In November, the U.S. Air Force announced that it would, for the first time ever, use civilians to pilot drones. Technically, the CIA has had civilian drone pilots for years, but then, the CIA is a civilian agency. For a branch of the military, on the other hand, to outsource arguably its most cutting-edge piloting to contract workers is groundbreaking—and raises profound questions about what it means to be a soldier.
It’s no secret that the number of contractors operating in American war zones has skyrocketed. In 2008 in Iraq, there were more contractors (163,446) on the ground than troops (146,800). And in 2009 in Afghanistan, there were 104,101 contractors but just 63,950 troops. The Global War on Terror is also a Global War for Hire.
Much of what these contractors do in war zones is perform the logistical and maintenance tasks that free up the military to concentrate on, well, killing the enemy. To that end, the Air Force says that its civilian drone pilots won’t actually be pulling any triggers themselves. Instead, civilians will be piloting reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering drones. “There are limitations on it,” said Air Force General Herbert Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, emphasizing that the contract pilots “are not combatants.” But making the distinction between the people who pull the trigger and the people who staff the technical bureaucracy that makes pulling the trigger possible—what’s known as a “kill chain”—is becoming more and more complex. Civilian drone pilots represent a growing trend: the diffusion of culpability for the deaths caused by drones paired with the increasing physical safety of people within the kill chain. In other words, civilian drone pilots are a kind of barometer for a profound shift: the redefinition of martial values, specifically of heroism itself.