How would you define “air force pilot?” One might respond that an air force pilot is a soldier in the cockpit of a jet fighter flying through enemy airspace, under attack from surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft guns. The advent of the drone age is now changing the definition and has also brought forth new questions.
Air force operators of drones (officially dubbed “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”) are now being categorized by some countries, including the United States since 2009, as military pilots. This assimilation of a new breed of pilots has paved the way for “flight pay” ― a usual extra payment for fighter pilots ― for the drone operators.
The changes have also allowed them to wear the wings insignia and aviation leather jackets showing their status as air force pilots. Now one of the April issues of The Economist even reports that serious debates are taking place to determine whether these cyber soldiers are eligible for combat-related medals. By all indications, it seems that the medals are also simply a matter of time.
In the view of those who oppose such developments, it is hard to imagine that a UAV pilot faces the same degree of danger that a pilot of a jet fighter does flying through enemy airspace, as they are usually outside the theater of warfare and stationed in the control rooms of home military bases. Those who support assimilation counter that, while the UAV operators are not exposed to oncoming fire, they are still engaged in combat and operate lethal weapons with a similar set of maneuvering skills: in fact, many of them used to be the pilots of actual military aircrafts. So, through these debates, the pilots of UAVs are gradually starting to be treated almost the same as the pilots of actual aircrafts.
South Korea is also rapidly entering the drone age. New IT-based smart weaponry is being purchased, developed and deployed. The plan to purchase four Global Hawks from the United States in 2014 with the expected deployment in 2018 has received wide press coverage in the region. So has the deployment of sentry robots equipped with sensors and automatic rifles along the DMZ. Korea, too, might soon have to deal with various questions and logistical issues surrounding drones and other smart weaponry.
The new discussion on the status of the UAV operators shows that the advent of the drone age is changing the conventional framework of planning and conducting warfare. The gradual but steady assimilation and advancement of UAV pilots tell us that drones are now being equated with conventional military aircraft in all material respects.
If the drone debate so far has presupposed the highest of high technologies, the drones sent from North Korea recently upset this conventional wisdom with their primitive features and hobby shop-grade technologies. These small UAVs have no pilots on the ground and only fly pre-coded GPS routes. Hence, the analyses of the GPS flight log files of the three UAVs found in the mountains of Korea have confirmed their original locations in the North.
To those who conjure up the images of satellites, joysticks and high-resolution video feeds when it comes to drones, these fragile flying objects with onboard commercial cameras indeed look primitive, and are nowhere near the high-tech drones that have prompted all these drone debates. Nonetheless, these findings send a strong signal that the drones are becoming weapons of choice and another type of military threat here given the close proximity of the North and the dense population.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is an associate professor of law at Seoul National University. ― Ed.