In a tent at Nellis Air Force Base on the northern edge of Las Vegas, the officer in charge of a U.S. Air Force drone unit strolled into a meeting with the 20 or so pilots and sensor operators under his command. It was in the winter of 2005-2006, and the officer just wanted to try out some ideas he had for boosting unit morale, he recalled later in a conversation with an Air Force historian.
But it was too late. The drone crews from the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron were already “so bitter and angry,” the flight commander remembered. And when he opened his mouth, the drone operators actually booed.
Ten years after the Predator drone first flew spy missions for the Air Force, and four years after the U.S. added missiles to the airborne robots to transform them into remote-controlled killing machines, the overworked, under-appreciated community of men and women who actually fly and maintain the Predators hit rock bottom.
And stayed there. For another decade. Drones continued to play a larger and larger role in conflicts around the globe. But no one in charge—from the president to the secretary of defense to the generals overseeing America’s wars—seemed to appreciate that drones require people. More than ten thousand people, in fact. And those people are tired.