Forever Deployed: Why ‘Combat-To-Dwell’ Reform for MQ-9 Crews is Beyond Overdue
In the Old Testament, at the beginning of the Book of Ecclesiastes we find one of the Bible’s most famous passages:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
This is a beautiful and poetic summary of life and its natural rhythms, and a celebration of the seasons and the hope they provide every year. To all things under the sun in life, there is a rhythm, a cadence that nurtures growth.
In the business of the defense of the United States, seasons take the form of deployments for those in the uniformed military services. There is a time to rotate into theater and a time to come home; a time to kill and a time to heal. There is an exception, however — the operators of the vast fleet of MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft, popularly known as drones. These airmen, in the past 15-plus years since the drone has become one of the critical instruments of U.S. policy, have never really come home, and have yet to be given the opportunity to truly heal.
The military operations that followed 9/11 put an immense strain on U.S. military forces. So-called “surges” became a misnomer, as they hinted at a level of resource commitment in campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan that would be temporary. There was nothing temporary about it, at least for the Air Force. The service’s operational tempo accelerated to a sprinter’s pace in a marathon war.
The Air Force recognized the strain, and devised guidelines to ensure its force posture became sustainable. Restrictions were placed to ensure individuals were getting adequate time at home before returning to combat, a fix known as the “dwell ratio.” In nearly all cases it stood at two to one. This meant, in other words, that an airman must spend twice the amount of time at home as he or she deployed.
At the same time, the MQ-9’s unique combat capabilities drove demand for this platform through the roof. This demand, along with fundamental misunderstanding of drone combat operations shift-work, cultivated the false notion that MQ-9 operators can conduct combat operations indefinitely without the need for operational respite.
The hidden costs of this assumption are beginning to surface. It is time for change. The Air Force’s MQ-9 squadrons must be manned with sufficient personnel to allow for a dwell ratio (also known as “combat-to-dwell”) that all aviators of manned aircraft are provided. Our MQ-9 airmen’s welfare, morale, health, sanity — and the Air Force’s ability to keep this aircraft and those like it in the skies — depends on it.
First, let’s quickly review how remotely piloted aircraft operations work in the Air Force. Two geographically separated crews participate in each combat mission. The takeoff and landing portion is handled by crews local to an overseas base. The rest of the mission is flown by airmen located stateside. These stateside airmen flying combat missions every day are “deployed in garrison”: a nebulous term crafted to help shape the idea of flying combat missions (traditionally a deployed task) while at a home station (in-garrison).
The Air Force’s MQ-9 squadrons experiment endlessly with schedules to maximize the lethality of their crews, but under-manning and an unceasing demand from combat commanders around the world make this process a constant tug-of-war. In a best-case scenario, an airman breaks from flying combat sorties every four to five days. Flying time plus additional duty and administrative work commonly translate into 12-hour days and sometimes more. Fewer breaks and longer days are frequent. An MQ-9 unit’s combat requirement (commonly referred to as “combat lines”) is unrelenting and apathetic to swings in a unit’s real-time manpower. For example, a unit that loses a third of its squadron to the flu virus is still required to fly its full combat workload regardless of its acute manning shortfall.
Are 12-hour days unheard of in the name of war? Hardly. As a former pilot of manned aircraft in the special operations world, I’m well-versed on the pace of flying combat. However, 12-hour days are where the similarities end.
For the MQ-9 squadron, breaks from this schedule are virtually non-existent. There are no three-day weekends, holidays, or other standard “days off.” Current Air Force manning levels impose taxing restrictions on individual leave, severely curbing the number of airmen that can be gone at any given time from the unit. These demands also mean more leave approvals are granted only at the last minute. It is common for manning to force families and their vacation plans to hang in the balance up to as little as 24 hours before scheduled leave.
But, it’s argued, this is combat. No one takes days off while deployed. This is true, but no other community conducts combat operations for five, six, or even seven straight years. Other military units sprint, rest, then sprint again. No one keeps sprinting for years at a time — except the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft community.
To truly understand the problem, it is fundamental to recognize that airmen flowing into the community will live within this combat shift schedule for at least five straight years. This is not a sustainable model, and the strain grows worse with time. This system is robbing our Air Force of its two most historically important attributes — its people and their ingenuity.
The Mind Needs a Break from Killing
There is also a mental and psychological element to this problem. Put simply, killing another human being is not a natural act for 99 percent of the population. In Dave Grossman’s book On Killing, he states that killing often leaves soldiers physically ill and haunted by nightmares. At the same time, the idea that killing from the cockpit of an MQ-9 is “remote” and doesn’t affect the human psyche any more than video game killing is a dangerous misconception.
In his paper, “Distance in War: The Experience of MQ-1 and MQ-9 Aircrew,” Air Force Col. Joseph Campo, an F-16 USAF Weapons School graduate, proposes that those unfamiliar with remotely piloted operations lack the first-hand knowledge that rather than distancing operators from combat, today’s sensory technology actually connects aircrew to killing in visceral and unprecedented ways. This stress is acute across the MQ-9 career field. I personally have witnessed aircrew members excuse themselves from the ground control station to vomit after participating in failed strikes that resulted in collateral damage. No one should ever mistake drone operations for anything other than combat and real violence — it is not a game. The physical distance of an MQ-9 cockpit does not result in emotional detachment from the act of killing.
