Perfect Weapon?

PTSD Is a Big Problem for American Drone Operators, but Not for Israeli Ones

In an IDF survey of its drone operators, signs of PTSD were scant, but the more they stayed on, stress started to take its toll

Drone operators at work at an Israel Air Force base, 2012.
IDF Spokesperson

They can reach anywhere of interest to the Israeli military, like the Gaza Strip or Lebanon. According to reports abroad, that is how they take part in aerial attacks that kill armed militants – but also civilians. They are given commands from a medium-size trailer at Palmahim base, and the ones who control them are known as remote control drone operators.

“Every little dot on the screen is a figure. Children and young people, they are a small figure, and that means the area is ‘not clean.’ There is always the potential that there will be people, and in many cases, if you identify figures and then report them, they say ‘cease fire.’ The attack won’t be carried out.” Many officers are familiar with this description, given by an Israel Air Force officer.

The hum of a drone has earned a nickname in Arabic, “zanana.” In Gaza, people say that this sound signals the coming of a war. The Air Force operates over 100 such unmanned vehicles, and Israel is considered one of the leaders in the field of drones. Air Force officials say drone flight hours increase from every year.

However, top military officials are beginning to see that besides advantages like zero Israeli fatalities and the prospect of more eyes accompanying its forces and the use of live fire, there is a growing price in using them. According to research by the U.S. Department of Defense, there is no difference in the reactions of those who fly drones and the pilots operating on the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan. Both suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of exposure to the sights of war, the study showed.

The Israeli army began looking into whether, like their American counterparts, drone operators suffer from psychological stress due to what they see in battle. The medical research, the first of its kind conducted in the Israel Defense Forces, began to take shape before the war in Gaza even started. However, due to the bureaucratic approval process, participants filled out their questionnaires after 7 weeks of fighting in the Gaza Strip.

They were asked a host of questions to identify signs of depression, anxiety or PTSD. The drone operators were asked, for example, to remark if they felt satisfaction with their acts, or if they experienced guilt or failure. They were also asked to provide information about their sleeping habits, appetite and even sexual desires.

Because the research is subject to limitations set by the Helsinki Committee, participation was voluntary. “The commanders allowed free entry,” said a female Air Force officer, who helped produce the study. “Everyone who submitted the questionnaire told us, ‘thank you for being interested, for coming and asking us about the issue,’” she said. A total of 41 drone operators participated, among them five women.

High rate of depression

To the researchers’ surprise, in contrast to findings by their American colleagues, the drone operators did not show signs of depression and anxiety. “In general, results of this preliminary study did not indicate that UAV operators suffered from depression, anxiety or PTSD symptoms,” the researchers stated in the article, using the abbreviation for unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. The article was published in the December 2016 issue of the peer-reviewed journal “Disaster and Military Medicine.”

At the same time, there were significant differences found between the more battle-experienced drone operators, who conduct the more complex missions, and the ones with less experience. “The mean of depression level among the senior operators was twice as high as that of the operators with less seniority,” the researchers wrote. Therefore, “a significant association was found between depression and seniority in the professional role.”

Senior operators who had served more than three years exhibited high, intense levels of stress compared to their younger colleagues. Moreover, the findings showed that in Israel, “the UAV operators’ work is structured so that the pressure grows in intensity with seniority.” This variable, Air Force officials say, is the best indication of wear and tear on the operators.

According to the article, these findings “are in line with” the U.S. Army drone operators study, which found that “among the over-25-year-old participants, the more senior the operators, the greater their risk of developing PTSD symptoms.”

“We didn’t find people who are suffering from real psychological disorders,” an officer said in response to the findings. “The differences found between the operators are still within the normal range, but it is a statement. It is significant.” Indeed, she added, the longer an operator is on the job, the more he is exposed to difficult sights – for operators going in and out of the trailer at the base, the transition becomes sharper.

The research is in line with what one drone operator told Haaretz about being on duty during the 2014 Gaza war: “Your body feels fatigued, the exhaustion builds up,” he said. “There is no day and no night – and that’s how the terrorists work. On a personal level, the state of combat does something. It weighs on you, all the deaths on both sides.”

Defending the country

Air Force officials understood that they needed to do something about the difficulties faced by both those who fly in combat and those who operate there by remote control. Mental health professionals are now trying to help soldiers process what they experience during fighting, whether they saw it on screen or were actually present on the battlefield.

The researchers also tried to explain the differences between the Israeli drone operators and their American colleagues, who reported signs of depression and PTSD. “One explanation for the discrepancy could be the relatively small sample size” of the study, they postulated; the voluntary nature of the participation may have also created a selection bias. There are other differences, such as the proximity to the area of operation: Some 50 kilometers separate Palmahim and the Gaza Strip, as compared to the thousands of kilometers between Nevada and Yemen or Afghanistan. The relative proximity may actually have been a mitigating factor.

Moreover, military service in Israel is compulsory, whereas the U.S. Army is a professional volunteer army. Screening tests ensure that the Israeli soldiers “represent a mentally healthier population in relation the general population,” they observed.

Another factor is the fact that Israel Air Force bases are threatened by rocket fire, which can significantly blur the difference between the fighting in the trailer and life outside of it. Additionally, it’s likely that Israeli drone operators believe they are acting to defend their country more than their American colleagues, and are therefore less susceptible to depression.

“The psychological issue is on the table. It may not be dramatic, but it is there,” said a commander of an Air Force base that flies drones. “Your head may be ‘there,’ inside in battle, but you are outside. We don’t say that ‘that's for the weak.’ Instead, we talk about it.”