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.”

‘Sweet target, sweet child’

My keynote (‘Sweet target, sweet child: Aerial violence and the imaginaries of remote warfare’) at the conference on Drone Imaginaries and Society at the University of Southern Denmark in June is now available online here.

In February 2010 a US air strike on three vehicles in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan in support of US and allied ground forces caused multiple civilian casualties. The attack was the direct result of surveillancecarried out by a Predator drone, and a US Army investigation into the incident criticised the flightcrew for persistently misinterpreting the full-motion video feeds from the remotely operated aircraft.This has become the signature strike for critics of remote warfare, yet they have all relied solely on a transcript of communications between US Special Forces in the vicinity, the drone crew at Creech AirForce Base in Nevada, and the helicopter pilots who executed the strike. But an examination of the interviews carried out by the investigation team reveals a more complicated – and in some respects even more disturbing – picture. This presentation uses those transcripts to brings other actors into the frame, pursues the narrative beyond the strike itself, and raises a series of questions about civilian casualties. During the post-strike examination of the site the casualties were rendered as (still) suspicious bodies and, as they were evacuated to military hospitals, as inventories of injuries. Drawing on Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary film ”National Bird” I also track the dead as they are returned to their villages and the survivors as they struggle with rehabilitation: both provide vivid illustrations of the embodied nature of nominally remote warfare and of the violent bioconvergence that lies on the otherside of the screen.

Death machines

New from Elke Schwarz, Death machines: the ethics of violent technologies (Manchester UP):

As innovations in military technologies race toward ever-greater levels of automation and autonomy, debates over the ethics of violent technologies tread water. Death Machines reframes these debates, arguing that the way we conceive of the ethics of contemporary warfare is itself imbued with a set of bio-technological rationalities that work as limits. The task for critical thought must therefore be to unpack, engage, and challenge these limits. Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, the book offers a close reading of the technology-biopolitics-complex that informs and produces contemporary subjectivities, highlighting the perilous implications this has for how we think about the ethics of political violence, both now and in the future.

Contents:

Introduction: The conditioned human
1. Biopolitics and the technological subject
2. Biopolitical technologies in Arendt and Foucault
3. Anti-political (post)modernity
4. Procedural violence
5. Ethics as technics
6. All hail our robot overlords
7. Prescription drones
Conclusion: For an ethics beyond technics

Drones and Shadow Wars

I ended my lecture at the Drone Imaginaries conference in Odense this week by arguing that the image of the drone’s all-seeing ‘eye in the sky’ had eclipsed multiple other modalities of later modern war:

Simply put, drones are about more than targeted killing (that’s important, of course, but remember that in Afghanistan and elsewhere ‘night raids’ by US Special Forces on the ground have been immensely important in executing supposedly ‘kill or capture’ missions); and at crucial moments in the war in Afghanistan 90 per cent of air strikes have been carried out by conventional aircraft (though intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from remote platforms often mediated those strikes).

To sharpen the point I showed this image from a drone over Afghanistan on 15 April 2017:

This showed the detonation of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB or ‘Mother Of All Bombs’):

This is a far cry from the individuation of later modern war, the US Air Force’s boast that it could put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and that often repeated line from Grégoire Chamayou about ‘the body becoming the battlefield’.

And, as I’ve been trying to show in my series of posts on siege warfare in Syria, there are still other, shockingly violent and intrinsically collective modalities of later modern war.  Drones have been used there too, but in the case of the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces targeting has more often than not avoided precision weapons in favour of saturation bombing and artillery strikes (see here).

All this means that I was pleased to receive a note from the brilliant Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the widening of its work on drones (which will continue, to be sure):

Under President Donald Trump the US counterterrorism campaign is shifting into another phase, and the Bureau is today launching a new project to investigate it – Shadow Wars.  The new phase is in some ways a continuation and evolution of trends seen under Obama. The same reluctance to deploy American troops applies, as does the impetus to respond militarily to radical groups around the world. But as extremist groups spread and metastasise, the US’s military engagements are becoming ever more widespread, and complicated. Peter Singer, a senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, who is a leading expert on security, says: “Shadow wars have been going on for a long time, but what’s clearly happened is that they’ve been accelerated, and the mechanisms for oversight and public notification have been peeled back. The trend lines were there before, but the Trump team are just putting them on steroids.”

A new US drone base has been built in Niger, but its ultimate purpose is unclear. In Afghanistan, the US is trying to prevail over the Taliban, without committing to a substantial increase in troop numbers, by waging an increasingly secretive air war. In Yemen, the US is leaning on the United Arab Emirates as its on the ground counterterrorism partner, a country with a troubled human rights record. Meanwhile, proxy confrontations with Iran are threading themselves into the mix.

Our Shadow Wars project will widen the focus of the Bureau’s drone warfare work. Over the next year, we will bring new and important aspects of US military strategy to light, of which drones are just one troubling aspect.

We aim to explore issues such as America’s increasing reliance on regional allies, the globalisation of the private military industry, the blurring of lines between combat and support missions and the way corruption fuels a state of permanent conflict. As with our work on drones, our primary concern in this new project is to publicise the effects these evolving practices of war have on the civilians on the ground.

Drone Wars: The next generation

A new report from Drone Wars UK, Drone Wars: the next generation:

A new report published by Drone Wars UK reveals that over the last five years the number of countries actively using armed drones has quadrupled. Drone Wars: The Next Generation demonstrates that from just three states (US, UK and Israel) in 2013, there are now a further nine who have deployed armed drones in a variety of roles including for armed conflict and counter-terror operations. The report also shows that a further nine states are very close to having armed drone capabilities, almost doubling the number of existing users. To this number, we have added five non-state actors who have used armed drones, which will take the number of active operators of armed drones to over 25 in the next few years.

