They may not put themselves in physical harms way, but RAF Reaper crews are overdue recognition for potential risk to mental well being and professionalism after ten years of high tempo operations, argues an academic after a groundbreaking study of UK drone personnel. TIM ROBINSON reports.

Should UAV pilots receive medals? That was one of the intriguing questions on remote warfare raised by Dr Peter Lee, giving a fascinating insight at a RAF Museum Trenchard lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society on the 19 October. Lee, a  University of Portsmouth Reader in Politics and Ethics and Assistant Director (Academic) at Royal Air Force College Cranwell, has been given unrivalled access to RAF Reaper operators and, to date, has conducted around 80 in-depth interviews with the force and their families. He thus is an expert on the emerging military culture, ethics and ethos in this new world of remote UAV warfare – where precision strikes can be made from a human sat in an air conditioned container in Nevada or Waddington, hundreds or thousands of miles away from the target.

While an asymmetric terrorist attack on Reaper personnel or their families in the UK or US cannot be ruled out, the distance and comparatively physical safety that the crews enjoy on their missions has caused resistance in some quarters to the idea that drone pilots should receive medals. Is this fair? 

Recognition denied?

ISIS Execution Reaper - web.jpg
A RAF Reaper crew fire a Hellfire to disrupt a public ISIS execution in Operation Shader. (MoD)

Whether you agree or disagree, Lee noted that it was ironical in the choice of footage selected by the UK MoD to release to accompany news of the striking of an Operation Shader medal for British forces deployed in the fight against D’eash or ISIS was from “the only people NOT getting recognised”.

He pointed out that the imagery widely used – a sensor video of a public ISIS execution being disrupted when a RAF Reaper fired a Hellfire at the sniper on the roof, was ironically carried out by crews that, under MoD current rules, are not allowed to receive the Operation Shader medal as they are not ‘deployed’. This, he said, leads to an illogical situation where a ‘bottle-washer’ in Cyprus is eligible for a medal, yet a crew carrying out a vital precision strike against ISIS is not.

Lee observed that he thought that this would be somewhat of a bitter joke to Reaper crews that “their great handiwork was being held up as the reason for getting medals – except you’re not getting any”.

Lee points out that despite the growth in UAV operations and their importance over the past decade or so, there has been “suspicion in some quarters” in the RAF over the Reaper force – and whether it is the thin end of the wedge of a ‘unmanned’ future. He observes that although there are now RPAS ‘wings’ for those operators coming into the force without a ‘manned’ aircraft background, these RPAS(P) brevets, first instituted in 2013, are subtly coloured blue – setting them apart from other aircrew.

There are other distinctions too. RPAS(P)s do not get flying pay, which he says sometimes means that the lowest paid person in the Reaper GCS, is the one that may actually have the most responsibility. This pay gap, notes Lee, does not go unremarked on in the military banter typical in squadrons.

Another anomaly is that while Reapers are normally flown with a three-person crew (‘pilot’, sensor operator & Mission Intelligence Co-ordinator MIC) there is no brevet or badge for the MIC – a role that combines supervisor, target authorisation and legal oversight. Lee contrasts this with other aircrew roles in the RAF, that usually deserve a ‘half brevet’ such as navigator, air gunner, loadmaster etc.

This latest oversight, is not a one-off, but part of a wider military trend that still sees RPAS as ‘not proper flying’’. As Lee argues – the the view that UAVs will somehow ‘lessen’ the essence of the RAF, depends - if it it’s the RAF’s role to go flying (as a a kind of glorified flying club), that view may be valid, but if it is to deliver effects using the air or deliver airpower - then the answer is no. Will that change, if a future CAS ever wears RPAS(P) wings?

ISR or strike?

RPAS(P) wings - web.jpg
RPAS(P) wings mark UAV operators apart from 'crewed' platforms. (MoD)

Coupled with the lack of external recognition of the RAF Reaper force, Lee also laid out there is internal confusion as the Squadron’s ethos and culture evolves. The dual role of the Reaper (large amounts of surveillance, followed by precision strikes) means that the perception of ‘What is Reaper for?’ sometimes depends on the operators and their personal background. A Harrier or Jaguar pilot, for example, coming from a fighter/strike background, will have a different view of the UAV’s main mission that say a Nimrod rear-crew member, who may have spent years hunting submarines as ‘needle in haystacks’ and may see Reaper as merely transferring that ISR skill to hunting insurgents. 

