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.

The final arbiter

There have been many interviews with ‘drone operators’ but most of them seem to have been with sensor operators serving with the US Air Force.  Some of the most cited have been ‘whistleblowers’ like Brandon Bryant while some reporters have described conversations with service members allowed to speak on the record during carefully conducted tours of airbases.  Some have even been captured on film – think of the interviews that frame so much of Sonia Kennebeck‘s  National Bird (though I think the interviews with the survivors of the Uruzgan drone strike are considerably more effective) – while others have been dramatised, notably in Omar Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is The Best.

But over at Drone Wars UK Chris Cole has just released something different: a detailed transcript of an extended interview with “Justin Thompson“, a former British (Royal Air Force) pilot who flew Reapers over Afghanistan for three years from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.  He also spent several months forward-deployed to Afghanistan as a member of the Launch and Recovery element: remember that missions are controlled from the continental United States – or now from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire – but the Reapers have an operational range of 1, 850 km so they have to be launched in or near the theatre of operations.

He served as a pilot of conventional strike aircraft before switching to remote operations early in the program’s development – the RAF started flying Reapers over Afghanistan for ISR in October 2007; armed missions began the following May – which gives Justin considerable insight into the differences between the platforms:

“The real difference with UAVS is persistence. That’s the big advantage as it allows you to build up a very detailed picture of what is going on in a particular area. So if you are in a particular area and a need for kinetic action arises, generally speaking you have already got knowledge of the kind of things you would need to know to assist that to happen. That’s versus a fast jet that might be called in having been there only five minutes, with limited fuel and with limited information – what it can get from the guys on the ground – Boom, bang and he’s off to get some fuel. That’s a bit flippant. It’s not quite like that, but you see what I mean.

“The big difference is the amount of detail we are able to amass about a particular area, not just on one mission, but over time. If you are providing support in a particular area, you develop a great deal of detailed information, to the point where you can recall certain things from memory because you were looking at this last week and spent two weeks previously looking at it and you know generally what goes on in this particular area. The other thing this persistence gives you is a good sense if something has changed or if something is unusual. You go ‘Hang on, that wasn’t there last week, someone’s moved it. Let’s have a look to see what is going on here.’”

Later, having discussed the Reaper’s entanglement of ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) with lethal strike (‘kinetic’) capabilities, he returns to the theme:

“If you are talking about kinetic action, I think essentially they [conventional aircraft and drones] are no different. It’s a platform in the air that has a sensor on board you are using to look at the ground. The picture you seen in a [Ground Control Station] is essentially the same as you would see in a fast jet. The sort of weapons you are delivering are exactly the same sort as you would be delivering from a fast jet. Essentially all of the principles are the same…

“A lot of things are significantly better in that you get much more extensive and much more detailed information on the area you are looking at and on any specific targets. That’s not because of any particular capability, it’s just because you can spend a hell of a lot more time looking at it.

“A fast jet pilot would, say, do a four month tour in some place. He’s got four months’ worth of knowledge and then he’ll be gone. He might come back in a year or two, but we are there for three years. Constantly, every day, building up massive amounts of knowledge and a detailed picture of what goes on. We come armed with so much information, and so much information is available to you, not just from your own knowledge, but from sources you can reach out to. You’ve got the text. You’ve got phones. You have got other people you can call on and drag into the GCS. You can get other people to look at the video feed. You can get many opinions and views….”

At times, he concedes, that can become an issue (sometimes called ‘helmet-fire’: too many voices in your head):

“If you want it, there can be a lot of other ‘eyes on’ and advice given to you. If you want something explained to you, if you want a second opinion on something, if you want something checked you can say “Guys, are you seeing this?” Or “What do you think that is?” And that is really useful. You can also reach out for command advice, for legal advice. The number of people who can get a long screwdriver into your GCS is incredible and it does happen that occasionally you have to say ‘Please can you get your long screwdriver out of my GCS’. But generally speaking, it’s well managed and people don’t interfere unless they think there is a reason to.”

He makes it clear that as an RAF pilot his was the final decision about whether to strike – he was ‘the final arbiter’ –  and discusses different situations where he over-ruled those other voices.

