18 Dec 2013

Inside the ‘cockpit’ of a drone: the asymmetry of modern war

They call it asymmetry. The military term for a mismatch between your power and someone else’s.

The asymmetry is all too clear in footage taken from an RAF Reaper drone, released today.

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A Taliban fighter is in the cross hairs. He fires his rifle, the drone fires a Hellfire missile. But at the last moment he legs it into a civilian compound and the operator moves the cross hairs onto open ground, where the missile explodes, without injury.

The Royal Air Force released this footage as part of a publicity drive to change our perception of drones.

In the first place, they don’t want them to be called drones at all – preferring “remotely piloted air systems” (RPAS). On top of that, they stress that all British drones except the Reaper are reconnaissance devices, and that 99 per cent of the Reaper’s missions are surveillance, not strike.

To emphasise the point they opened up a hangar full of drones at RAF Waddington, in Lincolnshire – ranging from the Black Hornet, an Airfix style 16cm long infantry drone, to the Watchkeeper with its 10m wingspan.

But in the corner of the room, behind two barbed wire fences, sat the two containers from which the RAF’s Reapers are flown in combat.

In each steel box, two men sit side by side at a distinctly analog set of controls (there are lights and knobs, not touch screens). Behind them sits an intelligence analyst. On the end of a comms line, 24×7 sits a legal adviser, to whom they have constant access.

Neil Pappini, who would be flying the drones for real over Afghanistan a few hours after our visit was over, told me: “Being here in this stable, ground-based cockpit means we are much more networked. We have far more information we can receive, analyse, and then give to the commanders on the ground in Afghanistan and the troops.”

He added: “There is absolutely no difference in legality, in the rules of engagement, in the operations we do and those of traditional, fixed-wing aircraft.”

It was a weird feeling, standing there in my suit and tie at the edge of the virtual battle space. Because the asymmetry of power is massively dramatized in those steel boxes.

The pilots – mostly men with decades of experience in fixed-wing combat aircraft – have the power of life and death over adversaries they will never see. And that creates numerous concerns.

One is the potential negative psychological effects on the pilots themselves.
The men I spoke too said this fear was overstated, and that the RAF is monitoring things closely.

A bigger concern is the potential of remote digital warfare to kill civilians.

A Columbia University study claimed the total number of civilians killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan in 2011 to be between 77 and 155.

The UK admits to only one Reaper strike where civilians were killed, on 25 March 2011 in Afghanistan, where two trucks carrying insurgent explosives were attacked, killing two insurgents and four civilians.

An Isaf investigation found no rules or procedures were breached in that case. I asked Damian Killeen, who commands XIII Squadron, which flies the Reapers from RAF Waddington, what can be done to ensure the laws of warfare are being followed.

Wing Commander Killeen said: “It’s warfare, and in warfare you are never going to get the perfect scenario, but what I will say is that the network connectivity of this platform, the professionalism of the crews that operate them, and the persistence that we have over the are, allows us to have that better understanding, which actually minimises the risks.”

For me, the problem is not the asymmetry of force but the asymmetry of perception on the battlefield. British drone fliers constantly stress their rules of engagement are the same as those for manned aircraft strikes.

But watch the footage released by WikiLeaks, of a US Apache helicopter strike on a group of Iraqi fighters and Reuters journalists in Baghdad in 2007.

Not only are journalists misidentified as fighters, but when a van arrives to take the wounded to hospital, it too is fired on under US rules of engagement.

It raises a question for both manned and unmanned aircraft: can a combination of distance, stand-off ammunition and the inability of bystanders to comprehend what is happening lead to breaches of the laws of war?

Privately, senior UK military personnel believe what’s shown in the WikiLeaks video is “outrageous”. They know that this, plus the use of drones by the USA in non-war zones like Yemen and Pakistan – and their use by the CIA, which is not a military organisation – is creating a major negative perception of the technology.

The MoD refused to discuss how its own rules of engagement and targeting directives have developed in response to the risk of civilian casualties from drone strikes.

The impression given at RAF Waddington – and it is consistent will all other contact I’ve had with the UK military – is that they are incredibly sensitive to legal and procedural guidelines. They insist – contrary to rumour – that British drones are deployed in Afghanistan only.

What’s certain is that drones are here to stay – in combat and in civil aviation. Even fairly primitive technology is being used to massively enhance the reconnaissance capabilities of UK troops. Its controllers admit, disarmingly, that some British infantry “refuse to go out without it”.pauldrone_w

The military want society to accept drones; to accept the asymmetry of power they hand to digitally equipped forces as positive. That’s why they’re emphasizing the low percentage of drone missions involving strikes, compared to surveillance.

But for many people there is an intangible line crossed when an unmanned vehicle can kill targets it who will never know what hit them, in a country its controllers may never visit.

Whatever the similarities between drones and manned aircraft, the fact remains, you cannot surrender to a drone; nor does it carry medics obliged by law to treat you; nor does it allow its controllers to act on empathy with close-by human beings, or hunches.

And what it does best of all is produce an indelible visual record of the battle.

And as the US army found out in the Baghdad fiasco, it can have a reputationally devastating afterlife.

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