45 veterans sign letter urging drone pilots to stand down

Reuters / Eric D. Warren
A group of 45 former American military members have issued a jointly signed letter pushing drone operators to step away from their controls and refuse to fly any more lethal missions.

The letter draws attention to the controversial operation of drones in foreign nations, where lethal strikes in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan have damaged terrorist networks but have also claimed the lives of innocent civilians.

“At least 6,000 lives have been unjustly taken by US drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, the Philippines, Libya and Syria. These attacks are also undermining principles of international law and human rights,” the authors write, according to the Guardian.

KnowDrones.com, which sent out the letter, is also looking to distribute them by hand outside several military bases where drone operators are known to work, including Beale Air Force Base in California and Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in New York.

READ MORE: ‘Drone pilot crisis’: Pentagon promises pay rise to ‘stressed’ operators

Of the 45 veterans who signed the letter, the highest-ranking individual is retired Army Col. Ann Wright, who resigned from the military because she disagreed with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Previously, Wright served as a diplomat in several countries.

“I have travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Gaza to do talk to victims of US and Israeli drones,” she said in an email to Air Force Times explaining why she signed the letter. “Because of the number of civilian casualties, I firmly believe that this weapon system is jeopardizing US national security and creating large numbers of people who despise the United States (and Israel for the drone use in Gaza).”

As for KnowDrones.com, the group aims to rally support around an international ban against weaponized drones, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles used for surveillance purposes. The group has also launched a campaign dubbed “refuse to fly” that specifically urges drone pilots to stop carrying out operations in various countries.

Navy veteran Nick Mottern, who also works for KnowDrones.com, explained to Air Force Times why he believes a drone pilot might hang up the controller.

“One answer would be, ‘To save your soul,’” he said. “Another answer would be, ‘To not kill people who are being targeted without any due process.’ There are higher laws than military law.”

This past April, the group aired a brief television commercial that played near US bases where drones are operated, arguing that “no one has to obey an immoral law.”

“US drones have murdered thousands, including women and children,” the commercial stated, before urging drone pilots to “please refuse to fly.”

For its part, the Air Force dismissed the idea that drone pilots are working beyond the confines of the law.

“Our remotely piloted aircraft operators perform a critically important mission that contributes significantly to national defense,” Lt. Col. Christopher Karns said to Military Times. “They are professional and comply with applicable law, policies, and adhere to very exacting procedures.”

Nonetheless, the Air Force has acknowledged a different sort of problem with drone pilots: burnout and stress. According to the New York Times, the Air Force is scaling back on the number of drone flights as many pilots, upon completing their service, choose to leave rather than stay on.

As many as 65 drone flights take place every day, but despite initial hopes that flights could top 70, the service is now looking to cut the number down to 60 by October.

Back in January, the Air Force announced it would pay drone pilots more to keep working, but as people leave regardless, the service cannot train enough people to keep up with the quantity needed to maintain the current number of daily flights.

Speaking with the Times, Col. James Cluff, the commander of the Air Force’s 432nd Wing, described some of the stress that is affecting pilots:

“Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home — and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home — all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman.”

Despite not actually flying themselves, drone operators are just as likely as normal pilots to suffer from mental health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a Defense Department study from 2013.