An unmanned US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan in 2010.


A former US Air Force drone operator has described how he is haunted by his time as a ”remote killer” functioning in ”zombie mode” in missions over Afghanistan and Iraq that claimed more than 1600 lives.

Brandon Bryant, a retired airman who operated remote-controlled Predator aircraft from US bases in Nevada and New Mexico, offered a rare military insider’s perspective on the US drone program in GQ magazine.

He described monitoring a drone strike on a mud compound in Afghanistan and seeing the figure of what he was certain was a child just before it was struck by a Hellfire missile.

When he expressed those concerns to an intelligence observer overseeing the operation, the response came back: ”Per the review, it’s a dog.”


When he quit the air force in 2011 after six years’ service, he was presented with a list of achievements for his squadron’s missions that counted the number of enemies killed in action as 1626. ”The number made me sick to my stomach,” he said.

Mr Bryant has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that has been found to affect as many drone operators as in-combat aircrews.

He recalled the first time, aged 21, that he targeted a lethal strike in early 2007, shortly after starting his deployment at Nellis air force base near Las Vegas as a ”sensor operator”.

The three victims were walking along a dirt road in the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan when the instruction to fire came through from a commander who had concluded that they were insurgents carrying weapons.

After the Hellfire missile struck, he followed the aftermath on the heat-sensitive screen in front of him.

”The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater”, he said in the magazine’s November issue.

”And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg.

”It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same colour as the ground he was lying on.”

The US this week rejected claims by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that some strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years could amount to war crimes.

Mr Bryant said he became numb to the remote-controlled killing as he operated drones in Iraq and Afghanistan from a padded cockpit chair 12,000 kilometres away, wearing a green flight suit while never taking off. He said his life has been plagued by drinking and depression since leaving the air force.

Asked to comment on the article, a US defence official said: ”We take extraordinary care to make sure that our counter-terrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law and that they are consistent with US values and policy.”


Henry Sapiecha

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