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Is Our 'Help for Heroes Culture' Denying Us a Proper Discussion About Killer Drones?

Chris Cole says the British military is exploiting the public's sentimentality.

by Sam Clements
17 July 2013, 3:20pm

A British Reaper drone, part of 39 Squadron Royal Air Force. (Photo via)

In the last year, drone strikes in Afghanistan have reportedly killed ten times as many civilians as manned fighter aircraft have. This statistic flies in the face of the idea that drone strikes are somehow a "cleaner" or more precise alternative to traditional warfare. It has also done nothing to sate the US' European allies' desire to get in on the act – this morning, Francois Hollande's French government were effectively cleared to purchase a dozen armed Reaper drones from the US, while earlier this year our own Ministry of Defence decided to invest in 500 drones (some armed, some unarmed). In fact, the UK has already carried out over 2,000 missions using "borrowed" US drones, making operations by the two militaries increasingly hard to differentiate.

Nato figures say that 363 drone strikes have been launched by UK forces in Afghanistan alone since 2008, and that only four civilians have been killed in that period. However, given that information on the UK's use of drones is hard to come by, it's likely that those figures don't reflect the more horrific reality. Attempts by MPs and campaigners to gain greater transparency into their use are constantly blocked, the frequent excuse for non-disclosure being that it would "risk the security of British soldiers". Chris Cole, who runs the blog Drone Wars UK, reckons that this excuse – which is leant authority, he says, by the "Help for Heroes culture" prevalent in our society – is denying us a full public discussion about the ramifications of British drone use.

I spoke to Chris about that, his battle for information with the MoD and the "PlayStation effect", which suggests that the psychological toll of controlling a murderous, airborne robot from halfway around the world could turn drone pilots into detached, trigger-happy monsters.

Chris Cole, Drone Wars UK. (Photo courtesy of Chris Cole)

VICE: Hi Chris. What is it about armed drones that you object to?
Chris Cole: I think the primary issue for me is the fact that they make war more likely, if you will. Going to war has a political cost for our political leaders, particularly in the modern era of television and the coverage of body bags and coffins coming back from overseas. If you take that political cost away by using unmanned systems, it makes it much easier for political leaders to opt for this so-called "clean solution" of warfare rather than messy, diplomatic solutions that often take lots of time. I really worry that these armed, unmanned systems – and the fact that we’re not putting any of our own troops at risk – will mean much more warfare in the future.

I see. So how difficult have you found the process of investigating the UK’s deployment of drones?
The whole thing has been difficult, and we’re only trying to get small bits of information. We’ve been using freedom of information (FOI) requests, getting MPs to ask questions in the House of Commons, writing letters to the MoD and trying to attend briefings by military officers, just to pick up snippets of information. It’s very difficult – our FOI requests are almost always refused on issues they don't want to answer. A couple of requests were refused last year and we’ve pursued them, so there’s now going to be a two-day freedom of information tribunal in September.

What specific information requests are you pursuing?
We want to find the balance between weapons launched that are pre-planned and those launched on the fly. Both of those requests have been refused on the grounds that it would put British forces in danger.

What would the answers to those questions tell you about drone warfare?
I think manned aircraft strikes are mostly pre-planned, and very carefully planned. But if we’re seeing more opportunist strikes, I think that gives more evidence that the drones are lowering the threshold in terms of using lethal force.

The MoD is regulated, so shouldn't transparency already be encouraged?
I think the Defence Select Committee, which is the main way Parliament has oversight of the MoD and the military, sees themselves as being on the side of the MoD – they’re kind of supporting "Our Boys". I think the danger is – certainly in the past, considering MPs and their expenses and the banking scandal – that when there’s a lack of public scrutiny, where there’s a lack of oversight, we get into real danger.

A Predator drone (centre) loitering over Afghanistan. (Photo via, click to enlarge)

Why is there little discussion about drones in the public domain, considering the investment the UK is making into the technology?
I think firstly that [the MoD] like the fact that there is very little discussion about it. I think it’s in their interests. It’s very difficult at the moment; if the MoD raises the issue that [restricting the use of drones] might put our troops at risk – it’s very difficult in the Help for Heroes culture that we have to challenge that and risk being smeared as not supporting our forces. That’s quite difficult at the moment.

Okay. Do you think the public believes there’s a link between the use of drones and eradicating terrorism?
I think what a lot of the public believe is the whole idea of this precision warfare, the idea that we can simply take out the bad guys and leave everybody else behind – that we’re just killing the terrorists and nobody else. I think that’s one of the things, as an organisation, that we’re trying to challenge – this kind of link between drone warfare and precision. We don’t really know that, but we do know that hundreds of civilians are being killed.

What about the drone pilot and the PlayStation effect?
There are some reports and evidence that the pilots are much more engaged and see the impact of their weapons. There are lots of stories about psychological and post-traumatic stress on drone pilots. On the other hand, there is evidence that the "PlayStation mentality" does exist, where [the pilots] are bored after watching hours and hours of footage where nothing happens, so they really want something to happen. There was this particular airstrike in 2010 where 23 civilians died. The key finding was that the pilots had what they called this "propensity toward kinetic attack". That's only one piece of evidence, but it’s very rare to get any evidence about what’s happening on a day-to-day basis.

Okay, so I guess there needs to be more research.
There's this real debate between whether the psychological and geographical distance does make it easier to launch weapons. Whether you just get bored and say, “Oh, fuck it,” or whether the pilots are deeply involved, watching people for days or weeks and have built up a relationship. We need much more information and that’s primarily why we are fighting against all this secrecy: to have more information about what is happening.

Good luck. Thanks, Chris.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @sambobclements

More stories about death from above:

The Drone Ranger: Obama’s Dirty Wars

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Look Forward to the Year of the Drone