For the first time, a German „Master of a Drone System“ reports heavy stress disorders and depression just from watching from the air. With the upcoming introduction of armed drones, the phenomenon is likely to get worse.
After about a decade of „drone debate“, the German Bundestag decided in April to arm drones for the Bundeswehr. Beforehand, the Ministry of Defence had invited a few critical voices to hearings, in addition to many supporters. Among other things, they warned of the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for pilots, but especially for the personnel operating the sensor technology. This was also reported by former members of US drone squadrons – but outside the official events of the German Ministry of Defence, which deliberately refrained from inviting them.
The 45 year old André Hassan Khan is the first German Armed Forces drone operator to speak out about his PTSD, which he says has taken a severe course. Since its introduction twelve years ago, he has operated the optical and radar-based cameras of the Israeli Heron 1 reconnaissance drone with the air force in Afghanistan and later in Mali. Khan is a „Tactical Operator Master of a Drone System“. That is the name of the training course at Tactical Air Force Squadron 51 „Immelmann“ in Schleswig-Holstein, which operates the Bundeswehr drones.
Shots as heat signatures, impacts over the radio
Among Khan’s experiences is the massacre in an Afghan army field camp near the former German base in Mazar-e-Sharif, where Taliban fighters shot dead 140 Afghan soldiers during traditional Friday prayers five years ago. This is what the „drone master“ told the German War Graves Commission, which reports about it on its website. According to the report, Khan’s unit was circling over the event with a Heron 1.
Khan describes further missions in an interview with Der Spiegel published on Friday last week. According to it, in one case he had followed five Taliban into the mountains, who had then fired on Afghan troops from ambush. Their shots were visible on his screen as heat signatures, and he heard the impacts over the radio. His headquarters then called in US air support, which „neutralised“ the target.
In Mali in 2017, Khan said he cleared an attack site in a neighbouring camp after a vehicle loaded with 300 kilograms of explosives drove through the gate and into the courtyard. The vehicle exploded during morning roll call, killing 70 Malian soldiers.
Symptoms „extreme“ and „enormous“.
In total, Khan was deployed 27 times abroad and completed 3,000 flying hours with the Heron 1. After the massacres in Afghanistan and Mali, Khan began to suffer from insomnia, difficulty concentrating and agitation when stressed; the report by the War Graves Commission describes the symptoms as „extreme“, „enormous“ and „high“. According to the report, the „drone master“ can only with difficulty tolerate loud noises and crowds of people.
Khan gives an impression of his trigger moments to Der Spiegel: „As soon as he enters the supermarket, it doesn’t just remind him of the war. He is at war again,“ the magazine writes. „Last time he made it to the flower stall. Then a queue formed at the baker’s and André feared an explosion, the steaming, beeping oven reminding him of a booby trap.“
It is not until 2020 that the „drone master“ reportedly goes to the doctor; a specialist department at the Bundeswehr hospital in Hamburg eventually diagnoses PTSD. Other diagnoses include „other reaction to severe stress“ and a „depressive episode“. Khan terminates his service and begins therapy financed by the Bundeswehr. His salary continues to be covered, but he has to pay for an assistance dog himself.
No programmes for drone personnel
„All of what Khan said sounds familiar,“ writes whistleblower Lisa Ling, who worked for years as an evaluator in the US drone programme. Ling has been one of the critics of armed drones for years. „My hope is that these soldiers will be taken care of in the best possible way“.
But the German Air Force’s drone squadron is far from that. Post-traumatic stress disorder has been an issue in the Bundeswehr for several years and is treated accordingly. But there is no separate programme for drone missions.
The personnel can make use of the general measures of „troop psychology“ offered by the Bundeswehr’s aviation psychology department for all aviation personnel, including mission preparation, mission follow-up and counselling. Whether the Bundeswehr wants to develop specific programmes for pilots and sensor operators, however, remains open.
Affected persons should contact a „PTSD commissioner“
„With regard to the special stresses for drone pilots, the scientific findings currently available internationally are continuously being evaluated,“ the Ministry of Defence wrote two years ago in its answer to a parliamentary question. For its own situation report „on the current stress situation“, the Air Force Surgeon General intended to conduct a workplace analysis.
Soon, the Heron TP drones operated by the German Armed Forces will be armed, at which point the drone crews will be supplemented by so-called weapons operators. While sensor operators like Khan are severely traumatised just from watching from the air, the psychological consequences for weapons personnel are likely to be even more serious.
The military, however, is playing it cool. In a live chat of its „drone debate“, the Bundeswehr was asked about the issue of PTSD, and the Inspector General of the Bundeswehr dodged an answer. If an illness became apparent after a deployment, the affected soldiers could contact a „PTSD commissioner“, among others.
Defence Ministry considers PTSD rare
The Ministry of Defence remains similarly superficial in its report on the „drone debate“ to the German Bundestag. It states that the use of armed drones could „lead to a high psychological strain on the drone pilots and that the use of weapons could lead to a moral dilemma“. However, PTSD is „rather rare“ in the air force and even less common among drone crews, it said.
„Of course, it’s considered rare in drone troops because it’s one of the newest technologies that hasn’t been researched as thoroughly as, say, infantry,“ says US whistleblower Ling.
Ling advises those affected to deal openly with their PTSD, depression and „all the other psychological consequences of war“. „There is no shame in suffering from the trauma of war and talking about it. Then maybe more people will resist war becoming the norm“.
Image: The Heron 1 drone with surveillance technology on the tarmac. (Image: Bundeswehr/ Sebastian Wilke).