RAF Reaper strike in Afghanistan, 2010

Justin also talks about the ways his previous flying experience modulated his command of the Reaper (and here I think there are interesting parallels with Timothy Cullen‘s experience as an F-16 pilot and his important study of USAF Reaper crews: see also here):

“… [T]here is an idea that because you are not directly manipulating the control surfaces of an aircraft by being sat in it, that somehow lowers the skill level required in order to successfully operate one of these things. It may change some specifics in motor skills, but then so does an Airbus. Conceptually, you are wiggling a stick, pushing a peddle, turning a wheel. That gets converted into little ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’, sent down a wire to a computer that decides where to put the flying control surfaces and throttles the engines of the aircraft. It’s very similar, at least technically, in a modern airliner as in a Reaper. The level of skill required is similar. Piloting has only ever been 10% hand-flying skills, 90% is judgement and airmanship…

“For me, what I was seeing on the screen was very real. In addition to that for me it was more than just two-dimensional. My mind very easily perceived a three-dimensional scene that extended out of the side of the image. Whether that was because I was used to sitting in a cockpit and seeing that sort of picture I don’t know. Someone whose only background is flight simulators or playing computer games may have a different view. I relate it to sitting in an aircraft and flying it, others may relate it slightly differently…”

There’s much more in those packed 17 pages.  You can find Chris’s own commentary on the interview here, though his questions during the interview are, as  his regular readers would expect, also wonderfully perceptive and well-informed.

One cautionary note.  The time-frame is extremely important in commenting on remote operations, even if we limit ourselves to the technology involved.  The early Ground Control Stations were markedly different from those in use today, for example, while the quality of the video streams, their compression and resolution is also highly variable.  And there is, of course, much more than technology involved.

Britain’s Reapers

UK Remote Control

As Craig Jones has discussed in detail, it’s been much easier to get information about the ways in which the United States has incorporated drones into its military and paramilitary operations than to prise open the door of UK operations (see also Chris Cole on ‘five basic facts we are simply not allowed to know here).

But the House of Commons Defence Committee has just published a two-volume report, Remote Control: remotely piloted air systems – current and future UK use.

Volume 1, the report and formal minutes (58 pp), can be downloaded as a pdf here, and Volume II, written evidence (130 pp), is available here.  The second volume includes submissions from the Ministry of Defence, Northrop Grumman, and General Atomics together with critical submissions from Drone Wars UK, Reprieve, the Network for Social Change’s Remote Control project, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Over at the Bureau, Alice Ross has a first response and summary here, while Chris Cole has a trenchant critique at Drone Wars UK here.

I’m still working my way through all this, but here are some key passages.

First, on the ‘double proximity’ of drone operations – as I’ve said before, even though these platforms can be controlled from thousands of miles away they are not weapons of global reach:

‘The MoD told us that in order to utilise unmanned air systems in the most efficient manner, they should be based as close as possible to the target area of interest to allow for the longest loiter time possible. In a “non-permissive” or hostile environment this would be “extremely difficult”.’

The other side of this is the invocation of a new (though, as I’ve also emphasised, thoroughly conditional and technologically mediated) quasi-intimacy:

‘It was very clear from the visit to XIII Squadron and discussions with Reaper aircrew that all were experienced professional personnel with a clear purpose and keen understanding of the Rules of Engagement which govern their operations. Despite being remote from the battle space they exhibited a strong sense of connection to the life and death decisions they are sometimes required to take. This was in stark contrast to the image portrayed by some commentators of “drone” pilots as video gaming “warrior geeks”.’

RAF Reaper

Again, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that ‘sense of connection’ is much more highly developed in relation to troops on the ground than to others who are in (or beyond) the field of view, and who are inevitably shut out from audio or online communications, which in part accounts for the risk to non-combatants whenever troops are ‘in contact’ with the Taliban and other fighters.

