28 May 2014 • by Caroline Byrne
Interview: Alice Ross of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
As part of our Gate Debate series of interviews, intended to shed greater light on the context in which our plays are created, we interviewed Alice Ross, a project leader for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and a leading reporter on the realities of drone warfare.
The pilot in the show says that the threat of death has been removed when she is flying drones so therefore it is not a fair fight. What is a fair fight? And how have drones altered the way we fight wars?
You could think about a 'fair fight' two ways - either that each party is putting themselves at risk, or that the two sides are evenly matched in terms of weaponry and force. Neither of those are necessarily appealing - or wise - if you're a military commander.
Armed drones certainly give one side in a conflict a huge technological advantage over another - it allows them to carry out intensive surveillance from thousands of miles away, and to launch attacks without endangering your personnel. So it's easy to see how they're an attractive option.
Such overwhelming advantage poses its own risks - it's easy to see how removing these risks could effectively lower the bar for lethal action by allowing the possibility of attacks in parts of the world that would be too risky to send troops into. And last year former Afghanistan commander General McChrystal warned in an interview that if the US was to be careless with its use of drone strikes, it risks the prospect of those affected responding with suicide attacks on US soil, 'because that's what they can respond with'.
If the fight isn’t fair, is it legal? What makes a drone strike legal?
It's important to be clear that there are two different uses for armed drones - one, in internationally recognised warzones, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. In those settings, the laws governing what makes a drone strike legal or not are the same as for any other weapon.
But the US has also launched hundreds of drone strikes in countries where it's not 'officially' at war, carrying out targeted killings of terrorism suspects in Pakistan's tribal regions, as well as in Yemen and Somalia. The legality of these attacks is a fiercely contested issue.
The US claims that the laws brought in after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, allow it to target al Qaeda and its 'affiliates' as enemy combatants. It also claims that it is carrying out the attacks in self-defence, in response to imminent threats to US interests. But its critics argue that the US drone strikes are essentially extrajudicial killings, that the case for war against core al Qaeda is weakened 13 years after the September 11 attacks, and that it has launched attacks where there was no 'imminent' threat to the US.
The pilot talks a lot about lingering in the sky to or protecting those in combat downrange. Is this the most common use of drones? How often are drones used for targeted killings?
Data released to the Bureau by the US Air Force shows that the overwhelming majority of drone strikes are for what's termed ISR - intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. So that includes a lot of scoping out roads in advance of convoys to check for roadside bombs and so on. Around 1 in every 50 US drone missions leads to a strike.
At the Bureau, we've monitored targeted killings - the secret strikes taking place away from recognised battlefields. We've counted over 450 strikes killing at least 2,600 people, of whom at least 450 are estimated to be civilians. But this doesn't mean there's a targeted killing every week - the pace of these covert strikes has slowed a lot recently. In Pakistan, where over 380 of these strikes have reportedly hit, there hasnt' been a drone strike since Christmas Day, as the Pakistani government has been holding peace talks with the Taliban. And in Yemen, strikes have continued, but at a slower rate than in the past.
There are a lot of ethical questions about the use of weaponized drones. One of those is about what’s referred to as the play station mentality, where the physical and psychological distance from the target makes people more prone to firing the weapons. In your experience and research is this true or a common misunderstanding?
This isn't an area we've directly looked at but others have - research examining US drone pilots found that they were as likely to suffer trauma as fighter pilots working 'in theatre'. There are the pressures that the pilot in the play encounters - the long shifts, and the difficulty of balancing home life with combat. Drone pilots serve far longer tours of duty than conventional fighter pilots. And there are other sources of potential trauma - a drone pilot might track their target for days, seeing them interact with their families and getting to know them. And after a strike they remain overhead to watch the aftermath. Although there are reports of drone pilots referring to attacks as 'bug splats', other former drone pilots have gone on the record saying they are haunted by their experiences.
One of the issues in the play is about the collateral damage in drone strikes. From your research on casualties can you comment on your findings? If drones are more accurate than say, the B52 bomber, what accounts for civilian casualties?
Drones have several attributes that should allow them to avoid civilian casualties: they can loiter over a target and track them for days, picking a moment to strike when civilian deaths are avoided. And they can launch precision-guided missiles, allowing them for example to hit moving vehicles, or a single room of a building. But to fulfil this potential, the intelligence that's guiding them needs to be accurate.
Where civilians die, this is sometimes because of misidentification - so the person being fired on is not who the drone targeting team believed they were. In other cases it's because civilians were out of the site of the drone - whether because they were inside a building that was hit, or just out of the sight of the camera. For example, recently in Yemen there was an attack on a moving vehicle that also struck a car full of labourers travelling the other way.
Drones have been known to use a tactic called 'signature' strikes - identifying targets based on suspicious patterns of behaviour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these attacks are believed to be responsible for multiple civilian casualties. The US consistently rejects claims that hundreds of civilians have died in drone strikes - calling them 'ludicrous' - but they offer no detail or evidence to counter the credible reports identified by the Bureau and others.
This play is set in America. Is it very removed from the reality of a British drone pilot’s life?
British pilots fly from two locations: Creech, in Nevada, and RAF Waddington, in Lincolnshire. In many respects their days are similar to those depicted in the play. But the RAF does take steps to reduce the sense of fatigue the pilot describes in the play. It's possible that when British pilots are stationed in the US, they're less likely to experience that dissonance between wartime and hometime that's a big theme in the play, as they're away from home. The UK has only been flying drones from Waddington for just over a year so it's not yet clear whether there's a significant difference for pilots being based in their home country or abroad for these kinds of missions.
How are the UK using weaponized drones?
Along with the US and Israel, the UK is one of the very first countries to carry out drone strikes. THe UK has a small fleet of armed Reapers in Afghanistan and they are very active, carrying out over 300 drone strike in the country. British pilots also flew US drones in Iraq and Libya.
The key differences between US and UK operations are that the UK doesn't carry out 'covert' strikes, and the government insists that civilians have died in only one drone strike - a 2011 attack that killed four farmers, along with some alleged insurgents. Some other aspects are very similar though - for years they've shared a common reluctance to discuss their use of drones, and although in recent months the UK has embarked on a publicity blitz trying to lift some of the misconceptions around drones, the key facts about British drone strikes - where and when they took place, and who they killed - remain secret.
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Alice Ross: Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Alice Ross, project leader of the Bureau’s work...