Britain’s armchair assassins: By day they hunt and vaporise IS terrorists with remote-control drones from an RAF base in England. At night they return to their families. Now, the first civilian to see them in action asks how they live with what they see
It is an odd feeling, knowing that I am about to watch someone’s life ended before my eyes – deliberately, precisely and with extreme prejudice, using a missile from a Reaper drone, or in military jargon, an RPA, a ‘remotely piloted aircraft’.
The possibility transports me to a time and place that I try not to think about too often: a military hospital in Cyprus in 2003, where I spent five months of the Iraq War as a Royal Air Force chaplain at the bedsides of the wounded and dying.
But now I am here in Nevada, where my cheap casino hotel room is a base from which I’ll venture into one of the most secretive communities on Earth.
I am the first civilian ever to witness the work of the RAF’s Reaper Squadrons, looking over the shoulders of British crews as they stare intently at a bank of video screens and direct the drones flying high above the dusty battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq.
Peter Lee spent five months of the Iraq War as a Royal Air Force chaplain at the bedsides of the wounded and dying. He is now the first civilian to watch the RAF in action as they direct drones at Islamic State terrorists. Above, a drone unleashes a Hellfire missile
I will watch as they identify their human targets and edge the crosshairs on the screens towards them. I will be there when they press the trigger and unleash a deadly payload of 500lb bombs and laser-guided Hellfire missiles from half a world away.
That first moment of death arrives on my second day at Creech Air Force Base, when we witness two men on a motorbike arrive at an abandoned house in Syria that’s a known Islamic State base. We are more than 7,000 miles away, but thanks to images from the Reaper’s high definition cameras, we are watching and ready.
Armed with rifles, the two jihadis have been identified by intelligence officers as enemy fighters and a ‘nine-line’ – the standard briefing protocol confirming nine crucial mission details, including the target’s identity, location and weapon choice – has been requested from the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
Above, a Reaper pilot at RAF Waddington. Mr Lee writes: ‘I will watch as they identify their human targets and edge the crosshairs on the screens towards them. I will be there when they press the trigger and unleash a deadly payload of 500lb bombs and laser-guided Hellfire missiles from half a world away’
Approval is granted, provided the missile doesn’t hit the building itself, as there might be civilians inside.
I’m sitting in a sand-coloured shipping container next to a collection of dusty Portakabins in the desert. A network of secure computer chat-rooms and telephone lines connects our darkened box to an ops room nearby and a control centre in the Middle East.
My heart is pounding. I feel a grabbing sensation in my lower abdomen. True, I saw many dead bodies as an RAF chaplain, but this is different. I’ve never seen a man killed before.
The three crew members with me discuss how best to strike.
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A head-on shot could blast out the front wall of the house. Side shots, too, would leave the building within the radius of the blast. Most difficult would be to fire a missile over the building. All are ruled out.
Then the situation changes.
‘Target mobile,’ says the Sensor Operator, or SO, as one of the IS jihadis rides off on the motorbike. Imperceptibly, the mood hardens.
The SO sits rigidly, keeping the screen crosshairs on the moving target. The pilot repeats the well-rehearsed steps of weapon selection and missile settings.
‘Cleared hot,’ says the voice of the JTAC, the joint terminal attack controller. It means final permission to fire has been given.
A sniper (circled) on the corner of a rooftop in Abu Kamal in Syria
The shooter is taken out by pilot Gav’s drone – just feet away from innocent civilians
A countdown begins. ‘Three… two… one. Rifle.’
‘Rifle’ indicates a missile is being fired. ‘Stores’ would mean a bomb had been dropped.
The pilot squeezes the trigger and the Hellfire missile on the drone accelerates off its rails. Back in Nevada, I look at the whiteness of the SO’s hand gripping the joystick.
That is how long the man on the bike has to live. I feel sick.
‘Ten.’ I stare at the crosshairs. ‘Still clear,’ adds the MIC, Mission Intelligence Co-ordinator. ‘Five… four… three… two… one… Splash.’
The screen erupts in a white cloud. There is no physical sensation. It seems to take for ever for the dust to settle. I make out a mangled bike, then a body. At first it seems there are two rifles on the ground, but the MIC clarifies: ‘His right arm has been severed and is lying next to the rifle.’
