“Here’s their actual stories, make of them what you will.” Dr Peter Lee on ‘Britain’s Reaper Force’

Dr Peter Lee

On 4th October, a ground-breaking book on the UK’s use of armed drones will be published by John Blake Ltd.  Reaper Force: The Inside Story of Britain’s Drone Wars‘ is the result of conversations that have taken place over several years between Dr Peter Lee of Portsmouth University and RAF Reaper crews and their partners at Creech AFB in Nevada and RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. A week before publication, Drone Wars sat down with Peter to chat about the new book.

CC: We’ve met each many times having discussed these issues at conferences and in broadcast studios, but for the benefit of our readers, can I ask you to say a little about how you got into this field of research?

PL:  Yes of course. Between 2001 and 2008 I was an RAF chaplain and during that time I was very affected by my experience in the Iraq war where I was assigned to the military hospital in Cyprus and there were a lot of military casualties. In short, that experience took its toll.  I left to do a PhD on ethics and war and also took up a position lecturing at the RAF college at Cranwell. In 2011, I was asked to write an article for the Air Power Journal on the ethics of drones but I decided to focus more on what Reaper would do to the RAF ethos.  As part of the research for that I managed to speak informally to a handful of people who had flown Reaper. Almost immediately after that piece was published I got lots of invitations to speak about ethics and drones because I was willing to make a qualified, positive, moral case for the use of these systems – as long as they were being used correctly. In 2014 I conducted a questionnaire-based survey of UK Reaper crews and it became clear then that in order to do justice to the subject a book needed to be written which would require direct access.  After a long process I got permission to speak directly to the RAF Reaper crews in Creech and Waddington.

CC: I think it would be fair to say that the book is not neutral or detached on the issue of armed drones, you’re a supporter, if I can put it that way, and particularly of the British men and women who are flying them.

PL:  Let’s say I am a cautious advocate as long as they are used within appropriate ethical and legal frameworks.  I set out clearly in the book my background and position.  I would say that I am generally ‘anti-war’, but I accept that war has to be fought, a Just War position if you want to put it that way. I do not advocate for the use of autonomous lethal drones – I want a human in any decision-making process that involves killing.

CC: In a lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society late last year you argued that while the MoD was putting out positive images and stories about the British use of Reaper it was failing to engage with the actual issues and the critics of drone war.  Do you see your book as trying to do that, or is it more about giving a voice to the RAF Reaper crews?

PL: My book is absolutely about letting the Reaper operators tell their stories. It’s not scholarly as such, its much more: ‘Here’s their actual stories, make of them what you will’. It doesn’t touch on policy at all, partly because I wanted to keep a really tight focus and it would make the project very complicated.  I’ve written about the policy issues around drones elsewhere but I wanted this to be very much about the people who operate them, their lives, what they experience, what they go through.  I’ve felt for a long time that this has been missing in everything that was said about this issue.

CC: The stories that are in the book are very, very interesting, and give a fascinating insight into the RAF Reaper world. Last year a former Reaper pilot spoke to us about the pressure arising from the number of UK Reaper operations – “incessant” he called it – and it’s clear from your book that workload pressure continues. Do you think that pressure on crews will increase or decrease with the increasing numbers of drones the UK acquires? The more drones in the inventory, it seems, the more missions there are.

PL: I think the amount of pressure from workload comes down, I guess, to the amount of operations that need to be done on any one day.  Or perhaps better to say to the ratio of crews to Reapers to tasks. There is certainly an ever-expanding thirst for what the Reaper can provide, both in terms of intelligence gathering and in terms of strikes. Something related that I’m looking at – its not in the book – is how come some crews can operate for four, five, six years in this environment, and survive reasonably intact, while others are really quite exhausted after two or three years.

CC: Greg Bagwell told us that the UK was now using non-pilots to fly Reapers – those who hadn’t previously flown aircraft.  That surprised us.  Did you meet any of those folks?

PL: The RAF has been training people for Reaper who didn’t have previous flying roles for five or six years now.  In 2017 I met a group of these new Reaper trainees who were going through their officer training at RAF Cranwell.  They do that first and then go on to do some elementary flying training in small aircraft so they get that three-dimensional understanding of flying and understand airmanship.  They then go into the Reaper training in the United States.  So, there is now that way into Reaper programme rather than in the past where it was only people who had already already been RAF pilots. This is really because the ‘surplus’ pilots – from where the Harrier, Nimrod, and Tornado programmes had been closed – are now all retiring or leaving.

