Like many others, I was surprised by the announcement by Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff, that his Reaper drone crews will be eligible for the new Operational Service Medal for their contribution to the war in Syria and the defeat of ISIS (also known as Daesh). Traditionally, medals have always been awarded based on risk and rigour. It may seem a reasonable assumption that there is not much risk sitting in a nice warm office up at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire where they operate their Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs). More like playing computer games, perhaps? Where is the risk and rigour in that?
On digging deeper, however, I have changed my mind. There is no doubt that the RAF’s drone operators have made a major contribution to the defeat of ISIS and deserve official recognition.
An unnamed pilot said the drone operators’ job is very different to his Typhoon force operations. The RAF pilot, with 30 long and dangerous combat missions over Syria during his Akrotiri tour, made the point:
‘In some ways it is identical, in some way it is totally different … I think they have it a lot harder in some ways …
‘What people don’t realise is the emotional investment they end up having in it. They will watch a target for weeks on end and they will understand every part of that target’s life.
‘You can’t not become emotionally involved – we need to give those boys and girls a lot more credit that I think people are giving them.’
The pilot’s comments echo the words of the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, who has said: ‘The campaign against Daesh is one of which our Armed Forces can be extremely proud. I am pleased that today those who have bravely fought against such untold evil will get the recognition they deserve.’
During the campaign to destroy the extremists in Iraq and Syria, drones were used to carry out strikes, gather intelligence and conduct surveillance. While front-line operational aircrew do operations for maybe six months or a year at a time, drone operations staff face different challenges The Reaper force is on duty 24/7/365, monitoring an enemy that is elusive, dangerous and determined to attack the West in any way it can in pursuit of its twisted, fanatical world view. The personal strain and pressure watching the every move of these individuals is immense and unrelenting.
Drone crews have been doing that for every working day on Operation Shader (codename for the Syrian campaign) for four years. ACM Hillier pointed out that for the drone pilots, sensor operators and mission intelligence co-ordinators of the Reaper crews, ‘It is not some remote support operations – they are doing operations, engaged in active operations every minute of every day. This often involves weeks of monitoring individuals and then, once a strike has been executed, another vast amount of time is spent ensuring it was successful.’
Of course, in addition sometimes taking the decision to kill whole groups by remote control is made before going home to the family for supper and to help put the kids to bed. Drone pilots face questions like: ‘What did you do today, Daddy?’
As a result the pressure has taken its toll. ACM Hillier confirmed that drone crews are monitored ‘extremely closely for the risk of psychological harm … these people see some quite stressful things. So we have provided the opportunity for counselling, and an environment where we look after each other – a full support network exists. We need to make sure we don’t end up with them [the drone pilots] getting psychologically fatigued.’
This insight into the combat stress of the new warfare is a reflection of how in the last decade drones have become a new battlefield in the ‘vertical flank’. As long ago as 2004, the militant group Hezbollah began to use ‘adapted commercially available hobby systems for combat roles’. These modified toys can be bought easily, as the Gatwick debacle in December 2018 demonstrated, and – at prices ranges from US $200 to $700 – they are as cheap as chips to the military.
Also, adapted drones are lethal. For example, in August 2014 well-directed Russian-backed artillery fire was used to devastating effect in Ukraine, leaving three mechanised battalions a smoking ruin. This mission reached its goal because the units and their positions were identified by a mini-drone with a TV camera: the Ukrainian government lost 200 vehicles – and very-short-range air defences weren’t able to detect the deadly eye in the sky.
Armed services worldwide are taking this new threat very seriously indeed – as well as the new opportunities drones offer. Whilst much attention has been focused on hypersonic weapons and long-range missiles, small UAVs pose new risks and are a serious challenge to air defences on land and sea.
In America, Dan Gettinger (Co-director: Center for the Study of the Drone) warns, ‘The US military – and any other military – have to prepare for an operating environment in which enemy drones are not just occasional, but omnipresent … Whether it’s a small, tactical UAV, mid-size or strategic, drones of any size will be commonplace on the battlefield of the future.’
He recognises the asymmetrical nature of the drone, armed or reconnaissance. Drones are cheap, hard to detect and don’t bring politically embarrassing body bags to the attention of the media or the folks back home. Drone technology has become a cat-and-mouse game, as militaries struggle to deal with the big threat of little drones.
For example, whilst US ‘supercarriers’ – with 80 warplanes and 5000 sailors – can dominate the narrow waters of the Persian Gulf, these 100,000-tonne behemoths are intensely vulnerable to hundreds of tiny Iranian attack drones – or a swarm of radio-controlled, fast-attack craft. The only remedy is lots of close-range defensive small calibre guns – and the chances are that some of the enemy will still get through. Half a dozen US $1000 missiles can easily disable a vessel costing US $50 billion. As the Americans say: ‘You do the math – go figure.’
Inevitably the market place has latched onto the commercial possibility of drones. Driven by a global increase in the use of mini-drones by terrorists and criminals, the anti-drone market is expected to grow to US $1.85 billion by 2024, according to the US business consulting firm, Grand View Research.
‘As drones become deadlier, stealthier, faster, smaller and cheaper, the nuisance and threat posed by them is expected to increase, ranging from national security to individual privacy,’ Grand View warns. ‘Keeping the above-mentioned threat in mind, there are significant efforts – both in terms of money and time – being invested in the development and manufacturing of anti-drone technologies.’ The Dutch have even trained eagles to attack drones.
Britain’s drone policy appears to be primarily defensive, as the RAF is well aware that the F-35 Lightning (at GBP £65 million a throw) is unlikely to be available in large numbers. Reaper drones and their UAV successors (at about GBP £14 million a copy) can offer a better bang for the taxpayers’ buck. In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute on 11 February 2019, UK Defence Secretary Williamson announced that the United Kingdom was ready to develop and deploy a swarm of drones before the year was out. ‘I have decided to develop swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences,’ he said. ‘We expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of this year .’
This is interesting: it suggests a ‘weapons mix’, where drones accompany crewed fighters as robotic wing mates. It’s cheap – and the technology already exists in the US: for example, the manoeuvrable target drone developed by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions.
The danger, as ever in UK defence procurement, is that the dead hand of Ministry of Defence jobsworths will – once again – gold plate and change the specification, starve it of funds, double the cost and, finally, draft a rotten contract just in time for the next round of defence cuts.
But that’s another story …