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Interview with Defense Expert P.W. Singer: 'The Soldiers Call It War Porn'

US defense expert P.W. Singer from the Brookings Institution talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the stresses that drone pilots are subjected to and the risk of emotional exhaustion and burnout. The whole experience of war is being changed by the new technology, he argues.

An American drone on a training exercise: "This is a very different experience of war." Zoom
AFP

An American drone on a training exercise: "This is a very different experience of war."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Singer, are drones becoming the new form of combat?

P.W. Singer: Until recently, people looked at this as something abnormal. But drones and robotic warfare in general are actually the new normal now. We've gone from using a handful of these systems to now having around 7,000 in the air. And the US is not the only country flying them. There are drones from 43 other countries, including Great Britain, Germany and Pakistan.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are we entering a new era?

Singer: Yes, you can compare the impact of this with the introduction of gunpowder, the printing press or the airplane.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some people fear that it turns war into a video game.

Singer: To say that is far too simplistic. We're seeing a change in the very experience of war. The act of going to war used to entail you taking upon great risks. You might not come home one day. You might not see your family again. Now it's different. I heard a drone pilot explain it this way: You're going to war for one hour, and then you get in the car and drive home, and within two minutes you're sitting at the dinner table talking about your kids' homework. This is a very different experience of war.

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SPIEGEL ONLINE: One drone pilot told SPIEGEL ONLINE that they suffer from just as much stress and trauma.

Singer: Yes, all this doesn't mean we're not seeing all sorts of new stressers. In the beginning we feared that drones may make the operators not really care about what they're doing. But the opposite has turned out to be true. They may almost care too much. We're seeing higher levels of combat stress among remote units than among some units in Afghanistan. We found significantly increased fatigue, emotional exhaustion and burnout. Drone operators are more likely to suffer impaired domestic relationships, too.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What explains this stress?

Singer: There are different theories as to why. Traditional bomber pilots don't see their targets. A remote operator sees the target up close, he sees what happens to it during the explosion and the aftermath. You're further away physically but you see more. Also, the drone war takes place 24/7, 365 days a year. The war doesn't stop on Christmas. It's like being a fireman when there's a fire every single day, day after day after day. That's emotionally and physically taxing. On top of that, many units are understaffed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Don't drone operators have it easier, commuting home every day?

Singer: No, there's a disconnect. You're at war, and two minutes later you're changing your brain and you think about football practice with your kids. Drone units don't show as much cohesion as traditional units. The whole unit used to share the emotional experience. Now there's no "band of brothers" anymore.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But isn't the fact that drone operators are physically safe from war the whole point? Doesn't that ease combat stress?

Singer: Not at all. I once talked to an Air Force sergeant who flew drones. She told me how they watched US soldiers on the ground being killed. They could only circle above and watch. There was nothing more they could do.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which consequences does the drone war have for the nations that lead them?

Singer: War used to be a very serious decision. Now we don't even declare war anymore. We don't pay war taxes, we don't buy war bonds. Now we can carry it out without having to deal with some of the consequences of sending our sons and daughters into harm's way. It also changes the way politicians think about war. You already have society's barriers against war dropping, and now you have a technology that takes the barriers to the ground.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are we beyond the point of no return?

Singer: The debate is just starting in Washington. There are parallels to other historical moments when there was no turning back. The automobile in 1909. Computers before 1980. The nuclear bomb in 1940s. This is much beyond an evolution, it's a revolution. This happens very rarely in history. These developments force us to ask questions of right and wrong we never had to think about before.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which questions?

Singer: For example the question of the public's relationship to war. The drone war is documented, downloaded, accessible for everyone. You can see the videos on YouTube. It's turning war for some into a form of entertainment. The soldiers call that "war porn." We can see more but experience less.

Interview conducted by Marc Pitzke

Article...

© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2010
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH



About P.W. Singer
P.W. Singer is Senior Fellow and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He is considered one of the world's leading experts on changes in 21st century warfare. His most recent book, "Wired for War," looks at the implications of robotics and other new technologies for war, politics, ethics, and law.

The Most Important Drone Models
MQ-1 Predator
The MQ-1 Predator was the first drone put into operation. It was introduced in 1995 by the US Air Force.

Manufacturer: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Unit Price: About $4.5 million
Armament: Two air-to-surface AGM-114 Hellfire missiles
Dimensions: 8.23 meters long, 14.84-meter wingspan
Range: 3,704 kilometers
Maximum altitude: 7,620 meters
Control: Remotely controlled by a pilot
MQ-9 Reaper
The MQ-9 Reaper (formerly Predator B) is based on the same technology as the MQ-1 Predator. However, it can carry 10 times more weaponry than its predecessor. It is used by the US Navy and Air Force.

Manufacturer: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Unit price: $10.5 million
Armament: Up to 1,351 kg (e.g. AGM-114 Hellfire and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles or the GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU-38 DAM bombs)
Dimensions: 10.97 meters long, 20.12-meter wingspan
Range: 5,926 kilometers
Maximum Altitude: 15,400 meters
Control: Remotely controlled by a pilot
RQ-7 Shadow 200
The RQ-7 Shadow 200 is used by the US Army and US Marine Corps for reconnaissance. It has been in operation since 2003 and is not capable of flying attack missions.

Manufacturer: AAI Corporation
Unit Price: $275,000
Armament: none
Size: 3.4 meters long, 3.9-meter wingspan
Range: 125 kilometers
Maximum altitude: 4,600 meters
Control: Autonomous, with GPS


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