Terror as a Career Opportunity

Dees Illustration

Tom McNamara
Activist Post

While the “Great Recession” of 2008 technically ended in the summer of 2009, it appears that only now is the US economy starting to achieve sustainable, if tepid, growth. But this recovery has clearly been one of the weakest in terms of job creation. U6, an alternative measurement of unemployment (measuring the total number of people out of work, plus people who are working part time not by choice, plus people who are only marginally attached to the labor force), still stands stubbornly at 14%.

And for those lucky enough to have found a job, exactly what kind of work have they found? Unfortunately, the picture isn’t pretty. A study done by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) tells us that most of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were what could be considered as mid-wage occupations. Their replacements? Most of the new jobs created have been mainly lower-wage service jobs. The US Census Bureau gives us even bleaker news, telling us that 25% of American jobs pay below the federal poverty line for a family of four ($23,050) and that one-third of adults who live in poverty also work. More troubling still, adjusted for inflation, the average male made less in 2011 than he did in 1968 ($32,986 in 2011 vs. $33,880 in 1968).

So what exactly is a young “go getter” who is looking to make it in this world supposed to do? How about becoming a drone pilot?

Despite the war in Afghanistan finally winding down (with the majority of US troops slated to leave by 2014), the demand for drone pilots is expected to increase. And thanks to President Obama’s continuation of President Bush II’s “War on Terror,” a war which was undeclared and has no end date, and which has drones as a central and vital component, drone pilots should have good prospects for some time to come.

The US Air Force (USAF) is currently facing a shortage of drone pilots due to a lack of volunteers. Things have gotten so bad that, in the past, some pilots who were trained to fly F-16s were given drone assignments. A disappointment, I’m sure, for anyone who joined the Air Force after watching the movie Top Gun.

Those looking to join the USAF to fly Predator or Reaper drones (otherwise known as remotely piloted aircraft or RPAs) should know beforehand that these positions are exclusively held by officers (in other branches of the service they may be manned by enlisted personnel). The physical requirements for drone pilots would be similar to those for regular military pilots, with candidates needing to go through flight training courses on small civilian aircraft as well. The USAF, due to increased demand, is trying to streamline the training process, with drone pilots now getting a year of training before flying missions in hostile zones, as compared to the normally two years of training needed to become a fighter pilot.

But prospective drone pilots need to be aware that the job is not all glory. They can expect to be resented and looked down upon due to the fact that they can get flight pay just for sitting in an air-conditioned room operating a joystick thousands of miles away from any real danger (statistically speaking, the drive to and from work is the most dangerous part of a drone pilot’s day). They also face a lack of promotion opportunities into higher ranks, this according to Air Force Colonel Bradley Hoagland. A study has shown that over the past five years, drone pilots have had a 13 percent lower promotion rate to the rank of major as compared to other military occupations.

“It’s really kind of a boring job,” says Col. Hernando J. Ortega of the Air Force Surgeon General’s Office. “It’s really boring. It’s kind of terrible.” Looking on the bright side, Col. Ortega tells us that repeatedly watching people get blown up doesn’t seem to cause drone operators any stress. This is a relief, considering that an estimated 407 to 928 civilians have been killed in Pakistan alone between 2004 and 2013 (including an estimated 164 to 195 children killed).

A study by the Rand Corporation tells us that the unmanned-aircraft-system (or “UAS” – a term commonly used to refer to drones) industry has seen impressive growth over the past decade, thanks in large part to “contracts from the U.S. military.” The result has been an increase in the number of job opportunities for people who have experience operating drones.

In order to meet this expected industry demand, many colleges are adapting and changing their course curricula. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kansas State University Salina, the University of North Dakota, Northwestern Michigan College, Liberty University and Cochise College would be just a few of the schools that offer training and education in drone operations. The State of Nevada, for its part, runs all of its drone training programs through their new Nevada Autonomous Systems Institute. All in all, 81 publicly funded entities have applied to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for permission to operate drones. Over a third of them have been colleges.

And just what kind of salary can a drone pilot expect? Presently, for those working overseas (usually in hostile areas) salaries can range from $60,000 to $225,000. Drone pilots working closer to home can expect salaries to be anywhere from $50,000 to $125,000.

The global UAS market was estimated to be worth $6 billion in 2011. Most job opportunities in the States would currently be at military instillations, or with government agencies (such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection) and private companies (conducting mainly operational tests). The FAA still heavily regulates the use of drones in the US, but this is soon to change. By 2015 drones are expected to have access to the same airspace currently reserved for piloted aircraft (this will apply to military as well as commercial and privately owned drones). Once this integration happens, the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (an industry lobbying group) expects a boost to the economy of over $82 billion and 104,000 new jobs created in the immediate 10 years thereafter.

And the moral implications of all this? Advocates of drones play down privacy and civil liberty concerns. They prefer to promote the more benign and useful elements of drones with regards to commerce, research and policing. But in a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report we are told that of the 391 requests received by the FAA to operate drones domestically in the US in 2012, 201 came from the Department of Defense.

And what of the legality of drone use in the war on terror? The Obama administration maintains that targeted drone attacks have a legal basis which comes from congressional authorization to use force granted after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This is further supported by the inherent right of a nation to defend itself. For his part, President Obama reassuringly tells us that, “Drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties” and that missile launches have been “very precise precision strikes against Al-Qaeda and their affiliates, and we have been very careful about how it’s been applied.”

Well that’s a relief. But can concern that America’s use of drones is tantamount to terrorism be wiped away that easily just because we’re “very careful?”

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Author’s Note: no relation) presented us with a moral challenge. Speaking about US behavior at the end of World War II and the actions of Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of American bombing operations over Japan, Secretary McNamara recalled, “LeMay said that if we had lost the war we would have all been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he is right. He, and I would say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

Imagine if China, Russia, or Iran were carrying out global drone strikes thousands of miles from their shores, in the remote jungles of Central or South America, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent men, women and children. What would we say? There is no doubt that the US government and her citizens would be in an uproar over the legality, as well as the morality, of drone use.

There is also no doubt that if we lived in a correct and just society, and held ourselves to the same standards and principles that we so readily held others to at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, we would be able to see that the use of targeted drone strikes is nothing more than terror and murder.

It would also be obvious that President Obama and President Bush II (as well as almost every other living US president) deserved to be put on trial for war crimes.

About the author: Dr Tom McNamara is an Assistant Professor at the ESC Rennes School of Business, France, and a former Visiting Lecturer at the French National Military Academy at Saint-Cyr, Coëtquidan, France.

Read other articles by Tom McNamara Here


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