Posttraumatic stress syndrome in remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) pilots and the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) community: Policy analysis and recommendations for action

Stefanie Melissa Watkins-Nance, The University of Texas School of Public Health


The use of remotely piloted aircraft in telewarfare has increased exponentially over the last decade. This growth is accompanied by unique challenges to the RPA and ISR communities to include combat compartmentalization, which involves the psychological complexity of daily switching back and forth between remote combat operations and domestic family life, along with moral injury, the unconscious changes in the evaluation of values associated with long distance killing. A literature review was performed and to identify parameters for selection criteria and military standards, operational stress factors, PTSD risk factors, rapid response to combat related incidents, improving medical and combat commander communication and addressing the public’s perception of drone warfare. Findings suggest that just having a high level of general intellectual functioning is necessary but not sufficient for success in RPA pilot training. Executive functioning (EF), attentional control (AC), inhibitory and emotional control specifically, must be explicitly tested and added as criteria for RPA pilot selection. More importantly, there is evidence that RPA pilots and their manned counterparts have similar levels of intelligence and cognitive aptitudes which will hopefully help to dispel the stereotype in the Air Force pilot community that personnel who choose RPA training have lower intelligence and a lower internal ambitious drive. Operational factors that were found to most commonly result in burnout or distress were working over 50 hours per week, changing shifts at an increased frequency (every 30 to 90 days) and working on station performing combat operations for over 24 months at a time. Although only 2-4% of RPA operators met diagnostic criteria for PTSD, subclinical PTSD was found to be much more prevalent. It is expected that if operational factors are targeted for improvement, less subclinical and clinical PTSD will be seen. The review also indicated that the lack of systematic psychological evaluation after a combat-related incident (CRI), suboptimal collaboration between medical and combat leadership as well as the public’s perception and of lack of knowledge regarding the RPA mission is particularly problematic. After an extensive policy analysis, this paper offers a wide range of recommendations for action from the organization of spousal and family support groups on the home front to increasing the number of embedded occupational psychologists and chaplains specifically trained to care for the unique challenges of the RPA warrior in the work setting. There is no doubt that RPA operations will soon become the predominate method by which we defend our borders. We must, therefore, prepare to mitigate the operational and medical risks inherent to telewarfare to ensure superior performance for successful mission completion.

Subject Area

Public health|Occupational psychology|Military history

Recommended Citation

Watkins-Nance, Stefanie Melissa, "Posttraumatic stress syndrome in remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) pilots and the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) community: Policy analysis and recommendations for action" (2015). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI10036290.