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While some might claim military innovation is an oxymoron, many fight that sentiment every day to build a flexible and effective military force. Join Jon Paris, Ben Kohlmann, and Matt for a podcast about military innovation, the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell, and Professional Military Education. Remember to bother everyone you know until they listen and subscribe to the podcast. We are available on Itunes, Xbox Music, and Stitcher Stream Radio. Enjoy Sea Control 12: Innovation (download).
Within the Air Force, there is no cow more sacred, no shibboleth greater, than the glory that is the manned fixed-wing combat aircraft. While even the most obstinate fighter pilot might be willing to concede that unmanned aircraft will necessarily make up the majority of a future force, such pallid (even bloodless) prospects are loudly lamented. Valor and heroism cannot be had from an armchair; Sic transit gloria Air Force.
Within the Air Force, it is the danger and thrill of piloting (and the concomitant safety and tedium of remote combat) that justifies the continued marginalization of the RPA community from promotions and awards. Certainly, flying RPA is less exciting than flying a F-18. But, as a career, is it actually that much less dangerous?
It’s not hard to imagine, early one morning, an IED going off on the road to Creech AFB, blowing up a commuter bus full of RPA pilots on their way to work. How different would the conversation about a “drone medal” have been in the wake of significant combat casualties? Such a scenario isn’t just possible – it’s one America’s enemies are actively trying to bring about.
Critics might say that this is just a hypothetical, which is true. It’s exactly as hypothetical as a fast-mover being brought down by enemy fire in post-invasion Iraq or Afghanistan, which is to say that it’s a possibility which has never occurred. For these two wars, “combat risk” has been as hypothetical for F-16 pilots in Iraq as for RPA pilots in Nevada. But even if we accept that fixed-wing combat aircraft are working in a very low risk combat environment in Iraq and Afghanistan, what about all the other dangers of flying? While, a differential risk analysis still supports the conclusion that flying RPA in combat is only marginally less dangerous than flying manned fixed-wing combat aircraft.
Now, I can almost hear the jaws of fighter jocks hitting the floor. How could armchair warfare approach the danger of conducting close air support over hostile territory? The answer is: cumulatively. Now, the Air Force should be more amenable to this line of thinking than the other branches of the armed services. During WW2, the Bronze Star was created to raise the morale of infantrymen who were disheartened by the Air Medal. As George Marshall said in a memo to Roosevelt, infantrymen “lead miserable lives of extreme discomfort and are the ones who must close in personal combat with the enemy.” And yet, this viewpoint mostly originates from a skewed view of what risk is. It’s true that your average WW2 infantryman faced individual moments of tremendous danger, punctuating long bouts of boredom. Given the personal courage required to maintain effectiveness in the face of the enemy, it is easy to see why infantrymen could be dispirited by medals going to bombardiers flying safely miles above the battlefield. But, while the risk of any particular bombing mission was relatively low (over Germany, about 5%), it was the cumulative risk that was so valorous – only one crewman in six was expected to survive his tour intact. The courage of the infantryman consisted in doing an exceptionally dangerous thing a few times; the courage of a bombardier, in doing a mildly dangerous thing many times.
If the modern student of war can understand why the infantryman’s courage cannot be privileged over the air crewman’s, he can come to see why the manned pilot’s valor cannot be preferred to the unmanned, in both the current wars and the wars to come. First, combat looks very different in asymmetrical wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. In twelve years of combat, we’ve lost a whopping one fighter jet to hostile fires in the air, in 2003. In both wars, we’ve lost a total of 18 fixed-wing fighter aircraft (almost all due to human errors or mechanical failure), and six of those pilots have died. Although each of these deaths is tragic, six fatalities in two wars over twelve years is hardly an epidemic, and these deaths account for a tiny fraction of all airmen who have died over these twelve years. Moreover, only one of these deaths was caused by enemy fire, largely due to the fact that, since 2003, the enemy has had zero capability to shoot down fast-movers. From a statistical standpoint, since the defeat of Saddam’s air defense weaponry, ~0% of the risk to manned fixed-wing combat aircraft has come from enemy fires – all of the risk is due to the general risks associated with flying. This is not to say that flying is not dangerous – over the past ten years, there have been an average of 8.2 fatalities a year (though most of those fatalities come from multi-death incidents). But for fast-movers in particular, none of the risk comes from combat or deployment.