This dual role of ISR/Strike also influences where the RAF Reaper forces sit in the wider air force organisation (combat or support?) and thus how commanders and decision-makers perceive it too. Certainly the role of ISR/strike is not that novel (contact patrols in WW1, armed recce in WW2) but the extended persistence and sniper-like precision killing seems to hint that a unique Reaper (and future Protector) culture will emerge – especially when RPAS(P) operators, without prior manned aircraft background, come to dominate.  

Reaper culture is still emerging and the graduation of the first RAF Reaper QWIs in the past fortnight will again feed into the squadrons developing their own UAV ethos.

The question ‘What is Reaper for’ can aslo says Lee, be applied applied to the political level? What is it for for politicians or the Prime Minister? It also says Lee, echos an earlier political and institutional debate from the RAF’s history in the 1920s – ‘Whats the RAF for?‘ and ‘What is bombing for?’ – where the founder of the service, Lord Trenchard faced these questions in a political environment that featured austerity and big defence cuts. Sounds familiar?  

Watching and waiting

Eye in the Sky - film.jpg
The film 'Eye in the Sky' may have been fiction, but it did illustrate the back-end supervision of UAV operators.

Intimacy with the enemy, watching them go about their daily business, then ending their life is not, of course, unique to armed UAV operators. Snipers have been a feared presence on the battlfield since the invention of the rifled gun and that role demands a certain outlook on the target. However, three things amy be considered novel here.

First is that the sniper also risked death himself (or herself in the case of Russian female snipers) in sneaking through the lines to find the enemy officer to stalk and kill. Though, as noted above, asymmetric attacks on Reaper personnel and their families can not be ruled out, the physical risk is of course far, far lower.   

Second, is that on most occasions in the past this has been on a recognised battlefield or conflict. Today, the reality of non-front lines means that Reaper crews may observe and become familiar with the targets wife, children and close family in a domestic setting days or even weeks before a clear shot is taken.

Finally, there is an underappreciated feature of drone operations – the fact that as much as you are watching someone else, others can be watching you at work via your HD video feed. “One of the things unique to the RAF Reaper force, is the extent of scrutiny” says Lee. This has psychological impacts. Much as the power of observation (or hidden cameras) changes behaviour (tips in restaurants go up, lost money is retrieved) so too are RAF Reaper crews actions changed by either being watched or the thought that they are under observation.

The downside or this, of course, is that this can encourage senior officers or decision-makers to attempt to use a ‘long screwdriver’ to micro-manage operations.

Lee argues that advent of Reaper and RPAS ops represents for air power “the biggest  paradigm shift since the 20s” adding that “I don’t think anything that happened since has asked so many questions, (apart from maybe nuclear one) as Reaper does today”.              

‘Empathy’ as a UAV operator core value?

13 Sqn GCS (MoD) -web.jpg
Does watching your enemies over a long period heighten the emotional impact of having to kill them? (MoD)

Yet, paradoxically, it may be the intimacy of long-term surveillance of enemies and a drive for zero-civilian casualties that perhaps are the biggest drivers of a distinct ‘Reaper’ crew culture with the RAF. Lee notes that an incident in 2011 in which four civilians were accidentally killed by a UK Reaper in Afghanistan still burns keenly in the RAF Reaper force. This he says had a “profound effect” to the Reaper force and is “THE thing that drives the care, the obsession with Zero CIVCAS (civilian casualties”. In war, you can never guarantee this he says, but this has “shaped the culture” of RAF Reaper squadrons.

Recent press reports of zero civilian casualties caused by the RAF dropping 3,400 bombs in Iraq and Syria since the start of anti-ISIS ops in 2014 have provoked scepticism in some quarters that this sort of air campaign is impossible. However listening to Lee, his research and the overall low rate of kinetic strikes (3,400 guided weapons over three years compared to 6,000+ munitions dropped in just over a month in Desert Storm in 1991) then there may be no few reasons to doubt this (easily disproved if false) boast from MoD. Lee notes that the UK has different RoE (rules of engagement) to both the USAF (white) and CIA (black) armed drones but that the public (and anti-drone activists) “Doesn’t care too much about the minutiae of rules of engagement”.   