You can download the pdf here.

Predator flies into the sunset

The US Air Force officially retired the MQ-1B Predator on Friday (9 March) at an official ceremony at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada

Air Force Magazine reports:

Creech has flown the Predator since 1995 when it began its operational life. At the time, the base was called Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field. That same year, the Predator deployed to Albania and the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron stood up in Indian Springs. The squadron, later joined by the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, flew the Predator’s early missions, providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for Operation Allied Force over the Balkans.
The Predator became an armed, constant eye in the sky in 2001 as Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off in Afghanistan. It has flown constant m​​issions in the Middle East ever since, undergoing a series of modifications and upgrades to keep it combat relevant. 

 

The USAF received its last Predator in 2011; by the end of this year its transition to the MQ-9 Reaper fleet will be complete: ‘With the Predator retired, the Air Force plans to field 346 MQ-9 Reapers, which have better sensors, more fuel efficient engines, a higher ceiling, and larger armaments. Predators finished their combat mission in the Middle East last year as expeditionary squadrons transitioned to the MQ-9s.’

The Reaper was introduced in 2006 as the planned successor to the Predator – which never had much imperial reach – and it has been serially upgraded.  Tyler Rogoway adds:

The MQ-9 is getting a series of upgrades that will add new elements to its already diverse capabilities list. Presently the Reaper is used for surveillance or strike missions, and the USAF is trying to blend these two mission sets more smoothly together. The latest variant of the MQ-9 can fly upwards of 40 hours when not carrying weapons.

The Reaper’s hardpoints give it the ability to carry a mix of AGM-114 Hellfire, GBU-12 Paveway, and now GBU-38 JDAM munitions. In contrast, its forbearer, the Predator, can only carry two Hellfires. Typically a Reaper’s external payload totals no more than about 2,500lbs on a strike mission, but that enables the Reaper to carry four Hellfire missiles and a pair of harder-hitting 500lb Paveways or JDAMs. In the future, guided micro-munitions will give Reapers a deeper and more flexible magazine.

A variety of surveillance, fuel, communications relay, and electronic warfare pods, including Wide Area Aerial Surveillance (WAAS) camera arrays can and are carried on the Reaper’s pylons. These systems are supplemental to the drone’s nose-mounted MTS-B multi-spectral surveillance and targeting turret and its fuselage mounted Lynx synthetic aperture radar.

The USAF is eyeing putting more powerful radar systems onboard some Reapers in an attempt to help build-out a ‘system of systems’ of ground moving targeting identification (GMTI) sensor nodes that can be distributed around the battlefield.

The MQ-9 will also have the capacity to launch air-to-air missiles to provide a (limited) ability to protect the platform in contested airspace.

More on the ‘sunsetting’ of the Predator from Major Joe Chapa at War on the Rocks here.  The US Army will continue to operate its version of the Predator, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle.

Google eyes

The Oxford English Dictionary recognised ‘google’ as a verb in 2006, and its active form is about to gain another dimension.  One of the most persistent anxieties amongst those executing remote warfare, with its extraordinary dependence on (and capacity for) real-time full motion video surveillance as an integral moment of the targeting cycle, has been the ever-present risk of ‘swimming in sensors and drowning in data‘.

But now Kate Conger and Dell Cameron report for Gizmodo on a new collaboration between Google and the Pentagon as part of Project Maven:

Project Maven, a fast-moving Pentagon project also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (AWCFT), was established in April 2017. Maven’s stated mission is to “accelerate DoD’s integration of big data and machine learning.” In total, the Defense Department spent $7.4 billion on artificial intelligence-related areas in 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The project’s first assignment was to help the Pentagon efficiently process the deluge of video footage collected daily by its aerial drones—an amount of footage so vast that human analysts can’t keep up, according to Greg Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who co-authored a lengthy July 2017 report on the military’s use of artificial intelligence. Although the Defense Department has poured resources into the development of advanced sensor technology to gather information during drone flights, it has lagged in creating analysis tools to comb through the data.

“Before Maven, nobody in the department had a clue how to properly buy, field, and implement AI,” Allen wrote.

Maven was tasked with using machine learning to identify vehicles and other objects in drone footage, taking that burden off analysts. Maven’s initial goal was to provide the military with advanced computer vision, enabling the automated detection and identification of objects in as many as 38 categories captured by a drone’s full-motion camera, according to the Pentagon. Maven provides the department with the ability to track individuals as they come and go from different locations.

Google has reportedly attempted to allay fears about its involvement:

A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement that it is providing the Defense Department with TensorFlow APIs, which are used in machine learning applications, to help military analysts detect objects in images. Acknowledging the controversial nature of using machine learning for military purposes, the spokesperson said the company is currently working “to develop polices and safeguards” around its use.

“We have long worked with government agencies to provide technology solutions. This specific project is a pilot with the Department of Defense, to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data,” the spokesperson said. “The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only. Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”

 

As Mehreen Kasana notes, Google has indeed ‘long worked with government agencies’:

2017 report in Quartz shed light on the origins of Google and how a significant amount of funding for the company came from the CIA and NSA for mass surveillance purposes. Time and again, Google’s funding raises questions. In 2013, a Guardian report highlighted Google’s acquisition of the robotics company Boston Dynamics, and noted that most of the projects were funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).