The inside story of Britain’s drone wars

Reaper Force: The inside story of Britain’s drone wars. By Dr Peter Lee. John Blake Publishing, London 2019.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

Numbers 39 and XIII Royal Air Force squadrons, based at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada USA, and Waddington, Lincolnshire, respectively, operate the US-designed MQ-9 Reaper Remotely Piloted Aerial System (RPAS) in combat operations initially in Afghanistan and latterly against ISIS in Syria. The Reaper is armed with four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and two Paveway 500 lb laser guided bombs. It has a 60-foot wingspan, operates at 20 000 feet and a maximum endurance of 20 hours. 

The squadrons’ Reapers are forward deployed to airfields close to the area of operations. They are taken off and landed by Launch and Recovery Element personnel positioned in the forward area who hand over to the mission crews comprising 39 and XIII squadron Pilots, Sensor Operators (SO) and Mission Intelligence Coordinators (MIC) from Ground Control Stations (GCS-a shipping container-sized metal box) located at Creech and Waddington. 

Besides its weapons load, the Reaper is equipped with a sensor pod incorporating synthetic aperture radar, optical heat sensors, laser weapons guidance systems and navigation and communications systems linked through satellites to the GCS thousands of miles away. Reaper Pilots and SOs are drawn from RAF aircrew, many of whom had previously served in fast jet squadrons. As such they are trained and checked to RAF professional, medical and psychological standards. Reaper crews are oversighted by Senior MIC and Authorising Officers and Safety Observers (who are brought into the GCS prior to a missile or bomb attack). Operations are directed by forward deployed Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) or from a Combined Air Operations Centre. 

The author of Reaper Force, Peter Lee, is an academic at the University of Portsmouth specialising in the ethics of war and has researched Reaper operations since 2012. Previously an RAF chaplain, his experiences ministering to physically and mentally traumatised personnel in military hospitals led him to academia where he spent nine years lecturing in air power at RAF College Cranwell. His chaplaincy experiences, coupled with his academic interests, spurred him to request the RAF to allow research into the operational and personal pressures on Reaper personnel and their families. He was granted total access and found that the operators and families welcomed the opportunities to speak to him about the surrealist existence of living thousands of miles away from a war while controlling weapons systems targeting individuals in remote locations. Reaper crews become intimately associated with these ‘high value targets’(HVT) after watching their movements, sometimes for days and weeks, all the while waiting for the opportunity and clearance to attack. Their supreme responsibilities are not to cause civilian casualties and the scrupulous adherence to rules of engagement and chain of command fail safes is the core theme of this book.  

Peter Lee takes the reader into the GCS with the operators as they fly combat missions. Shifts can be up to 10 hours duration, involving pre- and post-mission briefings. Creech-based crews live in Las Vegas, a 60-minute commute. The contrast between the daily routine of suburban family living, and the intense pressures of combat flying, is stark; this from ‘Jay’, a Reaper pilot in an interview with Lee:

‘I dropped my son at school in the morning, continued on to work and, within a couple of hours, killed two men. I went home later that day to be greeted by my son with a cheery, ‘how was your day?’ Do you lie to protect him, or do you tell him the truth?’ 

These personal pressures impact the crews, but most find, as professional military officers, a satisfaction in supporting coalition troops in Afghanistan against the Taliban, particularly by surveillance and attacking those planting improvised explosive devices and latterly combating the unspeakable crimes of ISIS. 

Two examples of many in the book give witness to the effectiveness and professionalism of the Reaper crews. Having noticed a growing crowd of civilians moving through the streets of a village shepherded by armed men the Reaper crew observed two further armed men on a roof. A van pulled up and unloaded several bound men. The crew assessed this was to be an ISIS mass execution with the villagers forced to witness and were given clearance to strike the men on the roof. A Hellfire missile did for the snipers and the bound men were seen running away and the crowd dispersed with no casualties.

In Afghanistan a HVT, who had been under Reaper surveillance for days, emerged from a building with a backpack and mounted a motorcycle. The Reaper crew were undecided between themselves whether the backpack housed an explosive device or a small child. Debate continued up to JTAC level with the eventual decision to strike. Within seconds prior to missile launch the MIC – an acting sergeant only recently cleared for the position – ordered an abort. In the immediate aftermath, as all were questioning her order, the motorcycle came to a halt and the rider removed the backpack from which emerged a toddler.

This is a powerful narrative of war in the 21st century. It profiles a unique military professionalism carried out over vast distances but with an intimate ferocity. The reader is drawn into the Reaper world – to the operators in the GCS and to their partners and families. Reaper Force is fascinating and surreal and a testament to the strengths and frailties of the human spirit, which despite intensive training, discipline and experience, gives rise to self-doubt as well as individual satisfaction, indeed heroism, in engaging a pitiless enemy.           

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