Watching, Killing: The Evolution of RAF Drone Warfare in the 21st Century’ – Dr Peter Lee

Dr Peter Lee

Anyone who has conducted interviews with around 60 Reaper drone crew members and given evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones will have learned a thing or two about the Royal Air Force’s armed drone programme.  Step forward Dr Peter Lee, a former Air Force chaplain now Director of Security and Risk Research at Portsmouth University, who over the past few years has been undertaking a detailed study into the human dimension of RAF Reaper drone operations.  Dr Lee recently lectured at the Royal Aeronautical Society about his research and his forthcoming book on the RAF’s drone community.

The lecture, provocatively titled ‘Watching, Killing: The Evolution of RAF Drone Warfare in the 21st Century’ marked the tenth anniversary of the commencement of British Reaper drone operations and took place shortly before the Ministry of Defence announced that RAF Reaper drones are to remain deployed in the Middle East after other UK aircraft return home following the end of the war against ISIS.  Summarising Lee’s research to date and previewing material from his book, the evening gave a fascinating and unique insight into the largely secretive world of the RAF’s Reaper drone operators.

The lecture began with a critique of a brief video clip released by the Ministry of Defence in September showing an RAF drone strike in which an Islamic State sniper overseeing a public execution in Syria was killed by a missile fired from a Reaper drone.  The clip was released to the media on the day the Ministry of Defence announced that military personnel fighting against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Shader are to be awarded a campaign medal – although, ironically, Reaper crew members will not themselves qualify for the medal.

Grainy and unclear, edited and without background context, and with all operational information redacted out, Lee cited the video as an analogy for the entirety of the UK Reaper programme: a showcase for the RAF, yet lacking in transparency; a demonstration of the power of technology, yet lacking in technical detail; and evidence of the skill and precision with which drones are operated, yet raising some significant questions about their operation.  The video was symptomatic of the government’s political caution on drones, he argued, illustrating a willingness to provide some insight but a reluctance to fully engage.  Driven by the limited access to information, Lee pointed out how tabloid newspapers develop cartoon-style info-graphics about drone operations as an alternative reality to hard fact.

As part of his research, Lee was shown and talked through the unedited video footage of the drone strike which killed the sniper by the pilot involved.  He explained how a whole network of people – pilot, sensor operator, mission intelligence coordinator, and officers at the command centre – were involved. They worked together to find a way to intervene to stop the public executions from taking place, and calculated that firing a missile at the sniper watching from a rooftop above the scene would successfully achieve this.  However, undertaking the operation was a highly complex and difficult task.  The missile strike required extremely delicate targeting if it was to kill the sniper but avoid harming the crowd below.  A miscalculation, or an unexpected development such as a change in the wind speed, could have resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths.  Launching the strike was a high pressure, stressful operation for the drone crew – who at the end of the day had to go home from their day at work to spend the rest of the evening with their families. They would also have had to live with the outcome if things had gone wrong and civilians had been harmed.

The emphasis on zero civilian casualties is a key element in the ethos of the RAF Reaper squadrons, says Lee, and the ability to say no to a request for an airstrike if necessary is seen by Reaper aircrew as one of their core values.  Unlike pilots of conventional aircraft, the actions of drone crews are also subject to real-time intense scrutiny within the chain of command, with senior level commanders up to the highest level at the Combined Air Operations Centre for Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan able to watch the video feed from their Reaper camera pod.

The ‘zero civ cas’ principle contrasts, insists Lee, with approaches taken by US Reaper drone forces, where a different view of the risks and acceptability of casualties among bystanders has resulted in higher, widely publicised civilian casualties.  Although US and UK drone crews operate under different rules of engagement, with the US still seeing itself ‘at war’ after 9/11 in a way that the British and other allies are not, Lee believes the contrasting approaches are often conflated in the public debate. This, in turn, creates the perception that RAF drone crews adopt similar approaches to the Americans, which is probably one factor behind the caution by the MoD to engage more openly over drones.

Despite the differences, linkages with the US Air Force are crucial for the success of the RAF’s Reaper operations, which have so far occured in a coalition setting.  Reaper is, after all, a weapon designed and built in the United States.  One of the RAF’s two Reaper squadrons continues to operate from Creech Air Force base in Nevada; combat operations from both air forces are jointly controlled from the USAF’s Combined Air Operations Centre in Qatar, and RAF Reaper crew members have carried out much of their training with the USAF.  Equally important is the political factor of the relationship with the USA which Reaper represents – for both the RAF and the government as a whole.

The ‘Watching, Killing’ lecture gave Dr Lee the opportunity to discuss in detail not only some of the ethical issues relating to the use of Reaper drones, but also the ethos and culture of RAF Reaper crews and how it compares with RAF culture as a whole – a topic about which he has written elsewhere   Liberally sprinkled with drone anecdotes and personal recollections, the evening was both stimulating and intriguing, providing food for thought for both advocates and opponents of armed drones.

It would be unfair to steal Dr Lee’s thunder by giving away too much about his findings, suffice to say that when his book is published next year, it looks set to become a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in drones, the contemporary Royal Air Force, or how modern warfare is shaped and fought.

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