WASHINGTON - Pentagon researchers have found that pilots of drone aircraft experience mental health problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Though it might be thousands of miles from the battlefield, this work still involves tough stressors and has tough consequences for those crews,” Peter Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about drones, was quoted as saying in The New York Times. He was not involved in the new research.
That study, by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, which analyses health trends among military personnel, did not try to explain the sources of mental health problems among drone pilots.
But Air Force officials and independent experts have suggested several potential causes, among them witnessing combat violence on live video feeds, working in isolation or under inflexible shift hours, juggling the simultaneous demands of home life with combat operations and dealing with intense stress because of crew shortages.
“Remotely-piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days,” said Jean Lin Otto, an epidemiologist who was a co-author of the study. “They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”
Dr Otto said she had begun the study expecting that drone pilots would actually have a higher rate of mental health problems because of the unique pressures of their job.
Since 2008, the number of pilots of remotely-piloted aircraft — the Air Force’s preferred term for drones — has grown fourfold, to nearly 1,300, the Times said. The Air Force is now training more pilots for its drones than for its fighter jets and bombers combined. And by 2015, it expects to have more drone pilots than bomber pilots, although fighter pilots will remain a larger group.
Those figures do not include drones operated by the CIA in counterterrorism operations over Pakistan, Yemen and other countries.
The Pentagon has begun taking steps to keep pace with the rapid expansion of drone operations, according to the newspaper. It recently created a new medal to honour troops involved in both drone warfare and cyberwarfare. And the Air Force has expanded access to chaplains and therapists for drone operators, said Col William M Tart, who commanded remotely piloted aircraft crews at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
That study found the stress among drone operators to be much higher than that reported by Air Force members in logistics or support jobs. But it did not compare the stress levels of the drone operators with those of traditional pilots.
The new study looked at the electronic health records of 709 drone pilots and 5,256 manned aircraft pilots between October 2003 and December 2011. Those records included information about clinical diagnoses by medical professionals and not just self-reported symptoms.
After analysing diagnosis and treatment records, the researchers initially found that the drone pilots had higher incidence rates for 12 conditions, including anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.
But after the data were adjusted for age, number of deployments, time in service and history of previous mental health problems, the rates were similar, said Dr Otto, who was scheduled to present her findings in Arizona on Saturday at a conference of the American College of Preventive Medicine.
The study also found that the incidence rates of mental health problems among drone pilots spiked in 2009. Dr Otto speculated that the increase might have been the result of intense pressure on pilots during the Iraq surge in the preceding years.