuel” the drone program
Haas tells us that his means for coping became increasingly destructive. "It was a pretty fucked up time," he says. He took to sniffing bath salts before, after and even during shifts. He also discovered that if he drank enough during his downtime he would be too intoxicated to be called into work. "There was a lot of coke, speed and that sort of thing," he says. "Everyone drank. We used to call alcohol drone fuel because it kept the program going. If the higher ups knew, then they didn't say anything, but I'm pretty sure they must have known. It was everywhere."

Drone operators sometimes track a kill for weeks at a time
Over the course of a month, one of the drone operator whistleblowers, Stephen Lewis, was tasked with conducting surveillance on a man whose son had been taken out in a CIA strike. "I had no idea who he was," Lewis says. "Only that he was fat, bald and walked with a waddle." The man spent most of his time at home with his wife and two daughters, or hanging nearby with neighbors. "You could tell he was well liked," Lewis says. "He was a real popular guy." The first Friday of every month, after midday prayers, the man rode his moped to pay respects to his son. During one visit to the gravesite, Lewis was asked by his commanders to confirm the target's identity. The missile struck as the man was riding home. "His legs had caught fire," Lewis says. "He turned around and at that moment the second missile caught him right in the face."

The Air Force is having a hard time keeping drone operators
According to a memo from senior military officials acquired by the Daily Beast last year, "outflow" of personnel — the number of drone operators leaving the Air Force — is threatening the readiness of the program. Early last year, General Mark A. Welsh III, chief of staff of the Air Force, said the Air Force was loosing 240 operators per year, while only training 180. "We were on a breaking point," says Benjamin Newel, a public affairs officer at Air Combat Command. The Air Force began offering drone operators six-figure salaries, but it doesn't seem to have stanched the "outflow." "The latest retention numbers I've seen for 2015 were about the same as earlier," says Newell. "Perhaps slightly worse."