Drone Wars UK is publishing an exclusive interview with former British Reaper drone pilot Justin Thompson (a pseudonym), who for three years flew RAF Reapers over Afghanistan while based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
When we met earlier this year, Justin confided that he was a reader of the Drone Wars blog and so I asked if he would be willing to be interviewed. After thinking about it for a few weeks he agreed on two conditions. Firstly, for security reasons, he needed to remain anonymous. Secondly he wanted some editorial control over what we published. I agreed to these conditions as the voice of those directly hands-on in the British drone wars is very rarely heard. In addition, Justin was very clear that there were some things he could not and would not talk about. He also asked that it be made clear that his experience related to the British use of Reaper in Afghanistan and that therefore UK Reaper operational activity may well have changed.
The interview itself was divided into two parts. Firstly, I wanted to explore how British Reapers are being used on a day-to-day basis and what is the everyday experience of operating British Reapers in an armed conflict. When talking about undertaking prolonged surveillance in Afghanistan, Justin talks about the need to have a good understanding of the ordinary in order know what is extraordinary. I would agree.
The second half of the interview sought Justin’s views, as a Reaper pilot, on some of the ethical issues that surround the growing use of armed drones. Are drones different from other military aircraft? Does being thousands of miles away from a target impact on the perception of that killing? Are drones lowering the threshold for war? Is drone war, in fact, war as traditionally understood?
Initially the interview was to form the basis of one or two articles but upon reflection it seemed best to simply publish a lightly edited version of the full transcript. It’s important to note that Justin is not a whistle-blower. But his willingness to engage with the issues and his frank and forthcoming answers to our questions, deepens the public understanding of UK drone warfare and for that we are grateful.
As well as the major issues, the interview also touches on many hugely interesting aspects of UK drone operations, including the sovereignty of British Reapers, the accuracy of the strikes and the ‘naming’ debate. While it’s important to read what Justin has to say in his own words, there are several issues in particular that are worth high-lighting here.
“It was incessant.”
Several times during the course of the interview Justin remarks on the heavy workload that the British drone pilots experienced. At one point he remarks:
“It was incessant operational tasking. Other units I’ve work on, you would… have times when you were busy, and you would have times when you were not so busy. This was constant and never ending.”
This echoes the reports by ex-USAF drone pilots of the very heavy workload due to high demand for armed drones. While Justin is talking about operations in Afghanistan, it’s clear from the statistics that Drone Wars has compiled, the pace of UK Reaper operations has only increased since the deployment for operations in Iraq and Syria.
Alongside the pressure of a heavy workload, Justin also talks about the stress he felt from undertaking air strikes, and particularly having to watch the aftermath for Battle Damage Assessment. He admitted that he “shed tears from time to time” but that he felt able to cope with the experience. Some though, he said, had struggled to “disconnect” their life in the Ground Control Station from normal everyday life. As other drone pilots have reported, Justin confirmed that the experience of being at war, and then, within a matter of hours, being at home with family was disturbing:
“The most difficult thing was the flip-flopping between the mind-set of being on live operations, and then being at home with the family.”
The stress that RAF Reaper crew are facing, both from the workload and the special circumstances of armed drone operations, need careful attention and should perhaps be the subject of an inquiry by the Defence Committee when it reforms after the election.
“I’m the final arbiter.”
Justin makes the point at different times during the interview that he, as pilot, had the final decision about whether to launch a strike or not. He acknowledged there can be many others, from commanders to lawyers to intelligence analysts, watching in. “Who may or may not be watching depends on how interesting the view is”, he simply states. However he insists that while there are a large number of people who, as he puts it, “can get a long screwdriver” into the Ground Control Station, via phone or chat message system, he maintains that at the end of the day, the pilot’s authority is “absolute”. He briefly mentions two situations to demonstrate. One when he was put under pressure to launch a strike but refused. The other was when he was ordered by a legal advisor to halt a strike, but argues that he would have had the authority to override this advice, but acknowledges it would have been unwise to do so.
The interaction between those inside and those outside the Ground Control System should be an important area of study. Iin the past, lawyers and analysts were often seen as inhibiting decisive action, they are now seen as supporting and enabling better decision making. The danger though is that ‘group think’ enters the equation and the decision to launch a strike becomes distributed amongst many people, and consequently no-one perceives or believe that they are personally responsible. Justin’s experience belies that fear, at least as far as the RAF operation of armed drones is concerned. He is adamant that pilots are the ones taking the final decision.
“Different in an advantageous way.”
Justin, along with many involved with the military, at first denies that armed drones are any different from other armed aircraft. However once the differences are pointed out, it is agreed that they are different, but in an advantageous way. Justin sees the differences as essentially enabling greater persistence, which he argues, in turn enables pilots to be more discriminate in launching strikes. Justin’s personal experience and his testimony are very important as a contribution on the debate on this issue, but there are other ‘insider’ voices who have suggested that the differences are making a negative impact on the ground.
His loathing of the phrase ‘PlayStation Mentality’ is clear. He perceives it as denigrating the professionalism of air force pilots, both in terms of the skill needed to fly the aircraft, but also in its suggestion that drone pilots are shielded from the consequences of launching air strikes. Justin argues they were “very real” to him and that he did not recognise the notion of ‘detachment’ attributed to drone pilots. However, here, and several times during the interview, Justin makes the argument that those who do not have actual flight experience may have a very different understanding from than those who have. Currently all UK Reapers are flown by RAF pilots with previous flight experience but there is a question over whether this will continue to be the case.
“You have to think beyond the normal boundaries of what you consider warfare.”
Justin’s views, as an insider, on the risk associated with remote drone warfare are extremely interesting. A key question for those raising concerns about the use of armed drones is whether the radical asymmetry arising from their use means that such activity can no longer be classed as ‘war’ in the traditional sense. Justin however strongly refutes this, insisting that drone crews are “not at zero risk in the GCS.” Justin argues that drone pilots, as combatants, always face the possibility of “direct action” as he put it, from States or non-state actors and are therefore at risk even though they remain thousands of miles from the enemy in Nevada or the Lincolnshire countryside. Asked if he felt himself at personal risk inside the GCS, Justin affirmed that he did.
Importantly, Justin goes on to argue that “you have to think beyond the normal boundaries of what you consider warfare.” While Justin is specifically talking about the risk that he perceives is faced by drone crews, whether and how armed drones are breaching physical, philosophical, legal and ethical boundaries is at the heart of the ongoing debate about their use.
The moral and legal boundaries placed on warfare have been put in place primarily to protect civilians but also combatants themselves. We have seen how these boundaries have begun to be breached over the past few years, but their erosion can do nothing but harm. If the technology is enabling and encouraging those boundaries to be breached, if drones are expanding and changing where and in what circumstances war is to be considered normal, then the technology itself is a serious problem.
Justin argues strongly that the UK’s adoption of remote warfare is not to be feared. His willingness to engage on these issues, and the insight he offers are extremely helpful. We hope others who have experience in various aspects of this new way to wage war will also engage, share their experience, and help us all to better understand drone warfare.