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Are Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Operators Equally Respected as Aerial Combatants?


This post describes the origin of unmanned aviation from it’s simple beginning to modern-day high-tech design. Then it it delves into research based on the simple question of whether or not soldiers view the armed unmanned aerial system operators as equals to the manned attack community. Twelve questions covering the attitude, emotion, stress, and capability of UAV operators and attack helicopter pilots is presented to attack helicopter pilots and non-aviation soldiers alike. The results are compared and will hopefully answer my question:   Are armed unmanned aerial vehicle operators equally respected as armed aerial combatants?

History of Unmanned Aerial Systems

The history of unmanned powered flight goes back as far as manned powered flight. Nikola Tesla was one of the first to suggest developing powered unmanned aircraft for the military. Tesla was very interested in wireless remote-controlled vehicles. He designed and built a radio controlled boat called the “Telautomaton” and presented it at the 1898 Electrical Exposition in Madison Square Garden but the military was not impressed and considered it a novelty. Tesla’s dream of pilot-less flight was passed to Elmer Ambrose Sperry through common friend Peter Cooper Hewitt. Sperry would eventually become the lead inventor in the development of the first radio controlled (RC) pilot-less aircraft. (Newcome, 2004)

Tesla, Hewitt, and Sperry fathered the radio controlled airplane but the more direct link to modern UAVs got it’s start in an unlikely place, Hollywood, California. Leigh Dugmore Denny, a B-movie actor who immigrated to the United States from Britain and got his start in silent films in the early 1900s, was very fascinated by radio controlled airplanes. Denny opened his own RC hobby shop on Hollywood Boulevard and in 1934 started his own manufacturing company called Denny Industries in order to capitalize on his favorite hobby. As with Tesla and Sperry, Denny also believed that there was a military market for RC planes and started the Radioplane Company to produce larger RC planes the first of which had a wing span of 12 feet. By 1940 Denny and his new collaborator Walter Righter, a miniature piston engine builder from Burbank, CA, won a contract with the Army Air Corp to build RC planes for use as aerial targets and the first military UAV was born.  The RP-4 was the first Radioplane purchased by the U.S. Army and was designated the OQ-1. The letter Q was establish to name the radio controlled planes in 1942. Initially the Army used the letter A to name the RC planes but it became confusing as the letter A was also the identifier for attack aircraft. The letter Q is still used by the U.S. Army in the nomenclature for all UAVs. (Yenne, 2004)

World War II drove UAV production through the roof. The military, both Army and Navy, shot these simple target planes out of the sky by the thousands but military interest in pilot-less aircraft didn’t stop at training anti-aircraft gunners. During World War II a slightly darker use for unmanned aerial vehicles came into production on both sides of the battle front.

For thousands of years man always had blood to spill during battle. Soldiers fought hand to hand seeing the whites of their enemies eyes, artillery men fell to enemy artillery fire, and eventually aerial combatants would be shot from the sky by anti-aircraft artillery or even more honorably by an enemy pilot. This was war, for every victory there was a price to pay in human blood. With their life on the line a combatant had to really believe in their leaders and the cause. What if there was no blood to spill except that of the enemy?

Germany was the first to use an armed UAV with the development and working use of the Fieseler Fi-103 cruise missile also know as the V-1. The V-1 was a jet powered flying bomb equipped with a simple guidance system that lacked the precision needed to hit specific targets. Although there was little precision with the V-1 it still struck fear in the hearts of the British because it extended Hitler’s reach and allowed him to have an effect right in England where the deployed soldier’s families lived. The psychological effect of the V-1 was enormous. My own grandmother Betty McIlhenny, who lived in England during World War II, told me stories about the V-1 and how they lived with this terror every day. She told me that the sound of the jet engine was the key to surviving a V-1 attack. She said she would hear the pulse of the V-1 jet engine coming and decide where it would land by the distance at which the jet engine shut off. Basically if the engine cut off close to you then you were safe but if it cut off before it got to you then you needed to take cover. The Germans launched around one hundred V-1 attacks on England every day with over nine thousand launched during a short timeframe. (Yenne, 2004)