We will see over the next few years the Reaper force converting from being predominately those who were previously pilots of other RAF aircraft, to those who have been directly recruited to operate Reaper.

CC: One of the things that comes  very strongly through in the book is the clear desire of RAF Reaper crews not to cause civilian casualties, there’s no question about that.   The issue of civilian casualties is an important one in the drone debate – and there are many aspects to it and I want to touch on two of those; whether drones are better than traditional aircraft at avoiding civilian casualties and whether the UK is simply better at avoiding casualties from its drone operations than the US as is often hinted and suggested.  Many of the stories that you shared in the book speak to those aspects. In particular the episode recounted by a crew member when they are tracking a high value target (HVT) on a motorcycle and they are trying to decide whether they can strike depending on whether what’s on the back of the bike is a parcel or a small boy. The crew insist that it’s a parcel and they should take the shot, but others outside the GCS think it’s a boy. They don’t strike and later it turns out it was a small boy.

And then in another story, the crew get caught up in the mission to strike a moving vehicle and want to strike but don’t see ‘the gorilla in the room’, as you put it, which is the increasing number of civilians around as the car gets closer and closer to a town.  Both times the strike is not taken despite the crew wanting to do so – and I guess that you would argue that that shows the processes work, they didn’t shoot on these occasions and there weren’t civilian casualties.  But don’t those episodes also speak to the technology? In the first, the fact that the camera is simply not good enough to see a child is a passenger on the motorbike and in the second, the crew get caught up in the moment, wanting to complete their mission and literally not seeing the harm it will cause. To me those call in to question what we are told time and time again, that the technology gives us better understanding of the situation on the ground.

PL: Well what I would say is that the technology vastly increases the ability to avoid civilian casualties but it can never be perfect.  One of the chapters in the book recounts in great detail, from the perspective of the crew, the civilian casualty incident in Afghanistan in 2011 when, despite the intense scrutiny of the target, civilians were killed.  They were really aiming for zero civilian casualties all the time, but realistically they knew you can’t go through an entire war without it happening and of course it did and it will and it did recently.

Two things to say about those incidents you mentioned.  The ‘gorilla in the room’ incident – which you can also call target fixation – that’s not specific to Reaper or remote-controlled aircraft. There are stories of that happening to First World War pilots, its not at all a new phenomenon. However, in terms of Reaper, they have introduced a system now that when they come to take a strike, a safety observer comes into the Ground Control Station, someone who has not been part of the build up and who’s job it is to observe what the crew are doing and to be an extra pair of eyes if you like, someone who is able to see the big picture more clearly.  So that’s one way of getting around the fact that humans can still make mistakes, no matter how good the technology is…

CC: Or isn’t in the case of the camera not seeing the small boy…

PL: Yes, absolutely. The pilot in that case was absolutely adamant there was not a child on the motorbike. I spoke to him at great length and as far as he was concerned, if he was on his own or piloting another aircraft that strike would have happened.

CC: Doesn’t the pilot have the final say on this?  We are often told that…

PL: Yes, legally the pilot has the authority to take the shot but he listened to the advice, the judgement of others. And that’s often what it comes down to  – it’s a matter of judgement.

CC:  Of course. And judgement can be wrong and so, to bring it back to civilian casualties, from the many conversations that you have had, do you think the crew really believe there have only been these two civilian casualty incidents over ten years, or do they accept that UK drone strikes will have caused others?

PL: Well there is absolute certainty in the two incidents that have been reported.  Will there have been other times where in retrospect there is a possibility but it was not confirmed…? I would say there would have had to have been some others.  Most of the crews, I think, would accept that over the years there would have to be some, but they would be confident that it’s a very small number compared to the number of strikes that have taken place.

While people talk about surgical strikes, this is not surgery with a 10mm blade.  This is still a 100lb missile flying at the speed of sound. So its very accurate compared to some of the things that Russia is dropping in Syria, for example, but there is no chance of absolute perfection.  Is there likely to have been other civilian casualties?  Almost certainly.

In terms of whether the UK is better than the US at avoiding civilian casualties, I think it comes down to the Rules of Engagement (RoE).  The US considers itself at war in Iraq and Syria, whereas the UK is on a military operation.  A fine distinction perhaps, but that’s where the push for ‘zero civilian casualties’ on the UK side come from. The public and political imperative here in the UK not to kill civilians has been the most constraining factor, whereas in the US there is not that public pressure. Its not the technology – the technology is the same – the skills and the training are the same.  It’s the RoE that are different.