What then, are the primary dangers to airmen? The data unequivocally says motor vehicle accidents (52 fatalities in 2012) and suicides (over 100 in 2011),  and on the rise) kill the most airmen every year. Nor are these two kinds of casualties equally distributed across occupations. Because most of the data is hard to get at, the following are sketches of arguments, suggestive evidence open to empirical verification.
Ironically, one of the “perks” of being an RMA operator – not deploying and instead commuting to work every day – almost certainly will, over time, kill more operators than flying manned planes would. According to a NATO morale survey, a significant number of Reaper/Predator pilots complained about the long commutes to the bases where they work (meaning they had commutes of over an hour). Combined with high levels of work-related stress, long shifts for months on end, and unhealthy sleep schedules, this driving substantially raises the risk of a vehicular accident (though exactly how high, it’s difficult to say). Manned fixed-wing pilots have some of the same work issues as unmanned pilots, of course, except that they are deployed for months at the time when their occupational stress is the highest (and when they would have the highest work-induced risk factors for a vehicular accident). It’s a little counterintuitive, but when your main job (flying combat sorties) has become surprisingly safe, the risk starts to come from weird, other factors.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest a perfect equivalence between a pilot who dies in a car crash on his way to work and one who dies flying in an operation over Iraq (rare as that is). But risk analysis demands that we also take lots of small risks over time to be serious and meaningful. An airman fatigued from piloting a Predator for 12 hours straight who dies in a crash at 2am on his way home from Creech AFB has “paid the ultimate price” just as surely as a disoriented F-18 pilot who makes a fatal maneuver. And some of the risks from driving that airmen face are operational –they come from the pace and intensity of their work. 
While added driving risk is difficult to tease out, suicide provides a much more personal face to a 21st century understanding of what combat risk is. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might be the first in history where the number of suicides exceeds the number of combat deaths. Because that the Air Force doesn’t publish casualty breakdowns by Air Force Specialty Code (though a FOIA request might dislodge them), it’s impossible to say what the suicide rate amongst only pilots has been. But we do know some things about it from other research.
Mostly, we know that the suicide rate amongst pilots (RPA and Manned) is lower than the rest of the Air Force; pilots are officers and are selected for physical, mental and moral capabilities, both of which reduce risk factors for suicide. But, of course, the risk factors for individual pilots vary depending on their circumstances. One of the biggest risk drivers of suicide for veterans is PTSD, which one study showed to make someone ten times more likely to successfully commit suicide. And a number of recent studies have shown that RPA pilots are at an increased risk of PTSD and work-related stress. A NATO study found low morale and high levels of operationally-induced stress in Pred/Reaper crews. More significantly, a retrospective cohort survey found that RPA pilots have higher levels of PTSD and other mental health diagnosis compared to manned pilots. Absolutely, they face a 60% increased chance (in this admittedly limited survey) of a mental health issue, although adjustments for age and experience brought that number back towards the baseline.
Unfortunately, despite a fairly extensive search of the data available online, it’s hard to drill down more on the number of suicides afflicting pilots. But it’s sort of irrelevant, because I can still lay out my basic conceptual case for a new way of thinking about risk. The case that being an RPA pilot isn’t much less dangerous than being a fighter pilot is pretty simple. In low-intensity conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, the hostile fires-risk part of a fighter pilot’s job approaches zero, leaving only the risk of flying (~1 Class A mishap/100k flight-hours). On the other hand, while a lot of the data is still coming in, we know that being an RPA pilot carries its own set of real, physical risks. The geographical placement of AFBs where RPA pilots work and the increased stress of their jobs takes a physical toll. Over time, those risks will add up to deaths. Given that, for fighter pilots in particular, the going fatality rate seems to only be about 1-2 per year, it is logical to conclude that the combination of increased motor vehicle risk and suicide risk could render RPA more dangerous than flying, over time. This hypothesis is empirically testable (albeit using data the Air Force hasn’t made available), and it may be worth following up on this post with further research.