After World War II the U.S. continued to develop guided cruise missiles which eventually led to the highly advanced and accurate variants that we have today. UAVs also continued to be used as training targets and the military even went as far as creating unmanned B-17 bombers called QB-17s to use as targets for surface to air missiles. Several other target UAVs were designed and built by companies such as  Ryan Aeronautical Company and Northrop Grumman. One of the most popular target UAVs was the jet powered Ryan Firebee also know as the Q-2 with over 6,500 built over the 50 years following World War II. The Firebee was one of the first UAVs that was modified to be recoverable and eventually re-purposed by the U.S. Air Force for use as a reconnaissance platform. This recoverable version was the change in direction for the UAV that led to the modern fleets of todays militaries. (Yenne, 2004)

Israel made it’s mark on the modern UAV industry in the 1980s and the Israel Aircraft Industries eventually designed the Hunter UAV which spun off in to the Pioneer UAV that is still in use by U.S. armed forces. Many reconnaissance UAV platforms were developed during the Cold War era as over the horizon reconnaissance capabilities moved from desired to required and the variations of design were only limited to the human imagination. These UAVs were used in almost every major U.S. military action since the cold war to include Desert Storm and all the Balkans campaigns but it wasn’t until 2001 that the U.S. armed it’s first UAV. (Yenne, 2004)

The RQ-1 Predator built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in 1994 was the first modern UAV to be armed and was re-designated the MQ-1, M standing for multi-mission where R stood for reconnaissance. The first weapons payload for the Predator was the AMG-114 Hellfire missile. The Hellfire was already being used as the primary laser guided missile on Army and Marine attack helicopters and was chosen for the Predator because of it’s light weight and accuracy. The first tests of the Predator/Hellfire combination were carried out at Nellis Air Force Base in February 2001.  The Predator assisted in killing it’s first enemy, Muhammad Atef,  in Kabul, Afghanistan at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom and scored it’s first solo kill on al-Qaeda members Qaed Senyan Al-Harthi and Kamal Derwish on November 4th, 2002. (Yenne, 2004)

Since these first few kills the Predator and other armed UAVs have struck fear in the enemies of America. Silent and deadly, armed UAVs have struck targets mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Roadside improvised explosive device (IED) em-placers are a favorite target. A typical scenario is an IED em-placer by the side of the road setting his explosive trap unknowingly be watched by an armed UAV operator. Once it is determined, by the UAV operator’s commander or other launch authority, that the person is indeed em-placing an IED, the command is given to release the Hellfire payload. No warning is given to the IED em-placer as his look-out men can not hear or see the UAV or it’s deadly payload. The look-out team can only watch in horror as their partner in crime evaporates in a explosive fire ball. The psychological effect of witnessing this form of attack is not just a side effect, it is desirable. One man not returning from a mission to em-place an IED is good but when one or more men can return with a story about their buddy being destroyed as he set up his IED gives the U.S. military an almost god-like presence on the battlefield.


The author believes that there may be a negative opinion in the U.S. Army of the armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operator. The author believes that some soldiers may not view the UAS operator as a respected combatant since they carry out their mission in a safe environment sometimes thousands of miles away from the battlefield in a secure base in Nevada.   The author thinks some people may think it is unfair that some of these UAV operators wear flight suits and collect “flight pay” just like attack helicopter pilots without ever leaving the ground.

Method of Experiment

The author performed this experiment by conducting a twelve question survey with the binary variables (yes/no). The questions were arranged into four areas of concern: questions  1 through 3 – attitude, 4 through 6 – emotion, 7 through 9 – stress, and 10 through 12 – capability. The same survey was conducted on two different groups. The first group of people surveyed were Army AH-64 Apache helicopter pilots recently returned from combat. The second group surveyed was comprised of non-aviation Army ground soldiers, most of whom returned from a combat deployment in the past twelve months.  The questions in the survey were designed to determine if there is a perceived difference between attack helicopter pilots and attack UAV operators.


Question 1: Is a manned AH pilot more likely to take a “gunslinger” attitude toward conducting combat operations when compared to an armed unmanned aerial vehicle operator?

