Inside Britain’s Reaper Force: Human Stories and Ethical Dilemmas


Peter Lee, Reaper Force: Inside Britain’s Drone Wars (John Blake, 2018)

We know how to operate with [the Royal Air Force] … and they pretty much speak English too, so that helps.
Maj. Gen. Jim Poss, U.S. Air Force (ret)

As the first wave of intense interest and voluminous publishing on the ethics of remote weapons abates, an equally fervent discussion of future autonomous weapons has taken its place. The two bodies of literature are linked, for better or worse. Just as many of the books written on remote weapons end with a caution about artificially intelligent (AI) weapons, many of the books on the ethics of these weapons build on the foundation left by the remote weapons literature.

But is this wise?

Do the Predator or Reaper remotely piloted aircraft belong in the same ontological category as the AI weapon? Is it right to conceptualize the Predator and Reaper as progenitors of the (supposed) robotic and autonomous militaries of the future? To what degree is the physical displacement of the human in the Reaper case similar to the removal of human inputs altogether in the autonomous weapons case? The answers to these questions hinge on the degree to which humans are involved and invested participants in Predator and Reaper operations. They turn on the relationship between humanity and the Reaper.

Peter Lee’s singular accomplishment in Reaper Force is to show how involved humans are. Reaper Force is neither ethics nor advocacy. It is neither anthropology nor history. It is narrative. It is precisely the kind of narrative that ought to inform at least some of the ethical discussions of remote weapons. And it is the kind of narrative the ethics literature has had to do without during a decade of intensive study, debate, and publication. Lee, often directly through the Reaper crews’ own words, shines a bright and focused light on the humanity behind Britain’s Reaper operations.

Those who study the ethics of these aircraft will be familiar with many of the book’s themes: the physical distance between crewmembers and weapons’ effects; the psychological pressures crews face; and the tension that can obtain between legal requirements and ethical ones. But even these familiar themes are given new life when plucked from philosophical abstraction and planted in the personal narratives of real people.

The sheer distance, for example, between Reaper crews and their effects is operative throughout the book, even when it runs silently in the background. Lee describes the “mind-bending world of remotely piloted aircraft,” in which crews experience “intense emotional intimacy across vast distances.” The cycle of deployment, combat, and redeployment back home is, for these airmen, not measured in years, nor in months, but in hours.

The psychological issues arise early, as Lee describes the first strike he witnessed from within the ground control station. One narrative that pervaded the ethics literature early on suggested that the physical distance between crew and combat must also generate a psychological and empathetic distance — a “PlayStation” mentality. This, though, is not Lee’s experience. This Royal Air Force chaplain-turned academic watched as the Reaper crew targeted and killed armed enemy fighters. Lee, from inside the climate-controlled ground control station, recognized a “strong, putrid smell — hints of burnt flesh combined with surgical disinfectant.” Without his consent, Lee’s brain connected his memories of caring for the wounded in Cyprus during the 2003 Iraq invasion to his olfactory sense. His experience was so real that he smelled a smell that wasn’t there. In this experience, Lee echoes a common refrain from experienced military professionals who have seen these aircraft from inside the remote cockpit. As one U.S. F-16 pilot put it, “even though we were sitting in a box on the ground miles away from the action, I could feel my heart rate rising and my adrenaline start flowing when those friendlies took fire. It felt real and I did not think it was going to be like this.” This F-16 pilot, like Lee, had experience with combat to which he could tie his experience in the Reaper’s ground control station.

Many within the Royal Air Force Reaper community, as well as the U.S. Air Force Reaper community, will not have that kind of background. For many, the first experience of combat will be at one-G and zero knots, thousands of miles from the target area. But even those without any previous combat experience recognize the reality and gravity of their missions. One of the early pioneers in the British Reaper Force, Johnny, says of the younger crews, “it was hard work. A lot of twenty-year-olds were seeing this kind of thing for the first time.” The available psychological work supports Lee’s anecdotal evidence. U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Campo found that prior experience in a traditionally manned aircraft made no statistically significant difference in crewmembers’ emotional response to their first time killing in the Reaper. Even Reaper crews with no previous operational experience responded emotionally both to concern for civilian casualties and for friendly forces on the ground. The Reaper crews in Campo’s study echo the F-16 pilot’s response above. “Fellow Americans, soldiers the [Predator and Reaper] aviators have never spoken with or met, were repeatedly shown to have the highest impact in emotional connection to warfare.” As one of Lee’s interviewees, a pilot with no prior operational background, said of his first shot in the Reaper, “my heart has never gone so fast.”

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.”