CC: For us another aspect of all this is the so-called ‘risk-free’ nature of drone warfare.  You mention at one point in the book – rather unfairly I would say – that campaigners are calling for a ’fair fight’ and how ridiculous that is…

PL: (laughs) Oh, sometimes I can be unfair …

CC: I’d say that’s a mischaracterisation of what we are talking about.  What’s being raised are questions about the radical asymmetry of modern warfare, questions about the lack of physical risk, and also wider risks.  I think there are questions here about not wanting to put boots on the ground because of the political costs and the consequences of that – the transfer of risk from combatants onto civilians, through civilian casualty incidents but also as they seem to have spurred terrorist attacks on civilians. I understand that you are not looking at these wider questions in the book, but I just wanted to point that out. In terms of risk and the crews themselves, you have highlighted the mental health risk they face.  You have urged that should be recognised and they should be eligible for medals.  I don’t know if you have any general thoughts on this, but in terms of a question, would you argue that there is an equivalence of risk between those on the ground and those fighting remotely?

PL: No, I don’t think there is a direct comparison. In the interviews one guy was very explicit in saying ‘We know we’re not the Marines’. They know the risks are very different and there is not the physical risk to the Reaper crews.

However I spoke at the Defence Academy a couple of months ago and I asked the 300 senior officers there how many had have killed an enemy combatant directly, at say under 100 metres range, and watched them die. And I think it was about six – these were senior officers so they have been around for years.  Reaper crew do that all the time. They do see and they do watch and they get  a very clear picture of their killing and the aftermath.  The psychological aspect of that is considerably greater than on crews of conventional aircraft.  There are very few people that get such a visually traumatic experience as Reaper crews and others involved in watching those images.

CC: I would say that your book brings home very well the psychological impact on the crews and while this has been an argued about ever since I have been involved in this issue, I would say there really can be no doubt now that even though they are operating at great distance, what the Reaper crew see can have a traumatic impact on them.  But I agree that the risk is very different, and I note from your interviews with the partners of Reaper crew, that many of them are not unhappy that their partners are no longer flying, that they are on the ground, because of the reduced physical risk.

PL:  Indeed. In terms of the wider questions about risk and risk transfer I would say that I do think they are important and they are interesting questions and it definitely needs a lot more study.

CC: All the stories that you relate in the book are fascinating but one of them that I found particularly interesting is that of the person you call Jake.  He struggles with the idea of killing and whether he should have the power over life and death. Particularly when he has to choose who to kill, for example when there are several individuals on the ground, the missile strike will only kill one or two, who to choose?

PL: Yes.

CC: And he takes himself off the combat ready list and its very interesting that is accepted, but also the way he is, what – helped? – to overcome that hesitation.  Through seeing the inhumanity of IS – ‘these people deserve to die’- and then through convincing himself that he is overthinking the matter, implying that he shouldn’t think about it too much.

PL: He is, I’m pretty sure, the most self-analytical human being I have ever come across. Deeply, deeply intelligent and very highly empathetic.  I pretty much just transcribed the interview with him and put it in.  There have not been many times when someone has said, ‘No, I can’t cope with pulling the trigger’. He was met pretty sympathetically by his squadron commander who allowed him to keep flying for reconnaissance and surveillance and then he went off to do a spell on launch and recovery. When he came back the shift had happened between Afghanistan and Iraq and as the story relates, he no longer felt unable to engage in strikes.

One of the reasons I was keen to put that story in the book was that he came from a non-fast jet background and had not previously had to undertake strikes.  He had not previously had to think about it.  Fast jet pilots train for years – four to five years from initial training till firing a weapon and killing someone.  That’s years of cultural adaptation, whereas with the Reaper, that timescale has shortened to about a year for new people and just a few months if you have previously flown other aircraft of helicopters. That’s not a long time to making the mental transition from never been expected to kill someone, to actually taking someone’s life.

He went to see chaplains, he went to see psychologists, but actually for him what made the difference was the ethical calculation. Not a choice between good and evil, but what’s the least bad choice here, which is what military ethics really comes down to.  ‘Should I leave these people to do what they are going to do or should I pull the trigger?’  I think it was interesting that it took him that extra time.  He will never know, and nor will we, whether he would have reached that same position if the UK had continued to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan rather than shifting to fight IS and seeing their atrocities.

CC: All these stories are hugely interesting and just the ones I’ve mentioned touch many different aspects of the debate;  what can be seen and perceived about the battlefield virtually, how empathetic you are in your understanding of what’s going on, etc.  For me, one thing this raises is the issue of detachment.  Or ‘not thinking about it too much’ as Jake puts it.  And that leads me on to what has been described as ‘the PlayStation Mentality’, a phrase I know – and it’s made clear in the book – the Reaper crews loathe.