Question 2: When compared to his armed UAV counterpart, do you think a AH pilot has a more safety oriented attitude toward a combat mission since his life may depend on the outcome of the engagement?

Question 3: When compared to an AH pilot, does an armed does an armed UAV operator have a more business like attitude when preparing and conducting combat missions?


Question 4: When compared to an AH pilot, is an armed UAV operator more emotionally detached from the act of dropping ordinance on a perceived enemy combatant?

Question 5: When engaged in combat, could the AH pilot’s emotional state (caused by the hazard of being at the location of conflict) affect the decision to release ordinance on a perceived enemy target?

Question 6: When compared to the armed UAV operator, is an AH pilot more emotionally attached to the friendly combatants and non-combatants on the ground?


Question 7: Does the stress of combat have a more negative effect on the AH pilot when compared to his armed UAV counterpart?

Question 8: Does the lack of physical stress on an attack UAV operator allow him to focus more on the details of the situation on the ground when compared to his AH pilot counterpart?

Question 9: Does the stress of being at the site of battle give the AH pilot a heightened ability to focus on the task at hand when compared to the attack UAV operator who may get distracted by stimulus around his control station that is not related to the mission?


Question 10: Is an AH pilot a more capable aerial combatant than the attack UAV operator?

Question 11: When compared to the attack UAV operator, does the AH pilot provide a more capable air to ground integration experience for the ground troops engaged in a combat operation?

Question 12: Does an attack UAV pilot’s ability to stay on target longer than an AH pilot give him a greater capability with regards to developing situational awareness?


The first three questions concerning attitude got some similar answers between pilots and non pilots. AH pilots thought they were more likely than UAV operators to have a “gunslinger” attitude, where as non-pilots almost all agreed that AH pilots were not more like to have the attitude. The majority of both pilots and non-pilots agreed that AH pilots had a more safety oriented attitude indicating that they think a UAV operator might be more willing to take risk. A fairly even amount of pilots and non-pilots thought that UAV operators had a more business like attitude indicating that opinions were mixed without strong evidence of a majority bias.

The second group of questions regarding emotion were much different between pilots and non-pilots with results indicating a greater degree of bias among the pilots. A higher percentage of pilots agreed that UAV operators were more emotionally detached while dropping ordinance. It was also unanimous amongst pilots that emotion from being at the scene of battle would affect their decision to use their weapons when compared to the UAV operator. A much higher percentage of pilots agreed that they were more likely to have an emotional attachment to friendly forces during combat. Opinions of the non-pilots were pretty much split in the emotion category showing no significant proof of bias.

The third group of questions focused on stress and some of the results were surprising. As expected a higher percentage of pilots believed that there was a more negative effect of stress on pilots than on UAV operators indicating that it is perceived that UAV operators work in a more stress free environment. What was surprising was that although the majority of people thought that the stress on the AH pilot was greater and had negative effects, they also believed that the lack of stress on the UAV operator did not help his ability to perform and possibly even gave the AH pilot an edge during battle.

The last group of questions dealt directly with capability and once again the opinion of non-pilots was pretty even but the opinion amongst pilots was almost completely bias in favor of AH pilots. The majority of people surveyed thought that the AH pilot was a more capable aerial combatant who brought a better air ground integration experience to the ground troops; however, more non-pilots believed that the UAV operators ability to stay on site longer gave them an edge when developing situational awareness.

After all information was taken into account it is my determination that currently the armed UAV operator is not equally respected as an aerial combatant when compared to the attack helicopter pilot. As we move into the future it is almost certain that we will eventually remove the human factor from all attack aircraft. The capability of an attack airframe grows exponentially when the life support systems and limitations required to put a human in the cockpit are removed. When this time comes I imagine the prestige and heroic image of the daring, steely eyed fighter pilot will disappear into the history books and be replaced with the less respected attack UAV operator.


Newcome, L. R. (2004). Unmanned Aviation: A Brief History of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics, Inc.

Yenne, B. (2004). Attack of the Drones: A History of Unmanned Aerial Combat. St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press.

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