This is a scenario that depicts the beginning of modern drone warfare. Please let me know if you like these fictional scenarios, which illustrate the technological elements of warfare.

I may kill someone today, thought USAF Lieutenant Andrew Martin, as he parked in his assigned space at Nellis Air Force Base, about a 15-minute drive from Las Vegas. It was 7:30 A.M., and the morning promised a bright cloudless 85-degree day, which the locals described as perfect golf weather. However, the “perfect golf weather” made little impact on his mood. He resigned himself to the twelve-hour shift ahead of him. His anxiety began to climb as soon as he turned off the car engine. Gathering the lunch his wife, Andrea, made him just before his departure for Nellis, he got out of the car. He headed toward USAF T-5, a windowless container about the size of a trailer. Inside, the air-conditioning was kept at 63 degrees for the benefit of the computers. Once he entered T-5, the door would remain shut for security reasons until he completed his shift. He knew that it would be at least twelve hours before he could head back home to have a late supper with his wife and tuck his four-year-old daughter, Megan, in bed with a kiss. Often his daughter would ask him to read her a few pages from her favorite book, A Bear Called Paddington, which he did despite the stress of war and his sleep deprivation. Twelve-hour shifts had become the norm as the number of drone missions outpaced the number of qualified drone crews.

Climbing up the steps of T-5, he entered his code on the door panel and waited for visual confirmation. The buzz released the door lock and allowed him to enter the dimly lit T-5, whose only light source was from the fourteen computer monitors within. His shift officially started at 8:00 A.M., and he robotically walked to his RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) station to relieve second Lieutenant Harrold Sevigny, or “Eyes,” a drone Sensor Operator. If your last name was difficult to pronounce, the unit always gave you a nickname. For some reason, though, Martin never got a nickname. Those that knew him called him Andy. After his briefing and reading the orders of the day, along with the chat on the monitors, he wrestled his John Wayne body into his cockpit chair, assuming the responsibilities of a Predator drone Sensor Operator. It was time to go to war.

A twelve-hour Predator mission requires a crew consisting of five members:

  1. The Mission Monitor (MM) is responsible for the entire mission.
  2. The Pilot flies the drone using a joystick and other appropriate instruments.
  3. The Sensor Operator (SO) controls the aircraft’s cameras, radar, and targeting systems.
  4. The Intelligence Operator (IO) performs a first analysis of the imagery.
  5. A Flight Engineer (FE) supervises the entire system.

To operate 24/7 required four aircraft and a team of 82 personnel, consisting of three crews, a safety officer, and in-theater maintenance techs. The popular notion held by many U.S. citizens was that one Predator drone required only one remote pilot. Nothing could be further from reality.

Martin’s orders for today’s mission were identical to his orders for the last week. Maintain surveillance of A-4. Martin had no idea of A-4’s real identity or what role he played, if any, in terrorism. Martin could only guess he was a high-value target, which they had been tracking in northern Iraq. Looking at five computer monitors twelve hours a day was nicknamed “Predator Porn.” Most of the time, it was routine, even dull, but occasionally the monitor screens were horrific, displaying the blood and guts you saw in a grade B zombie movie.

When Martin came on duty at 8:00 A.M. sharp, it was already 4:00 P.M. in Iraq. For the moment, A-4 was inside a small earth and grass hut in Tikrit, a stronghold of ISIS in northern Iraq. The distance between Nellis Air Force Base and Tikrit was over 7,000 miles, but the images on their monitors engulfed them to the point they felt they were flying in Tikrit.

Martin nodded to Lieutenant John Hales, the Predator pilot in the cockpit seat to his left. He and John had become close friends over the last two years. Martin felt that John was one of the few people he could talk to that understood the toll drone warfare took on a day-to-day basis. Like Martin, Hales was also married and had two daughters, ages four and six. Martin stopped telling his friends and family about his military assignment. Some trivialized the work, calling him an Xbox pilot. Others just politely thanked him “for his service.” Most people felt there was little to no stress in being a Sensor Operator in a drone crew. After all, the drone crew was thousands of miles from the “real” war zone.

