The Los Angeles Times reports that the U.S. Air Force is using civilian defense contractors to fly military drones in combat theaters. The civilian drones pilots are used to fly missions that don’t involve actual shooting, regulating their role to keeping an eye on enemy forces.
It’s an important differentiation because the use of civilians in combat operations is technically illegal.
According to the Times, civilian contractors control two MQ-9 Reaper “combat air patrols” a day, with each patrol involving 4 Reapers. The Air Force plans to increase the number of combat air patrols controlled by civilians to 10 a day by 2019.
The Air Force has struggled for more than a decade to gather and maintain a sufficient pool of drone operators. Flying drones is tedious work—long hours of staring at computer screens guiding aircraft thousands of miles away without the payoff of actually flying. Actual combat is rare, compared to the number of hours flown.
It’s this work—the long hours simply staring at screens and guiding drones—that the civilian contractors are hired to perform. According to the Air Force, civilian drone operators only fly missions that have no chance of actual combat.
And it’s this distinction that the Air Force is using to argue the program is legal: Civilians are not involved in combat, and are therefore not combatants. Civilian drone pilots are not authorized to designate a target on the ground or launch a missile at it. The civilians have a separate mission, to collect intelligence—which includes tracking individuals.
But critics point out that civilians fly intelligence missions may still be part of the “kill chain,” the large network of “sensors and shooters” that locate, identify, and then attack targets. And while the civilians are not combatants, drone operators are definitely working on behalf of the war effort, and are often working on behalf of a specific combat operation. Furthermore, they are often watching hostile individuals and groups that would shoot at them if they could. These individuals would almost certainly consider drone operators combatants.
Or put even more simply, if the Air Force calls them “combat air patrols,” then why aren’t the civilian drone operators, well, combatants?
By Kellan Howell