Put another way, it would be outlandish to suggest that a sniper could serve a 60-month rotation because his mission to kill the enemy involved a physical distance from the target that wasn’t experienced by those in standard infantry. Nevertheless, we have accepted this argument as valid for the MQ-9 community. The United States repeatedly places its youngest airmen in morally ambiguous, life or death situations, and assumes a week off every few months will be enough to repair their minds and provide recovery. Drone operators aren’t ignorant of the consequences of their actions. “Remote killing” is not so far removed from “actual killing” that it fails to inherit the same psychological respect that we have afforded other military operators.
Retention and Families Matter
In 2016 testimony before Congress concerning the drone force, Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, former commander of Air Combat Command, stated, “As much as we value our technology and weapons systems, our airmen are truly the most important aspect of this enterprise.” If this is true, then we need to stop kidding ourselves that “deployed in-garrison,” versus actual deployments, offers a quality of life so high that it negates the need for a time away from that schedule.
I personally deployed seven times to fly combat in previous assignments before being “deployed in-garrison” for several years as part of the MQ-9 community. To be perfectly clear: My family and I would — in a heartbeat — choose actual deployments over a “deployed in-garrison” routine.
Walk for a brief moment in the shoes of a hypothetical new MQ-9 pilot: They are, on average, 23 years old and entering a unit for the first time. Because the squadron is always flying combat, there is no “Hail and Farewell” event to greet them and ease the transition. The first interaction with their new squadron mates is attending the brief to fly combat missions. Two-thirds of the squadron won’t know they exist for another year or two. Scheduling limitations result in their “weekend” only falling on a Saturday and Sunday about once every six weeks. Once every four and a half months that weekend coincides with a normal “day-shift” circadian rhythm. That means that only once every four and a half months, an airman is off on a Friday and Saturday evening with the chance to socialize and form friendships in a manner consistent with most airmen in their early twenties. Additionally, this weekend is only spent with airmen on their same exact schedule, roughly six officers in a squadron of 50. If their closest friends aren’t one of those six, too bad. That airman could go five years without spending any off-time with them.
Initial commitments for new aircrew accessions to the remotely piloted aircraft community are six years or less. Therefore, most airmen endure the previously described lifestyle for most, if not all, of their Air Force careers. There are no temporary duty assignments, no traveling to foreign countries, no weekend barbeques or base wide sports days, or any activity that bonds airmen and promotes esprit de corps. Annual Christmas parties are only attended by 50 percent of a drone squadron on a good year, half of which will report to work following the festivities. It should not be surprising that attrition rates in these squadrons are so dismal.
The recent focus on pilot retention has correctly identified poor quality of life as a top reason for why aircrew members are leaving the Air Force. In the MQ-9 world, this means being afforded the opportunity to step away from the shift schedule periodically and have a somewhat “normal” military life. Building additional manning into the MQ-9 community to allow for consistent time away from the fight would allow for a monumental leap in that direction.
The Ability to Train for Other Missions is Non-Existent
From inception, MQ-9s have been used extensively in the fight against violent extremist organizations. The MQ-9 community has progressed rapidly in their ability to successfully employ the aircraft in this role. However, such a niche focus has come at the cost of successfully training to conduct the full range of military operations required of U.S. Air Force drone crews. The MQ-9 community is woefully unprepared to participate in higher threat environments such as contested airspace, much less in a near-peer environment.
This stems not from a lack of desire, but from a lack of training opportunity. Without dwell time, MQ-9 squadrons simply do not have the time or resources to allow individuals to train or plan for anything outside current operations. Squadrons that physically rotate in and out of a combat theater use dwell time to restore deteriorated capabilities and develop new proficiencies across the entire range of military operations. While MQ-9s and other aircraft like it will undoubtedly be an integral part of any major military operation conducted over the next few decades, they are building proficiency in only one slice of the spectrum of conflict. Dwell time gives the community the time it needs to ready itself for the range of conflict the United States could face in the future.
Develop New Techniques, Tactics, and Procedures
Innovation needs “white space,” or time set aside for development, learning, and self-improvement that is unburdened by the tactical necessities of constant combat. Without it, the progression and evolution of vital skills comes to a halt. MQ-9 communities need the time to experiment with new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), such as learning how to integrate more effectively with other manned and unmanned platforms. Aircrew need to be able to do this outside of the “no-fail” environment of combat.
Dwell time provides these aircrews with the freedom to participate in exercises like Red Flag. It allows us to work out the bugs in new software and experiment with new TTPs on ranges. When crews only fly in combat, they are never afforded the opportunity to experiment and evolve their weapon system. As a result, innovation and integration efforts are suffocated. In their current state and operations tempo, MQ-9 airmen rely heavily on technological advancement to create new capabilities. This cannot continue. The Air Force must give these airmen the ability to continue to break barriers by allowing enough dwell time for innovation to take root.
According to the Air Force Chief of Staff, MQ-9 aircraft continue to provide the oxygen that joint force operations need to survive and succeed. The professionalism and dedication to mission that MQ-9 aircrew have demonstrated over the past decade is nothing short of astounding.
Yet from both a human and mission perspective, the time has come for us to stop treating “deployed in-garrison” as some privilege we have awarded those who have raised their hand to serve in remotely piloted aircraft. It is not sustainable. It is not effective. It is not healthy for the community or the individuals in it — or the nation’s defense. MQ-9 aircrew need time away from war. They need time to reset, take a breath, broaden their mission aperture, and accelerate the community’s tactics. The Air Force has taken steps in recent years to “build a sustainable enterprise and protect readiness for the long-term” in the remotely piloted aircraft career field. Implementing a “Combat-To-Dwell” cycle needs to be a top priority in this endeavor. A community that has yet to see a break from war is depending on it.
Johnny Duray is a U.S. Air Force officer. He is a 2017 Strategic Policy Fellow currently assigned to the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. Government.