It appeared that the Department of Defense agreed with the prevailing sentiments regarding drone crews in both the military and civilian population. In 2013, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rescinded a decision by his predecessor, Leon Panetta, who unveiled a “Distinguished Warfare Medal” outranking the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, awarded to wounded troops. Instead, the Pentagon decided to create a “distinguishing device” that could be affixed to existing medals. Many military personnel and civilians took substantial issue with Panetta’s decision, which he intended to be a nod to the changing nature of warfare and represented the most substantial shakeup in the hierarchy of military medals since World War II. Even the Veterans of Foreign Wars, America’s largest combat veterans’ organization, strongly objected to the medal’s ranking. Martin felt few outside the drone units understood the level of stress and the toll it took on their lives. While it was true that strictly speaking, they were not in “harm’s way,” the warfare they waged was real. They routinely killed “enemy combatants,” supported ground troops, and saved lives.

Since assuming office in 2009, President Obama’s administration escalated “targeted killings,” primarily through increased unmanned drone strikes on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. By 2015, over 2500 enemy combatants had been killed by drone attacks. The September 2011 drone strike on Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni cleric and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula propagandist, was just one of the more publicized examples of how effective drones could target and neutralize “high value” enemy combatants. Based on their importance and high media profile, it would be natural to believe that many would opt to become drone crewmembers. However, the six-day workweek and twelve to fourteen-hour shifts of drone crews painted a different picture. The U.S. Air Force was short on drone crews, as drone missions unexpectedly increased when the U.S. began airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Martin and Hales worked well together and shared respect for each other’s roles. Recently, Hales’ family celebrated Independence Day with Martin’s family at an outdoor grilling at Martin’s home. Martin knew that Hales felt the stress and had become a binge weekend drinker but never overly indulged during the workweek. Most drone crewmembers self-medicated with alcohol and cigarettes. Martin was unusual in that he did not smoke and rarely had more than one beer on occasion.

After settling in his cockpit chair, the 27-year-old 6’2” Martin felt slightly cramped. His clean-cut looks and contagious smile, though, hid any hit of discomfort. His deep-set hazel blue eyes focused on the monitors. He had learned to do what most Sensor Operators (SOs) had learned. He could watch the screens, as if on autopilot, while thinking of almost anything else. Most of the time, he thought about his family. Occasionally, he gazed at their picture, which he always clipped to the left of his front monitor at the beginning of his shift. The hours passed. It was now 10:00 P.M. in northern Iraq, and the crew had switched to infrared.

We own the night, Martin thought.

He was right. The Predator sensors could see as well at night as they could in the day. In some respects, they could see even better at night. They could see anything that generated a heat signature, even a mouse. Martin, like many of his colleague SOs, even dreamed in infrared. The drone unit considered it a normal occupational consequence. Martin’s adrenaline was still high but suddenly spiked when a truck pulled up to the hut. Three people got out of the vehicle. Each appeared to be carrying a rifle, but that was a deduction. They could have been carrying shepherd’s staffs, for all he knew. In the sharp contrast of infrared, he watched the ghostly white figures quickly disappear into the hut. Beads of sweat began to form on his upper lip, despite the 63-degree room temperature—his heart began to race.

The Intelligence Officer (IO) asked the Flight Engineer (FE) if the system was operating within specification. The FE confirmed all systems were within spec. At that point, the IO quickly began an analysis of all known ISIS operatives in the area. Time began to dilate. Each minute felt like an hour. Within ten minutes, the IO gave his analysis to the Mission Monitor (MM), who quickly made a phone call. Martin could only guess that something big was going down.

Martin turned to the Hales. “What’s your take?”

Hales shrugged his shoulders. “Above my pay grade.”

Hales’ words were on the mark. The crew’s job did not include making decisions. For the moment, they could only wait in a holding pattern. The drone’s autopilot kept it within striking distance of the hut. The chat on one of the monitors began to spike. Speculations abounded—A-4 was holding a meeting with his direct reports, planning their next strike. Martin had to look away and force his focus on the hut. He noticed his hands beginning to tremble slightly. Hales’ body language also shouted danger. Neither spoke. Both Martin and Hales stared intently into their monitors.

The IO’s analysis, along with MM’s report, was sent to Operations Command, which could have been the ranking officer on the ground in Tikrit. Unfortunately, the crew had no idea where the reports went. Then the crew headsets came to life with a voice, an unknown chain of command from cyberspace, “Weapons confirmed.” At this point, a safety observer joined the crew to make sure any “weapon release” would be by the book.

The next command the crew received came calmly through their headsets, “Neutralize A-4 and other enemy combatants.” Oddly, the order was monotone, showing the same level of emotion as giving someone directions to the restroom.

The crew understood the command immediately and began a long verbal checklist. Martin locked his laser on the hut. The checklist neared its end with a verbal countdown, “Three…two…one.”