Oh God, it has.
I become aware of a putrid smell – hints of burnt flesh combined with surgical disinfectant. It doesn’t make sense.
A shudder goes up my spine.
When I was first offered the chance to study the RAF crews who pilot the drones, I was reluctant. After all, I had spent several happy years away from the traumas of war, teaching the ethical and political aspects of armed conflict from the safety of a classroom.
But the chance to study an entirely new form of high-tech warfare at close quarters eventually convinced me. I would be observing the two RAF Reaper groups, 39 Squadron, based at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas in the Nevada desert and XIII Squadron at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
Each place has its attractions, but they could hardly be more different. Big, bright and loud, Las Vegas has casinos, restaurants, strip clubs, concerts and stage magicians. Lincolnshire, too, has merits. The annual Heckington Village Show nearby features the ‘Most Attractive Donkey’, ‘Largest Rabbit’ and ‘Longest Carrot’ competitions.
However different the locations, the crews operate at the extreme of human behaviour, killing people in war or watching atrocities being carried out, from deaths by roadside IED bombs to IS executions.
Mentally, they go where the rest of us don’t, witnessing gruesome sights, particularly in Mosul, Raqqa and Homs. What immediately strikes me is the jarring mismatch between their often lethal work and the home lives they return to every night, especially in rural Lincolnshire. One former Reaper Squadron Commander described the disconnect between work and home as a kind of ‘parallel normality’.
This was brought home to me on my first day with XIII Squadron, when I arrived in the Waddington crew room to see a scrum of backsides in green flying suits as their owners grappled over a delivery of Twix chocolate bars.
A small cheer went up as the scrummagers emerged with their trophies. Three of the group sat down and resumed a conversation. Mugs were set out to represent the buildings they had been watching in Syria. Chocolate fingers were being used as missiles. They were calmly discussing the best way to kill someone. Using Twix.
This ‘parallel normality’ works just fine when people constrain it to their work. Ideally, they will switch off when they get home and tune into the ‘normal normality’ of the rest of the world.
Few seem able to do that consistently, however. For some – I am not able to gauge how many – the seepage between the two sides of their lives can eventually progress into degrees of mental trauma. For a small number, this can be severe.
Tuesday May 9 last year started much the same as countless others at RAF Waddington: pre-flight briefings, the usual cautions and situation updates.
The focus was the town of Abu Kamal on the Iraq/Syria border, where there was vague intelligence of ‘badness’.
The crew was on high alert as their Reaper reached the target area. Mostly things looked normal, but at a main crossroads, a crowd was gathering.
‘This looks interesting,’ muttered pilot Gav. Ricky the Mission Intelligence Control asked his colleague Brodie to zoom in on black-clothed, armed jihadis herding the locals. ‘Vehicle entering from top right of screen,’ observed Brodie.
Soon, prisoners were being pulled from the van. Gav’s tone changed slightly: ‘This is an execution.’ A public beheading, perhaps.
The three-man crew were still working through their options when a telephone light flashed and a woman’s voice came on the line from the Command Centre, where the scene was also being studied closely.
‘There might be a shot. The two snipers on the rooftop [placed there to stop the crowd rebelling]. Strike the one on the left and the blast should disperse the crowd.’
‘CDE?’ asked Gav to his two crew colleagues, wanting to know the collateral damage estimate.
‘The snipers are looking over a 4ft concrete wall round the top of the building, which will stop the blast from hitting the crowd. At worst, there might be some small debris.’
‘Worst case?’ asked Gav.
‘The Hellfire goes over the wall and hits the prisoners along with their captors and the gathering crowd.’ The margin of error was a couple of feet.
Gav started bringing the aircraft round for the pressure shot of his career. What made it so difficult was the human cost if it went wrong. In the square below, the prisoners were being hauled into position as a black-clad figure made some form of proclamation.
‘Cleared hot. Do it now,’ said the Command Centre. ‘Three… two… one… Rifle.’
The slight wobble of the image confirmed the Hellfire had blasted off. Gav counted down to impact as he and Ricky scanned for anyone coming on to the roof.
‘Ten seconds.’ ‘Three… two… one… Splash.’