Lee admits that, as a civilian, he is not privy to the fine details of RAF Reaper RoEs, but that he has witnessed the “ethos, practice and obsession of the RAFR Reaper force over the past few years and that is the pursuit of zero CIVCAS”. He suggests that that a friendly force pinned downed under heavy fire from a compound where there may be noncombatants present, the priority and assessment of risk may be different depending on whether a RAF or USAF Reaper is on station – thanks to different RoEs – and different perceptions of political risks.      

Oddly, this overwhelming drive to protect the innocent (while ruthlessly eliminating valid targets) might even be bringing out the humanity of these pioneers of remote warfare. During his lecture, Lee described free word associations he carried out with the RAF Reaper force in getting them to describe the ethos and values of the force. Among the many replies, which might apply to any RAF ‘manned’ aircraft squadron: ‘professionalism, excellence, moral courage etc’ a couple of responses stood out – ‘Empathy’ and ‘family’.  Do these words hint that the remote warriors of tomorrow somehow may be more sensitive or empthatic than traditional military pilots? Is technology somehow increasing their humanity, rather than dehumanising them – or does this just reflect a shift in wider society?     

Certainly, Lee stresses that crews should be direct about what they have to do – kill people. He argues  that using euphemisms for killing, not only dehumanises the enemy, but also dehumanises the operator. Far better, morally, he argues, that any mental anguish afterwards is ‘owned’ and accepted as the ‘price to pay’ for keeping one’s essential humanity. Recognising that the Reaper force is tasked to kill people is also another strong argument for the Government ‘owning’ the decision to use lethal force and to recognise the people it asks to carry this job out, whether they are inside a  jet cockpit at 30,000ft, or sat in a cabin at 0ft.   


Protector UAV -web.jpg
With the RAF armed drone force to double with Protector, how will this influence squadron culture? (GA-ASI)

In short , Dr Lee’s ground-breaking research into the RAF Reaper force, to be published in an upcoming book shows that the crews are neither Mr Spock-like emotionless robots, nor hyper-caffeinated video game teenagers aiming to rack up a high score in kills. They, like others in the RAF, are humans with families, friends and an extremely difficult job which they carry out with skill, precision and professionalism.

And, paradoxically listening to Lee’s lecture, it may well be that this new era of remote warfare is actually subtly causing operators to reassert and define their humanity in new ways. They are watching, but their actions are also being watched, assessed and monitored themselves live and this may also be changing their behaviour.  

If HD video transmitted over thousands of miles brings you closer to your enemy, is it any wonder, perhaps, that you may view your targets differently, than perhaps a fast jet pilot who may just be dropping a JDAM on a grid reference, before departing to the tanker?

Long-term, no one knows what the mental cost on these ongoing, high-intensity operations will be to Reaper crews. Lee argues that rotation into other jobs may be useful for crews as a break from the operational tempo, which follows a different pattern to crewed aircraft of work-up, deployment and then return to the UK.

However, while he notes the pressures, he dismisses the view that UAV operators are all burned-out wrecks. Some, he noted, have adapted perfectly and have been able to operate continuously, for five-six years, with seemingly no ill-effects. How do these individuals cope?  

Lee makes a powerful argument that RAF Reaper crews should get some sort of medal - not only for their operational effectiveness but also for the potential risk to their psychological well-being of watching and carrying out killings in HD video. Any mental trauma will not be as great as experiencing, bloodshed up close and personal through all the senses, but the intimacy caused by persistent surveillance of targets and enemies could well have longer-term effects.

Additionally, the initial official MoD Whitehall response to RAF Reaper operations, to cover them in cloak of secrecy and push it under the carpet has now caused more problems than it solved – emboldening critics and undermining public support. A medal to the RAF Reaper force would therefore be a recognition that Government recognises and ‘owns’ this decision to kill strangers at a distance.

For what the country asks them to do to safeguard others, they should at least be recogised in some way.

Tim Robinson
3 November 2017