The Grim Reaper

Peter Lee‘s Reaper Force has just been published in the UK – later in North America.  I’ve argued before that it’s a mistake to abstract drones from other forms of aerial violence (and its history) and to treat it as the only modality of later modern war, but there is no doubt that Reaper Force is an important contribution to the critical analysis of  today’s remote warfare.  Peter won a remarkable degree of co-operation from both the Ministry of Defence and the RAF for his interviews with the crew of Britain’s Reapers – largely a result of the security clearance obtained when he was an RAF Chaplain – and the result is a series of rich and compelling stories:

This unique insight into RAF Reaper operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is based on unprecedented research access to the Reaper squadrons and personnel at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, USA. The author has observed lethal missile strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq alongside the crews involved. He has also conducted extensive interviews with Reaper pilots, sensor operators, mission intelligence coordinators, and spouses and partners. The result is an intimate portrait of the human aspect of remote air warfare in the twenty-first century.

Chris Cole trails the book over at Drone Wars UK with a lively interview with Peter – focusing, in part, on the question of civilian casualties – and there’s also an extended review by Joe Chapa (a major in the USAF) over at War on the Rocks:

The force of Lee’s contribution is not primarily in the raising of familiar issues about distance and psychology. Instead, by focusing on individual crewmembers and preserving personal narrative, Reaper Force brings to the fore a set of questions that have not yet been adequately addressed.

For example, no other work of which I am aware properly depicts the Reaper crew in the appropriate set of command relationships within the broader warfighting organizational structure. Many arguments about Reaper crews’ level of involvement in mission-critical decisions tend either to assume that the crew is so autonomous that they can carry out atrocities without accountability or that the command chain hierarchy is so suffocating that they have no choices to make and are in need of no moral courage from which to make them. The reality that comes through Lee’s narrative is more complicated. Often, the Reaper crew — indeed the whole coalition air component — acts as a supporting command, while the ground force remains the supported command. The result is the often-misunderstood close air support relationship. Though the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) on the ground provides clearance for the aircrew to release the weapon, this clearance does not constitute an order. In the end, like two keys in a nuclear silo, the JTAC must provide clearance, and the Reaper pilot must “consent to release.” The result is a symbiotic relationship between air forces and ground forces, in which both the ground force commander and the pilot in command share the burden of responsibility for weapons release.

In practice, this means that “one of the many responsibilities faced by Reaper crews has been deciding when not to fire a missile or not to drop a bomb.” What happens when the JTAC calls for a weapon and all the legal requirements have been met but something feels wrong to members of the Reaper crew? Josh, one of Lee’s interview participants, describes it this way.

“Taking an objective ‘tick-box’ view we had an adult male emerge from a compound, armed, as friendly forces approached. The compound was in an area occupied by Taliban that had been engaging friendly forces, successfully, over the preceding few days. It met the criteria needed for a strike, we had all the approvals and authorization required. But the tiny details weren’t right.”

In this case, in contrast with the vertical hierarchy that is often assumed, the command relationships — and the authority of the Reaper pilot — seemed like an impediment for the ground force. Some RAF pilot half a world away thinks he knows what is best when it is the ground force that takes all the risk. The social and institutional pressures are palatable. “Brothers are going to die because of you,” the JTAC scolded the Reaper pilot over the radio. In this case, the Reaper pilot insisted that the armed man under the crosshairs was a farmer in the wrong place at the wrong time and not an enemy fighter in search of a fight. If this is not moral courage, then I do not know what is. Josh goes on to say, “trying to reassure the ground troops is not so easy, especially when you had just withheld a seemingly valid request for a shot. From the perspective of those on the ground waiting for a Taliban fighter to open fire at them was not a good tactic — but this was not a Taliban fighter.”

Sometimes the roles — those who want to shoot and those who want to withhold the shot — are reversed. In one instance, the Reaper crew watched an enemy sniper team target friendly forces through a “murder hole” in a stone wall. With some consistency, the team would depart a nearby building, fire upon friendlies through the murder hole, then return to the building. According to the restrictive rules of engagement under which the U.K. Reapers were operating, the crew was required to obtain positive identification of the enemy fighters by observing hostile activity prior to obtaining weapons release clearance. But each time the enemy team went back into the building, it invalidated the positive identification. Thus, time and again, the Reaper crew was unable to obtain positive identification and release a weapon before the enemy fighters returned to the building. The Reaper crew practically begged the ground force commander for a clearance to release the weapon, but the ground force commander insisted on submitting to the relevant restrictions. By the time the incident was over, a British soldier had been shot and was medically evacuated by helicopter. “It’s the closest I have been in my professional life,” the pilot said, “to pulling a trigger without a clearance.”

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