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Are Military Drone Pilots Really 'At War' If There Is No Jeopardy to Themselves?

08/08/2016 12:39 | Updated 08 August 2016

I've recently been researching RAF drone (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle - UAV) piloting for a play currently on at this year's Edinburgh Fringe, called 'Swivelhead'. While quite a lot is known about the psychological impact of UAV flying from the American perspective (due to young ex-recruits who have gone public about their experiences), less is known about the British experience. The RAF, as might be expected, has a more professional/closed ranks feel (although there are online forums where personnel are freer with their thoughts). I've been speaking with pilots (ex-fighter and ex-drone), academics, a government advisor, psycho-analysts and people with first hand experience of PTSD.

Until relatively recently only experienced fighter pilots flew UAVs in the RAF, but there is now a new breed of pilot officers being trained solely for UAV flying. As might be expected (and according to online banter), an ex-single-seat fighter pilot with £10 million-worth of training behind them will be held (or possibly hold themselves) in higher regard than a newbie 'desk-pilot' in the 'chairforce'.

It takes two people to fly a UAV: the Pilot, who flies it, and the Sensor Operator, who operates the systems - cameras, lasers, weaponry. RAF Waddington, in Lincolnshire, is the home of 13 Squadron, flying Reapers in ISR (Intellingence/Reconnaissance/Surveillance) and combat (Armed Overwatch) missions, in a variety of theatres of war. Their drones are called 'Reapers', carrying a payload of 'Hellfire' missiles, and the insignia is Lynx's head over a dagger.

So far, so war-like. So Old Testament, God-like Avenger. Yet the Squadron motto translates as 'We Assist By Watching', and it is a measure of the mixed identity of drone flying that 'Reapers' might yet be renamed 'Protectors'.

It is this question of identity that interests me as a writer. There is evidence that it affects pilots too. A body of responses to ethical questions, collected from UAV pilots by an RAF chaplain, suggested a need to have their side of things heard. Interestingly, in response to a 'what keeps you awake at night' question, rather than it being images of carnage (one of the by-products of operating a UAV is that Pilot and S.O. are able to keep a motionless watch over the aftermath of their strikes), some answered that it was the inability to protect their fellow ground-forces, due to the current stringency of the Rules of Engagement (ROE). These dictate a zero collateral damage policy, i.e. there is no engagement if there is a perceived risk to nearby civilians (although, in practise, in our current very messy combat arenas, this is difficult to adhere to). In fairness, over recent years, civilian casualties have been steadily decreasing.

Nonetheless, there is an enemy out there threatening the national interest. So there are targets. High-ranking ISIS personnel, IED factories, munitions dumps, training camps. All of which brings the bigger question: if you're a UAV pilot, to what extent are you still a 'knight of the sky'? In styling oneself as a combatant, does there have to be some form of potential jeopardy involved, simply by dint of being present on the field of battle? Military historians argue that there has rarely been a fair fight in any battle. This is why one side loses and the other wins. But is it a fight, if there is no jeopardy to one combatant whatsoever? And if it isn't a fight, what is it?

How does someone sitting holding a joystick in a metal box in Lincolnshire, and occasionally, when ordered, killing someone far away (even a 'legitimate' target) come to see themselves? If you take out a target under those circumstance, does that make your role any different from that of an executioner, or assassin? These are loaded words, but people have an emotional need to define themselves through what they do, and how they relate what they do to the opinion of the wider world. At the end of their shift, they'll drive home through leafy Lincolnshire countryside, go to the pub, have dinner with their families. The difference between that and a torn-up stretch of desert, culturally, aesthetically, emotionally, physically, couldn't be greater. There is no dirt under the nails.

The justification of 'protecting' others - ground forces, innocent civilians, homeland security - is of course an entirely valid ethical point, but it's the same justification as might be used by some functionary deputed to deliver the lethal injection to a death row inmate - protecting others from someone innately bad, an enemy of society, doing a job that the rest of society is too soft and squeamish to countenance. But is that how flyers would want to see themselves? A technically adept functionary? Is that what they joined for?

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