This analysis also makes a broader point. The Air Force has reached a point where heroism can no longer really be understood by amounts of physical risk. Though outside the scope of this post, enlisted AF technicians who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and whose duties took them outside the wire were manifestly more subject to combat risk than the pilots deployed to support OEF and OIF. We have been fighting wars where physical risk has not necessarily most heavily accumulated to those doing the actual killing (e.g. C-130s, not F-15s, are subject to hostile fire). What this reveals is something that was probably true all along. We need to stop idolizing risk and realize that we should make heroes who look like the excellences we need. The sacrifices that C-130, F-18, and MQ-9 pilots make to perform excellently and serve their country well are all going to look a little different. It’s long past time to stop privileging one view of heroism.
 Many accidents are actually suicides. Cf. Pompili et al (2012), Car accidents as a method of suicide: a comprehensive overview, Forensic Sci Int.
 Psychological Health Screening of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Operators and Supporting Units, 2011
 Combat exposure, too, has a role to play (http://www.journalofpsychiatricresearch.com/article/S0022-3956(08)00003-4/abstract).
 Gradus et al (2010), “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Completed Suicide”, Am J of Epidemiology.
 Psychological Health Screening of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Operators and Supporting Units, 2011
 Otto et al (2013), “Mental Health Diagnoses and Counseling Among Pilots of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the United States Air Force”, MSMR.
The age of Fourth Generation Gaming is upon us. With the launch of the PlayStation 4 this week and the Xbox One next week, the younger side of me emerges from its shell with interest. As we step into this new age of gaming, one has to wonder if these new sophisticated gaming devices have the potential to contribute to professional military training and education in an age of fiscal austerity. This article argues that specific video games provide users the opportunity to practice ground and naval warfare tactics in addition to leadership skills.
Going Beyond the Call of Duty
When one simultaneously thinks of the military and video games, notable first-person-shooters (FPS) such as Call of Duty and Battlefield come to mind. As fun as these games may be, they unfortunately serve the military little purpose besides acting as a recruiting tool. Yet, one title that focuses on land warfare (and dabbles in the maritime area) is the Arma series. Based off of the Virtual Battlespace engine, Arma II and the recently released Arma III bring unparalleled realism to the gaming realm. Accurate bullet ballistics, radio communications, wounding, and scale of the terrain are several features among many that create a multiplayer (players against players, not AI) platoon or company level large scale engagement. In addition to these realistic features, the Arma series features a comprehensive and versatile, but yet easy to use mission editor allowing users to set-up almost any tactical engagement in mind (I personally created a mission entailing a situation in which USMC forces had to assault a captured oil rig with helicopters and small boats; this mission exposed the tactical difficulties of VBSS as my team did not anticipate searching every inch of the complex platform for OPFOR.)
Although the educational benefits of playing a FPS video game may appear to be nonexistent, the Arma series illustrates that tactical lessons at squad, platoon, and company levels can be learned. Players can simulate a variety of engagements ranging from 300+ meters in mountainous terrain modeled after Afghanistan to larger conventional fights with armor and mechanized infantry (a typical Arma engagement video). At the squad level, players practice moving as a unit in different environments (rural and urban) against different enemies (unconventional guerrillas, rag-tag Third World armies, and sophisticated Russian and Chinese militaries). A different set of challenges confronts players commanding a platoon or company as they have to not only ensure that their units remain organized and move coherently, but also penetrate the fog of war to determine how to best apply their forces strategically, practicing combined arms operations (a skillset with potent consequences if forgotten).
Other games such as Combat Mission Shock Force and Flashpoints Campaign: Red Storm also provide players with the opportunity to experience with small-unit tactics, but the dynamic pace of the Arma series challenges players in ways these other games lack. Although the Arma series fails to embrace the maritime domain of war (with a few exceptions such as my team’s bungled oil rig assault), fortunately other games are available to provide players with this opportunity.
Bringing a CIC to Your Living Room
Less than a handful of video games embrace the concept of naval warfare, but the few that do surpass their users’ expectations. Many mimic the style of the notable Harpoon series by featuring an interface similar to a CIC rather than amazing visuals. One recent title, Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations, simulates naval tactics and operations by allowing players to command a variety of units ranging from a single destroyer tasked with ASW to all of the assets under the command of the 5th Fleet (even nuclear weapons are included, with dangerous consequences). Players command their unit(s) through a CIC-type interface. Accompanying the game is an enormous encyclopedia containing an endless amount of statistics for every ship, aircraft, and weapon automatically factored into gameplay. Unfortunately, all of these variables make playing the game itself a hard experience with a difficult learning curve (grasping the controls while being pummeled by Russian Backfire bombers does not help). Yet, this illustrates the complexity of how a carrier battle group functions. Fortunately, some of these features can be delegated to the Al (such as engaging with the most optimal weapon). For further information about Command, USNI published an excellent review.
