While the legality and increased use of American drones in foreign countries continues to come into question, no one can dispute that their use saves countless American lives and lends great support to our troops on the ground.
To begin, the term “unmanned aircraft” is a misnomer when discussing Aerial Drones or what the Air Force now calls “Remotely Piloted Aircraft” (RPAs).
In her excellent new book "Drift," Rachel Maddow examines America’s never-ending state of war. But she misses the mark when referring to RPAs as “pilotless.”
Dozens of airmen throughout the world work around the clock, maintaining and operating each vehicle. Each RPA is manned by pilots, sensor operators, and mission intelligence coordinators watching targets, supporting raids and relaying information to the battlefield.
The RPA’s primary mission in the United States Air Force is to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, giving troops far greater visibility of the battlefield than they would have otherwise. This not only allows for the ability to strike critical, time perishable targets when needed but, more importantly, it saves the lives of Americans, coalition forces and local civilians.
Both American and allied military personnel have visited RPA Air Force bases to thank the airmen for saving their lives and assisting with missions.
An Air Force RPA crew will spend weeks looking at a person before taking action (and in truth, they rarely do) and naturally, over time, will feel a connection to their subjects.
A potential target will be observed playing with his children at one moment and the next might be witnessed planting an IED. When the latter occurs, engagement only happens after proper clearances have been given and the rules of engagement have been met.
This does not make the job of an RPA crew any easier. This isn’t a video game!
These are real people performing a difficult mission. After a strike, the psychological impact on these crews can be similar to a soldier who fought in combat.
Understanding this, the Air Force now provides counseling on site at all times, just as counselors are available in combat zones overseas.
RPAs have become crucial in fighting not only war but also terrorism. It was allegedly the CIA’s RQ-170 Sentinel drone that played a pivotal role in the outing of Usama bin Laden at his Pakistani compound.
Furthermore, while the legality of the killing abroad of American suspected terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki should rightfully be questioned in our courts of law (also allegedly by a CIA RPA), few can argue against their effectiveness.
After it was announced that Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi had been killed by his own people, it was also mentioned that his capture was initiated by a RPA strike, along with a French fighter jet, that fired on a large convoy. Soon after, the strike allowed the fighters on the ground to intercept Qaddafi’s vehicle. All this was done without a single US service member on the ground.
When the 8-year conflict in Iraq finally came to an end in December 2011, a public video feed of the last US convoy leaving Iraq was shown from a Predator, an aircraft that had been surveying the conflict since 2003.
We will never know how many lives were saved by this aircraft during that time, but it watched over countless soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who served in Iraq, and continues to do so throughout the world.
David J. Kaplan is the president of a real estate development company in New York and is also the founder and president of the Kaplan Public Service Foundation.