By Mark Russell

Peter Lee, Reaper Force: Inside Britain’s Drone Wars. London: John Blake Publishing London, 2018. Index. Hbk.

Reaper Force

In this book, Peter Lee sets out to describe the ‘unknown community’ that is the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Reaper Force. In doing so, Lee focuses on the aircrew in the ‘cockpit’ of these remotely piloted aerial vehicles (RPAS) and their partners, rather than all the other personnel needed to operate Reaper. Lee originally proposed the work to the RAF as an attempt to answer some of the questions that readers in one hundred years’ time might ask about these individuals, as a way of ensuring that those future enquirers would know more than we do about the RAF aircrew of 1918. Given this genesis, the limitation of scope is understandable and an outline of Lee’s research approach can  found in his submission to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group that was established in 2016 to ‘analyse the emerging technologies of drones [and] the ways in which the UK works with allies with regard to the use of armed drones.’ Moreover, this starting point is a pleasing historical touch as 2018 marks the centenary of the formation of the RAF. Indeed, it was during the First World War that we saw human-crewed flight come of age as a weapon of war, and one hundred years later, the success of the Reaper Force raises the question of what the future is for manned aviation in the RAF. However, Lee does not pursue this or many other intriguing avenues, for reasons of time and space. He does not engage in detail with the debate about whether drones are ‘fair’, quickly dismissing this by rightly arguing that war has always seen one side aiming to gain an ‘unfair’ advantage over another, and this is just another manifestation of this trend. So, this is not a book to read to understand more about the ethics of drones. A reader seeking this debate should look elsewhere, and indeed Lee has already little on this subject himself.[1]

Lee aimed to record how the Reaper Force feels about their ‘experiences and day-to-day lives’, and the book does an excellent job fulfilling this aim. His interview-based approach provides a distinct perspective from books written by those operating drones, which lack the reflection and perspective on experiences that Lee provides through the questions he puts to the aircrew. The bulk of the book is made up of content taken from interviews Lee conducted with members of both No. 39 Squadron based at Creech AFB in Nevada, and No. XIII Squadron based at RAF Waddington and these provide genuine insights into the aircrew’s (and their partners’) feelings about what they do. One comes away with a sense that this is a highly trained, highly dedicated group of men and women, with a culture that among other things is focused on ‘zero CIVCAS,’ that is a ‘policy direction’ of no civilian casualties (p. 279). Lee (p. 279) describes this focus as ‘almost an obsession […] that has had a significant impact on how they operate and make decisions.’ He recounts a mission where the aircrew believed the target was valid, as did the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) on the ground, but the Senior Mission Intelligence Coordinator, an acting sergeant outside the aircrew, objected to the strike. This was because they believed it was a child rather than a parcel on the back of the target and was proved right (pp. 284-8). This is an excellent illustration of the commitment to zero CIVCAS, given both the hesitation to launch the weapon and the freedom the most junior person in the process felt to halt it. This indicates a very healthy culture if one believes zero CIVCAS should be accorded that level of importance.

Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System
A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

Lee discussed further a 2011 ‘CIVCAS incident’ in Chapter Five when an RAF strike killed four civilians riding in lorries transporting explosives. This attack occasioned many levels of review, and it is clear that there is a huge determination in the Reaper Force that this should not happen again – even though as Lee (p. 113) notes, ‘the crew’s actions were in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict and their procedures and directives.’ This message is one the RAF’s Air Staff would presumably be no means averse to having more widely understood. However, Lee also makes the point through his interviews with several of the aircrew’s partners that this care and skill should be more widely appreciated, to counter all those who claim drones have killed thousands of innocent civilians, including the Reaper Force in this blanket condemnation. Indeed, one is left with the evident understanding from the interviews that the Reaper Force does not operate in this way; Eye in the Sky (2015) was a good film but what is depicted would never have happened under the RAF’s Rules of Engagement (RoE), and the Reaper Force is not guilty of causing wanton civilian deaths. There are, however, hints in the book that at times those looking for support from the Reaper Force are frustrated by these RoEs, for example, when a British Army JTAC is frustrated that a Reaper crew will not launch a missile and calls for assistance from an Army Air Corps Apache instead (p. 282). These RoEs can also frustrate those in the Reaper Force, as described in Chapter Nine when on Boxing Day 2014 permission to destroy a suspected IS-controlled ex-Iraqi armoured vehicle was denied, with the result that the Reaper crew had to watch then the aftermath of a successful IS attack using it.

The above example affected the crew in question, and Lee uses this and other cases to explore the issue of how the high-tempo of Reaper operations, and how the nature of those operations, with the graphic and detailed images they see as part of launching strikes, may be impacting the mental health of the aircrew. His interviews provide illuminating examples, and those he interviewed have a range of ways of coping, dependent on the various ways what they do affects them. Some aircrew seems to be able to operate for several years without being adversely affected; others burn out much more quickly. This issue links to the RAF’s perception of bravery, and how this should be recognised. Historically, bravery has been defined by physical courage. Lee, however, makes a case for those who continually put their mental health at risk through flying Reaper operations as showing as much bravery as aircrew who get physically airborne. In reading this, about issue continuing to put oneself at risk, one is undoubtedly reminded in some ways of the courage Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris described seeing in his Bomber Command crews.