Command’s ultimate benefit is its vast scale. The ability to employ nearly any naval or air unit in any corner of the globe allows players to experiment with various situations and conflicts including counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, transiting the Strait of Hormuz while being harassed by dozens of Iranian missile boats, counternarcotic operations off the coast of South America, and repelling Chinese A2/AD forces in the Pacific. Some units and methods work almost perfectly in some situations but fail in others. Players experience both the tactical and operational challenges in these various scenarios. Although the game lacks stunning visuals or sounds, it gives users a vast sandbox to practice a wide array of naval tactics.
Leadership: Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More
The previous two games discussed both allow users to practice maritime and ground tactics. These skills are incredibly important but by themselves do not make a great officer. I argue that leadership is another key trait. Although leadership (in my opinion—many others would disagree) is a natural trait that not everybody possesses, those that have this trait only improve their leadership abilities through experience; typically, the more someone leads, the better leader they become. There are almost infinite amounts of ways to practice leadership, but one that stands out is a video game titled EVE: Online.
Thinking of EVE as a tool to practice leadership may appear to be out of this world (literally because of the science-fiction feel), but it is not. EVE is a science-fiction space game in which players fly their ships around different star systems for combat, industrial, commercial, and exploration purposes. In EVE, all players (approximately 500,000) are on the same server, making the game persistent, and player-driven (for example, corporations—or alliances—fight over sovereignty over key systems linking resource-rich areas with market hubs). Few ‘rules’ exist in EVE (although corporations try to enforce certain laws) allowing players to conduct practically any activities they desire. The economy is completely player based, making the most expensive ships in the game tradable for over $3000 USD (a lot of cash at stake for a ‘recreational’ video game).
Now, how does this game with spaceships simulate leadership experience? Essentially, Fleet Commanders in EVE are always applying Col. Boyd’s famous “OODA” loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act); the most successful Fleet Commanders are masters of this process. Combat in EVE is extremely complex with different types of ships (agile frigates, electronic warfare, logistics, stealth bombers, carriers, dreadnoughts, and many more) that each fulfills important roles; 3 battlecruisers with 3 logistics ships can easily take on 10 battlecruisers. A Fleet Commander needs to account for all of these variables when in the midst of a 3000+ ship battle. The Fleet Commander also ponders how he will get his 1000 ship fleet organized and to the staging area in a time efficient manner (Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is just showing up. In EVE, many “battles” are decided before they commence as players will only risk losing their thousand dollar fleets in fights they can win.), counterintelligence issues from spies embedded in his fleet, and his ultimate objectives. When targeting other ships (in combat, commanders tend to focus all of their firepower on only a couple of targets at a time), the Fleet Commander needs to analyze the changes in both the enemy and his fleet compositions while sounding confident over communications.
As earlier mentioned, EVE essentially provides players with a dynamic environment to constantly practice the OODA thought process. Despite its unrealistic setting, EVE demonstrates how a player-driven video game with a complex—but yet simple—combat system can serve as a tool to for users to practice the strategic thinking. In fact, some may argue that its completely fictional setting removes a commander’s obsession with certain assets and forces him to rely on the core aspects of leadership and critical thinking.
Integrating Video Games into Military Training?
This article is not arguing that the US military institutions should replace their training with video games like EVE (although this may be more reasonable in 2154). Yet, with the conclusion of major military operations and inevitable decline in military training exercises in an age of fiscal austerity, officers will have fewer opportunities to learn from practicing their leadership abilities and experimenting with different tactics. Thus, after illustrating several examples of video games providing educational lessons, this article argues that integrating video games with training may serve as part of a solution to this upcoming gap.
Bret is a student at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, but currently abroad in Amman, Jordan studying International Politics and Arabic. The views expressed are solely those of the author.