The book makes clear, and we have already talked about, how the crews are ‘very close’ in one sense to what is happening. They watch individuals for days and see them killed and then watch the impact on family members and it’s impossible for the crews to be emotionally detached from that.  At the same time, its inevitable that as time goes by it becomes somewhat routine.  In the book you report the crews have a phrase ‘a vanilla strike’ meaning routine, nothing out of the ordinary.  And of course, the longer operations go on, the more strikes become routine.  It’s not unusual, you say, for some of the individual members of crews to have been involved in fifty or more strikes. However, you seem to be arguing in the book that there should be a limit on the time that people are involved in this, is that right?

PL: My personal view is that after two to three years, crew members should have a break and then they could either go back to it or move on to something else, rather than doing it for five or seven years continuously which quite a lot have done.  In World War II pilots did a tour – 30 missions I think it was – and then went off to do something else for a few months before returning to the front line for a second tour. While that was a very different environment, I think that should be the kind of pattern for long-term future of remotely piloted operations like Reaper and its successors.

Twenty of the ninety crew members that I interviewed had left the Reaper force and it seemed that for quite a lot of them, who were really tired when they left, within six months they would have been ready to go back into Reaper.  It seemed to be a common thing that came up, and some people in fact have. So I personally would advocate that after around two-and-a-half years these folks should have six months doing something else.

In the book, I quote one of the crew as saying ‘After fourteen shots, its was all becoming quite ordinary.’ However different people react differently when you’re about to kill someone.  There is an adrenaline spike, nausea, cold sweat. It’s not just your mind, your body reacts. If you are having these reactions you are not detached. Some people after a number of strikes do not get such strong physical reactions –  some reaction, but not as strong. Others get as an intense reaction as the first time.  For others the physical reaction gets worse over time. Just as some people can adapt to a job and get used to the stresses, for other people it remains at a really high level. So, I wouldn’t want to make a generalisation. I personally think it comes down to factors such as empathy, how you control adrenaline, how emotional you are.  There are lots of variables.  As I say, I will be writing more on this.

CC: OK.  I’ve got a couple of quick ones to finish off.  In the book there is no discussion of the killing of Reyaad Khan and the subsequent controversy around it. It is one of the major things that has happened over ten years of British Reaper drone operations so I was quite surprised about that. Was it something of a forbidden subject?

PL: It wasn’t forbidden, it simply just didn’t come up. At the beginning I asked to see different types of strikes so I would have a better understanding in my mind what was happening when crews where talking about them. So someone took me through some random strikes – on a building, or a moving target, on a car etc. Afterwards I asked the person something about the Khan strike and they said they had seen it and it didn’t stand out in any way.  That was the closest anyone came to talk about it.

CC: That’s surprising to me.  There was a lot of discussion about it in the media, in parliament etc. And there was even some talk of senior officers expressing disquiet.

PL: It just didn’t come up. I didn’t shy away from anything and there was nothing out of bounds. I did have to send each chapter off to the MoD to get an operational security check, but I wasn’t asked to take out a single sentence. In fact, when I went back to the individual crew members with the write-up of the interviews to check I had got everything correct, not one person withdrew a single thing. I think that shows people were very keen to share their stories.

CC:  And one of the things that is fascinating of course, but I haven’t had a chance to cover because of time, is the interviews with the family members of the Reaper crews.

PL: That is one of the things that differentiates this book from others I think. I interviewed 24 spouses/partners and because the Reaper force do not go off to war, the families are really caught up in it.  The chapter about Tara, and how she handles her pregnancy and family life while operating as a Reaper pilot is especially interesting.

CC:  Absolutely.  And with her admiration for the female Kurdish fighters of the YPG,  that chapter will feature in quite a few modules on gender and war I think.

OK. Well, we have run out of time so I just wanted to thank you for doing this. The book is absolutely fascinating and certainly should be read by anyone interested in these issues.  We obviously come at this from different perspectives…

PL: Of course…

CC: But we, and many others see the need for open and thoughtful discussion about drones and their impact on warfare.  Oh, and that reminds me I have to metaphorically poke you for what you said about using the word ‘drone’…

PL: (laughs) Well I was caught in two minds about that. But the book is about letting people tell their stories and nobody in the Reaper world uses the term ‘drone’.  But I do agree with you about the need for ongoing discussion and debate about all the issues surrounding their use and long may it continue.

CC: Absolutely. Thanks again.

PL: Great to chat as always.

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