Second, the report seeks to draw a line between the US program of targeted killing and UK military operations in Afghanistan:

‘We acknowledge that over the last few years there has been a growing concern in relation to the sharing of intelligence with allies and the uses to which such data may contribute. While the issues raised by Reprieve stray beyond the terms of reference for our inquiry and indeed the remit of the Defence Committee, we do believe that there should be greater transparency in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK Government has in place for the sharing of intelligence…

‘We consider that it is of vital importance that a clear distinction be drawn between the actions of UK Armed Forces operating remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan and those of other States elsewhere… In Afghanistan UAS provide intelligence in support of our ground commanders, enabling them to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Whether for targeting the Taliban or supporting troops on patrol, their ability to loiter over and survey areas for enemy activity and then feed back images and video in real time means they are an invaluable asset to our forces on the ground. Together, the UK’s fleet of UAS have carried out over 160,000 hours of ISR operations.

‘The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper operated by the RAF is the UK’s only armed remotely piloted air system. The RAF fleet rose to ten in early 2014 as an additional five aircraft were accepted into service. RAF Reapers provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) for ISAF forces in Afghanistan, mostly in support of UK forces in Helmand province…. Since May 2008, UK Reaper aircraft have been armed with precision-guided weapons—Hellfire laser guided air-to-ground missiles and GBU-12 Paveway 500lb laser guided bombs… By 31 August 2013, UK operated Reaper aircraft had flown over 50,000 hours on operations in the ISR role with 418 weapons fired in the same period.’

RAF Reaper and weapons

Here are the raw figures released to Drone Wars UK last month, following a FoI Request to the Ministry of Defence:

Weapons released by UK Reapers in Afghanistan 2008-2013 (Drone Wars UK)

Chris Cole is not convinced by the Committee’s (and, by extension, the Ministry’s) attempt to draw the line:

‘The report also argues that it is “of vital importance” that a clear distinction be draw between the use of drones by UK armed forces and what it discreetly calls “those of other States elsewhere.” It urges the MoD to continue its PR campaign – what the committee calls a “public awareness programme” – in order to “aid public understanding and acceptance.” PR it seems trumps transparency.’

Third, and closely connected to Chris’s misgivings, the report restates without examination the legal armature for UK military operations:

‘…the MoD told us that UK remotely piloted aircraft operate within the constraints of UK rules of engagement (ROE) and policy, even where operational control is assigned to a Coalition Commander, such as the Commander of ISAF. The MoD also stated that UK policy relating to targeting by remotely piloted aircraft is exactly the same as that for manned aircraft (and land and maritime weapons where applicable):

‘It is entirely compliant with International Humanitarian Law. Targets are always positively identified as legitimate military objectives and both pattern of life assessment and collateral damage estimate conducted. Strikes are carried out in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict.

‘Personnel were keen for the public to know more and understand better what it is they do and to dispel some myths that have grown up about Reaper operations in particular. One pilot commented that the public needed to know that remotely piloted aircraft are “not robots, they’re not autonomous and we spend an awful lot of time training to fly them”. This training emphasised all aspects of the RAF rules of engagement such as whether a strike is necessary, whether any civilians are nearby, and what instructions have been received from the ground commander. Reaper aircrew were firmly of the view that the loiter time of remotely piloted aircraft allowed more informed decisions to be made and consequently the risk of civilian casualties was reduced should a missile strike be required….

Fourth, on civilian casualties and transparency:

‘The MoD told us that it was aware of only one incident involving an armed UK remotely piloted air system Reaper, which had resulted in the deaths of civilians:

‘On 25 March 2011 [three years ago to the day!] an attack on two pick-up trucks resulted in the destruction of a significant quantity of explosives and the death of two insurgents. Sadly, four Afghanistan civilians were also killed. In line with current ISAF procedures, an ISAF investigation was conducted to establish if any lessons could be learned or if any errors in operational procedures could be identified. In that case, the report concluded that the actions of the Reaper crew had been in accordance with extant procedures and rules of engagement.

…We note the conclusion of the UN Special Rapporteur [Ben Emmerson] that in any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been, killed, there is an obligation on the State responsible to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation. We recognise that this is not a simple and straightforward request as to do so could seriously jeopardise continuing operations. Nonetheless, we recommend that, to the extent that it is operationally secure to do so, following an event which has resulted in confirmed civilian casualties the MoD should seek to publish details about the incident and any lessons learned from the review process…’

For a good discussion of the UK’s definition of ‘civilian’ in such cases, see Dapo Akande at the European Journal of International Law here.

To be continued.