Is Philly Ready To Be on the Front Lines of the War on Terror?

New drone base in Horsham will let pilots kill by day, then come home at night.

Ready or not, Philadelphia, the War on Terror is coming to your backyard.

True, they don’t really call it the “War on Terror” anymore. And yes, officials mostly talked last week about all the new jobs that will be created now that Horsham Air Guard Base is becoming the “ground-control station” for a fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones. The planes themselves will be based overseas, but the two person flight-operation team for each plane—a pilot and a sensor operator—will remotely fly those craft from the base in Montgomery County, north of the city.

It sounds somewhat benign. It probably isn’t.

The MQ-9, according to the Air Force, is “employed primarily in a hunter/killer role against dynamic execution targets and secondarily as an intelligence collection asset.” There are lots of tasks the drone can performe, in other words, but mostly: It’s a killing machine.

What the announcement means is that some of our neighbors will spend their days finding, fighting and killing suspected terrorists—then they’ll get off work in time to get to that night’s PTA meeting. There will be men in Yemen (or Niger, or Pakistan) who die because of a trigger pulled in Pennsylvania. And that will almost certainly have ramifications in Pennsylvania.

Understand, this isn’t an argument about the morality of drone warfare. That argument is ongoing, but it will almost certainly be settled in favor of a president and a federal government that like the idea of eliminating suspected terrorists without risking the lives and limbs of actual American servicemembers.

But we should remember, regardless: War is hell. Even drone warfare.

Here’s a study that just came out last month:

In the first study of its kind, researchers with the Defense Department have found that pilots of drone aircraft experience mental health problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

What this means, then, is that the men and women who kill by day and join your PTA meetings by night will increasingly suffer the stresses of war. And that stress will affect their marriages, their parenting and the community. How that plays out in coming years, we do not know. But we’ll be able to watch the process closely, and in real time.

One other consequence: Horsham’s profile as a possible target of terrorism has been raised, just a little bit. In truth, this is unlikely to be a real danger. The “homeland” has been largely impervious to attacks since 9/11, but a major exception to that rule was the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood in Texas. That’s remarkably infrequent, considering we were once worried that terror would be a widespread, daily thing in our country. But Horsham will be upgrading its security as a result of its new mission, which is a clear signal that the threat level locally has risen, if just a little bit.

Now, it may well be that the drone pilots of Horsham Air Guard Base keep America safer by picking off our enemies abroad, one by one. (Although, again, the officials who announced the new mission seemed to discuss it primarily in economic development terms, instead of national security.) And it may be that the costs of war—including, but not limited to PTSD—will be worth bearing in exchange for that safer America.

There will be costs, however, and so it’s worth asking: Philadelphia, are you ready to be on the front lines?