Hales pressed a button to release a Hellfire missile. The Hellfire flared to life, detached from its mount, and reached a supersonic speed in seconds.

Hales announced, “Missile off the rail and on route to target. ETA 15 seconds.”

Martin kept the targeting laser on the hut. All eyes were on the monitors. Each second now felt like a minute. After 5 seconds, the door to the hut suddenly opened and what appeared to be a small child looked out into the night. The crew knew they could divert the missile in all but the last few seconds. No order was given to do so. In an instant, the screen lit up with white flames. After images confirmed the hut and inhabitants destroyed.

Martin turned pale. He looked at Hales. “Did we just kill a child?”

Before Hales had a chance to reply, the crew heard over their headsets, “That was a dog.”

A dog that can open a door and stand on two legs? Martin thought.

No one commented.

The faceless commander announced, “Target Neutralized. Well done.”

Both Martin and Hales looked at each other. Each knew what the other was thinking, and no words were necessary.

The remainder of the mission consisted of assessing the damage. Nothing remained of the hut. The debris field was roughly circular. Body parts, still warm, lit up the infrared as far out as 300-meters. In the jargon of drone crews, these were “bug splats.” As Martin’s shift ended, most body parts had cooled to ground temperature and no longer gave an infrared signature. All was quiet in the aftermath. Each member of the drone crew would receive a positive entry on their record for killing four enemy combatants. At 8:00 P.M., after providing the routine debriefing to his replacement SO, Martin was relieved. His shift had ended. For him, the war was over for another twelve hours.

After two years of drone warfare, Martin knew that over the next week, they would maintain surveillance and wait for family, friends, and potential enemy combatants to visit the site to claim the remains for funeral arrangements. Martin also knew that they, and other drone crews, would maintain surveillance of the funerals to identify additional high-value targets. These activities were Top Secret and received no media attention. If high-value targets were identified, the cat and mouse game began anew. However, there were even worse alternatives. Martin had heard, via the grapevine, other drone crews were ordered to fire at the funeral gathering when several high-value targets attended. He thought, I hope it never comes to that for me.

On his drive home, Martin’s mind replayed the final infrared image of an open door and child staring into the night. When he got home, his wife was waiting for him with a hot dinner on the stove.

They were married for just over five years. Andrea’s statuette figure and pleasantly soft features immediately caught Andy’s eye during a University of Texas dance. They immediately found it easy to talk to one another and quickly became sweethearts. Andrea graduated with a B.S. degree in chemistry and taught at Austin High School, while Andy finished his M.S. degree in computer science at UT. Following Andy’s graduation from UT and his commission as a USAF second Lieutenant, they married. Andrea’s parents, Mildred and Joe, immediately liked the tall, dark-haired, and ruggedly handsome Lieutenant. Although soft-spoken, Martin had a reassuringly calm command presence. They appeared to be the perfect couple.

As he walked toward her, Andrea smiled. “How did it go today?” She was attempting to make polite conversation and could sense her husband had a nightmare day.

“About normal,” he replied softly. He knew he could not talk about the events that took place in T-5, even though he and Andrea kept no other secrets from each other. So it was probably just as well that the horrors he experienced in T-5 remained locked in his mind. “Just another day at the office,” he added with a forced smile.

She looked at him with her puppy brown eyes and smiled back. “Megan wants you to tuck her in.”

“Will do.”

He quietly walked to Megan’s room. As he entered, her eyes lit up. “Daddy, daddy, guess what we did today.”

When he looked at Megan, his mind pictured Andrea at four years old. He smiled. “Was it something nice?”

“Yes, mommy taught me how to cook an egg in water.”

“That’s wonderful. Maybe you could cook one for me tomorrow.”

Megan hugged him and said, “I will.” Then she looked at her Dad with her soulful brown eyes and asked, “Read me more about Paddington?”

“Okay, honey, but just a few pages. It’s getting way past your bedtime, and tomorrow is a school day.”

With that, he reached for the book on her night table, opened to the bookmark, and began reading softly. Soon Megan drifted into sleep.

Quietly leaving Megan’s room, he joined his wife, who had set the table for a late dinner for two. She made his favorite meal, spaghetti, and meatballs. He sat down and, finally feeling at ease, asked, “How was your day?”

Her words flowed over him like a comforter on a cold winter’s eve. He slowly ate his dinner and wondered what dreams would come that night.