The crowd started reacting in the instant before impact – they probably heard the missile before the jihadi on the screen disappeared into a cloud of dust. Brodie panned out. The crowd was running in every direction and the prisoners escaped into the fleeing mass.
There was no trace of the sniper.
A quiet ‘good shot’ was all that passed between Gav and Brodie.
Conventional soldiers often shield their partners from details of bad, even horrific experiences.
The situation is different for the Reaper crews, who are never fully away, and never fully at home. Some find it impossible to adjust.
One team member, Rory, told me: ‘Recently, I have been finding it more difficult to switch off at home. Yesterday, I took a shot and straight afterwards my wife sent me a phone video of our son playing with his toys.
‘Mentally, I had moved instantly from an operational video feed of a shooting to a family video. She also texted me, “What do you fancy for dinner tonight?” I thought, “I don’t know.” I couldn’t think about it.’
Eileen, the wife of one of the Lincolnshire crews, said: ‘A few days ago my husband and I went to the supermarket.
‘I noticed him stop and shudder slightly and asked if he was OK. He replied, “Yes, fine”. I wasn’t convinced. So I asked again.
‘He looked around to make sure nobody could hear and came clean, “I realised this area of the shop contains about the same number of people I killed in a strike yesterday.” Then he kept pushing the trolley.’
Is there a limit to how long high-intensity operations can be sustained? Does prolonged exposure to killing desensitise those who watch and carry it out?
A small number of these pilots and operators have performed at the level of elite athletes for seven or more years. Many are physically and emotionally tired after two or three years.
Reaper pilot Gav recalls Christmas Day 2014. It was like any other Christmas – until he left for work at 11pm. The children sprawled half-asleep watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His wife Penny and the visiting in-laws pretended not to notice as he picked up the car keys and disappeared.
Driving through rural Lincolnshire, he says he could feel his mental ‘business’ compartment expanding, and his ‘family’ compartment shrinking.
At the time, Gav already had 18 missile strikes to his name. His task that night was routine reconnaissance looking for IS ‘technicals’, fast-moving pick-up trucks with heavy machine guns or artillery pieces on the back.
But what he spotted was different – an Iraqi army M113 armoured personnel carrier in IS-held territory. Armoured personnel vehicles almost never travelled alone. Where was the rest of the convoy? Within seconds a message came back from the JTAC: ‘Keep eyes on the target. Ground forces are looking for a stolen Iraqi armoured vehicle.’
The nine-line was confirmed, then cancelled as the vehicle entered a village, then confirmed again as the jihadi-controlled carrier sped out of the huddle of houses.
‘Cleared hot!’ The signal to fire.
Then, from nowhere, came the JTAC’s voice: ‘ABORT. ABORT. ABORT!’
Urgent checks were under way to make sure the vehicle really was hostile. Then, after 15 crucial seconds, the JTAC announced: ‘Confirmed hostile. You are cleared hot.’
By now, the vehicle closing on an Iraqi checkpoint, it was too close to launch the Hellfire. So the Waddington crew could do nothing, helpless as the vehicle smashed through a concrete chicane and exploded. It was a giant bomb.
They watched impotently as the infra-red images of the dead Iraqi soldiers showed their body heat ebbing away.
Gav was back home early the following morning. He recalls pulling up outside his house and being greeted with a ‘Happy Boxing Day’ by two excited boys.
He says he managed a wan smile.
The intensity is so great and the stakes so high, that many Reaper personnel find it hard to readjust to normal life.
Nothing will ever be as demanding, stimulating, gut-wrenching or fulfilling as those moments when a missile is in the air.
‘I still think about the Reaper every day,’ former crew member Zach told me. By his own admission he was exhausted by the time he flew his final mission.
He also admits – and his wife reinforces the point – that flying the Reaper has affected him. He fired more than 30 missiles and bombs in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, and has a mental catalogue of appalling images as a result. ‘I wouldn’t take a single one of those shots back,’ he tells me. I ask him why, when he has clearly paid a price. ‘Because I made a difference.’
© Dr Peter Lee 2018
Adapted extract from Reaper Force: The Inside Story Of Britain’s Drone Wars by Dr Peter Lee, published by John Blake Publishing, priced £18.99. To order for £15.19 – a 20 per cent discount plus free p&p – visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640 before October 7.
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