A second oft-neglected theme that Lee addresses in Reaper Force — informed, no doubt, by his experience as an RAF chaplain — is the historical connection between Reaper operations at present and airpower over the last 100 years. In describing his own motivations for writing the book, Lee asks,

How much would people today — 100 years on — like to know more about the lives of pioneering aircrew of the First World War? Will people today and in the future be similarly interested in the lives and experiences of the first generation of Reaper operators?

Lee frequently refers to the handover ritual between crews, sometimes in the same ground control station and sometimes a half a world away: “Control is handed over with the words that aircrew — often instructors and trainee pilots — have used ever since [the First World War].” Likewise, the operations briefing for the incoming shift “replicates that found in every RAF squadron, for every type of aircraft, everywhere in the world.” The Predator and Reaper have raised ethical questions because they are new and different. They are not quite like traditional airpower. But in what ways are they different? And to what degree? Conclusions about the ethics of remote warfare will depend upon the answers to these nuanced questions. Lee’s willingness to point to some of the ways the Reaper fits into the history of airpower is a helpful contribution to the ethics discussion.

In the final analysis, though, at the heart of Lee’s contribution to the remote weapons ethics literature is his focus on the people of the Royal Air Force’s Reaper Force. Lee takes his reader through the early years of the Reaper program, when pilots were flying U.S. Air Force Predators and awaiting their first Reapers. He describes the challenges that war at home can impose upon families, including interviews with military members and their spouses. He explains the tactical proficiency required to bring about successful strikes against difficult targets as well as the cognitive agility that enables crews to abort target runs or to shift the weapon off target into a safe location in the final moments of flight — all in the name of driving civilian casualties to zero. Nevertheless, he also describes — through the words of one of the crewmembers involved — the tragic 2011 incident in which a Reaper crew targeted what they believed to be a vehicle full of explosives, unaware that it was filled with noncombatant women and children.

Severe cases of psychological trauma among Predator and Reaper crewmembers, however uncommon, have become well known. Against that backdrop, Lee offers a look at the low-intensity, and yet seemingly ubiquitous, emotional highs and lows that crews can face on a daily basis. One crewmember, Tim, describes the security he provided to one ground unit just by maintaining aircraft position overhead. The JTAC told Tim over the radio, “I am the only person who is awake in this [forward operating base]. Everyone else is getting some sleep and it’s the first sleep they’ve had in days.” Tim said later, “I have been part of numerous kinetic [weapon] attacks when I was part of the squadron, but that incident tops all of them.” In contrast, an airman named Toby struck two Islamic State fighters with a hellfire missile. “They heard the sound of the missile as it approached, then one of them threw himself on top of the other.” Toby said later, “I don’t know why it’s affected me. … I believe they were father and son.” These reactions are neither clinical nor newsworthy. But they are real and they are deeply human.

If I look hard enough, I can find reasons to blunt my enthusiasm for Lee’s book. For example, Lee goes to some length to distinguish the British Reaper force from America’s Reaper (and formerly Predator) program. “Many of those assumptions about America’s use of Predator and Reaper,” he writes, “have been applied to the RAF Reaper Force. The chapters to follow will challenge these stereotypes and assumptions.” He makes good on the promise. His work does cause one to challenge those assumptions. It is my view, though, that the more fundamental problem is that the assumptions and stereotypes are faulty in general and are no more applicable to U.S. airmen than they are to British airmen.

This final note is not a criticism but a warning to the reader. Editorial choices are, in this case, narrative choices. Lee is forthright from the beginning: “This book is neither a systematic treatment of all aspects of the RAF Reaper force, nor is it a proportionate representation of everything that it has done. … It is also not an official history.” To be sure, holding Lee to any of these standards would be inappropriate. If readers are not careful, though, they might leave Reaper Force thinking that every mission has life and death implications, that every sortie generates moral dilemmas, or that every crewmember carries long-term psychological burdens. This book simply does not answer questions about how frequently these events occur. Lee “asked the members of the … Reaper community for their most memorable experiences,” not for a day in the life of a Reaper crew.

Setting the minor qualms to one side, anyone who takes seriously the ethical questions that surround remote warfare should strongly consider reading this book. Would that I could close with some superlative, such as “this book is the best of its kind” or that “it has surpassed its peers.” But this would be misleading. Reaper Force is one of a kind — or, I sincerely hope, the first of its kind. Lee has done a great service to the Royal Air Force’s Reaper community — the kind of service I hope someone will perform for the U.S. Air Force’s Reaper community.


Joe Chapa is a Major in the U.S. Air Force and a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Oxford researching contemporary just war theory. He is a senior pilot with more than 1,000 pilot and instructor pilot hours. He tweets @JosephOChapa.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Robert Cloys