To many, modern warfare, and particularly drone warfare, can seem like a video game. Successive waves of war movies and video games have managed to replicate the images of the modern battlefield. Images, however, are just that: visual interpretations of events. They don’t show the impact, physical or mental, that the participants experience. Dr Peter Lee, a British academic and former Royal Air Force (RAF) chaplain, is trying to explain the feeling behind the images of drone warfare.
As a chaplain, Dr Lee had extensive access to the RAF’s Reaper crews and their U.S. partners both in Britain and the U.S. (he specifically spent a lot of time at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and RAF Waddington base in Lincolnshire). Having completed his service with the RAF, Dr Lee published a book describing his experiences with the Reaper Force.
The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) established the Reaper Force in 2007. Since then, it has kept information about its activities as a closely guarded secret. Decades of warfare, however, have produced many occasions that wouldn’t jeopardise operations security (OPSEC). A few months ago, for instance, the MoD released video footage of a drone strike in Syria. The target was an Islamic State (ISIS) mob preparing to execute two prisoners. Moments before the Jihadists could carry out their odious actions, a Hellfire missile fired from an RAF drone killed the would-be executioners and allowed the two men to escape shaken but unscathed.
Moreover, there is an increasing wave of veterans who wish to share their experiences and stories. And Dr Lee, who was present on numerous missions, describes that pilots would spend countless hours watching a group of individuals or a single person. Although the physical distance was in the thousands of miles, pilots would feel the exact opposite.
“Some people might think that because of the great physical distance there’s also a great emotional distance,” he says, “and that’s the paradox of reaper, it’s actually the exact opposite. The distance is huge but the visual distance — the emotional, psychological distance — brings them back into the range roughly of a World War pilot, above the trenches, looking at other pilots at a 100 yards distance.”
Pilots would come to know everything about their targets: Where the person lived; What he ate; What his hobbies were; How he spent his time with his family. Then the moment would come when the pilots were faced with a life or death decision. Dr Lee cites a particular occasion that has remained ingrained in his memory:
“I was sitting next to the pilot and central operator, I had my notebook and I was listening to all the discussion. I was watching the screen, there were two ISIS fighters, Jihadists, on a motorbike and I could hear that a strike was being built up. As the situation developed, one got off the bike and then I watched as the pilot got his Nine-line authorisation [the required procedure before an airstrike can happen] … got his legal approval. I realise as he said ‘rifle’ and the missile is in the air, I knew that this person on the screen had roughly 30 seconds to live.”
The MQ-9 Reaper is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) used by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, among others, in a variety of roles. The British military has flown more than 400 Reaper missions against ISIS alone.
Dr Lee teaches at the University of Portsmouth and specializes in war ethics, international law, air power and environmental ethics, among others.
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