Chapter Eleven looks at the question of bravery in its most visible military form, namely the award of decorations to Reaper crews. This is a subject that has generated discussion more widely over recent years. Lee addresses it by reference to a particularly challenging strike, footage of which was used by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) as part of the press release announcing the award of campaign medals to those involved in the campaign against IS. The irony was that since the Reaper crew executing the strike were not deemed to be ‘in theatre’, they did not qualify for the medal. However, as Lee points out both in the book and in his October 2017 lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society, they were exposing themselves to not insignificant risks of mental injury, and certainly were knowingly taking greater risks with their health than those working in a mess at Akrotiri. This again reminds one of RAF Bomber Command, and Harris’ unsuccessful campaign to have his groundcrews awarded a campaign medal despite cooks and bottle-washers in other theatres being entitled to a campaign medal.

Lee, however, does note that the MoD announced on 18 July 2018 that the medal would be awarded to Reaper pilots (p. 249). There will always be those who wish to equate heroism with physical courage, and hence would never see Reaper crews as eligible for medals, but this decision feels appropriate given the increasing level of discussion in society around mental health and, in a military context, post-traumatic stress disorder in particular. To what extent these issues will impact Reaper Force aircrew in the future is a subject for a later book, but this volume makes it clear that they have seen sights, repeatedly, that no-one would ask to see given the choice.

This potential to see bravery redefined is one example of how Reaper and its successors could change the RAF, and this is an area where one feels the whole growth of the Reaper Force raises many interesting issues that Lee has probably rightly only touched on very briefly. What will it mean for the RAF’s culture when perhaps many attack missions do not require a human in the aircraft? Already aircrew are being trained solely to operate Reaper, and the RAF, while awarding them aircrew brevets, is making them subtly different from the ‘normal’ brevets given to those who get airborne – does this demonstrate a reluctance to admit that Reaper crews are as valuable as those who get airborne? Moreover, what will this mean for the RAF as RPAS aircrews undertake more missions? The Reaper Force from its inception was crewed mainly by aircrew who served on Harrier, Nimrod and Tornado aircraft who transferred to Reaper as these aircraft were taken out of service. The aircrews who operated on manned platforms brought with them the culture and attitude from those environments, and Lee describes several interesting stories from aircrew about the different operating styles. For example, Lee recounts how a former Tornado navigator said she could not get used to the amount of talking an ex-Nimrod pilot would do, which was a huge change from the fast jet where ‘a good cockpit’s a quiet cockpit’ ethos was one that she was used to (p. 132).

Reaper UAV Takes to the Skies of Southern Afghanistan
An RAF Reaper pictured airborne over Afghanistan during Operation HERRICK. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

As such, even within the Reaper Force, there are still vestiges of the culture that the members brought from their previous aircraft types, and the force will need to evolve its own culture over time. One suspects it will not be as extrovertly self-confident as the fast jet one it is partially replacing. Indeed, Lee recounts that his initial inquiry about when it would be time to ‘kick the tyres and light the fires’ on his first day watching an aircrew was met with a swift ‘very funny’, clearly meant to shut him up (p. 31). The RAF’s public image is very much built around the image of the fighter pilot, from the aces of the First World War, through the pilots of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain to today’s Typhoons on QRA, intercepting Russian Bears out over the ocean. Indeed, it is interesting that the RAF’s historic flight is called the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight when far more aircrew served and died in Bomber Command during the Second World War. Reaper and other automated weapons (such as standoff missiles) can already deliver many of the classic roles of air power (reconnaissance, strategic attack, close air support, for example), but without a human to build a corporate (self) image around, how will the RAF’s own picture of itself change, and what image will it use to engage broader public support?

In summary, this is a valuable book for the insights it provides into the pressures of serving in a critical element within Britain’s armed forces. The Reaper Force is an element of the British military that will only grow in importance given both the capabilities it offers and the low risk it presents of unfavourable press. Indeed, between January and August 2018, Reaper has accounted for around 45 per cent of all RAF strike over Iraq and Syria during Operation SHADER. The only reservation that can, I think, be expressed is that this book leaves the reader feeling there were so many other avenues that could have been explored as well. Had Lee examined them, though, we would not have had this book now – we would have been waiting several years longer. What would be interesting would be to see a similar book in ten years’ time, to see how the Reaper Force (or Protector Force as it will likely be known by then) has evolved.

Mark Russell graduated with a degree in History in 1985 and has worked in professional services ever since. He returned to academia in 2015 and graduated with an MA in Air Power from the University of Birmingham in 2017. His dissertation looked at whether the RAF was a learning organisation in the period 1925 – 1935, with particular reference to how the Air Exercises helped the RAF develop and test tactics and technology. He continues to work in professional services, but his current research interest is the RAF in the interwar years and how the organisation managed technological change. Since graduating from Birmingham, he has had two books reviews published by the RAF’s Centre for Air and Space Power Studies and is currently working on articles for both RAF Air Power Review and The Aviation Historian.

Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

[1] Peter Lee, ‘Rights, Wrongs and Drones: Remote Warfare, Ethics and the Challenges of Just War Reasoning,’ RAF Air Power Review, 16:3 (2013), pp 30-50.

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