Research has resulted in improvements to the quality of life for Reaper drone pilots through the introduction of ethics training and improved awareness of the psychological and emotional impacts.
RAF Reaper drones have been widely deployed in combat missions since 2007. The ethics of the use of these drones is widely debated, with pilots delivering lethal strikes from physical safety thousands of miles away. Pilots lacked a suitable ethics vocabulary or framework and were found to be uncertain about this topic, having received no ethical guidance in their training. Their experiences led to increased psychological and emotional jeopardy.
What did we do?
Peter Lee carried out extensive research into the experiences of Reaper drone pilots and existing training practices. Based on his findings, Lee submitted written evidence to the APPGDrones enquiry, as well as delivering in-person teaching on the ethics of remote warfare to 80% of RAF Reaper drone crew members.
Following the recommendations of Lee’s paper to the APPGDrones enquiry, drone pilots now receive mandatory professional ethics training designed by Lee, and the RAF are in the process of exploring options for providing psychological support for operators at regular intervals. These changes support the emotional and psychological wellbeing of pilots and inform their decision making process.
Lee has also influenced policy debate, offering advice at roundtable events and providing expert support elsewhere. His engagement introduces a previously lacking ethical perspective to discourse around remote air warfare.
Professor Peter Lee, whose pioneering work on the ethics of military drones has driven a positive shift in the Royal Air Force’s training of its reaper squadrons to support their physical and mental wellbeing as they make life-or-death choices.
Bringing ethics training to drone pilots
I stumbled into the field of drones and military drone use almost by accident.
I was teaching at the Air Force College when I was asked to write an article on the Reaper crew members.
One of the most interesting things for me was interviewing Reaper pilots who had dropped bombs from conventional aircraft,
and then later they had dropped bombs or fired laser guided missiles from the reaper.
What fascinated me was the brain prompted a physical response that was exactly the same,
both in an unmanned aircraft overhead or operating out from thousands of miles away.
I have a long history with the Royal Air Force, which started during university, and I left to become a chaplain.
I retrained and went back quite a few years later.
So from 2007 to 2008, I served as a Royal Air Force chaplain.
During that wartime period, I was a hospital chaplain for the casualties of the Iraq war,
and it had a life changing effect on me because they were asking me questions like, Should we be at war?
Should Prime Minister Tony Blair have sent us to war?
I realised I was woefully ill equipped to answer the questions to address them, even for myself.
And that prompted me to to undertake a doctorate, actually, in ethics and war.
That became the bedrock of my subsequent academic career.
For many years, drones have been controversial both in public life and in the way they've been represented in the media.
And when I was asked to write about Reaper, the brief I was given was "Can you write something about the ethics of it?"
Is it fair because the crew members can be thousands of miles away from the actual aircraft when they're dropping bombs, are firing missiles?
There's no chance that the crews can be attacked because they're on other continents even.
Why, when people are so far away, are they affected.
And I came up with the phrase, the distance paradox.
Despite being physically far away and can be thousands of miles, visually, emotionally, psychologically, especially with high definition cameras and screens,
they have a very intimate view of, for example, a body they watch in intimate detail what happens to that body.
Moral injury is a form of psychological harm that was first identified in the United States soldiers and Marines after the Vietnam War.
Psychologists couldn't work out exactly why some of these veterans were displaying symptoms and behaviour
that did not fit with their clinical assessment of, say, post-traumatic stress disorder.
Moral injury is concerned with how an individual's core moral values, core moral self can be harmed or violated by things that they see and do.
It's a difference between is it legal and is it right?
To give an example, a crew had been given legal authorisation to kill a Taliban bomb emplacer.
Who is laying a roadside bomb dozens of miles from home.
It was freezing weather and he had a young son with him and the crew refused to take the shot on that occasion,
because if they killed the father as night was falling, it's likely the son would have died of exposure.
Whilst they were legally authorised to kill the Taliban fighter.
They took the decision not to fire on ethical grounds that it would have this unintended consequence of potentially killing the son.
So by having good ethics training, it helps with decision making.
And I think it it at least partially helps to protect against moral injury.
I believe my has had impact in a number of ways.
After I made my parliamentary submission in 2017.
By 2018, I was invited by the Royal Air Force to to go back to both squadrons to help introduce this ethics education.
And people have told me since that it really helped them with decision making.
And for some, how to live with some of the things they've seen and the powerlessness that they've felt.
So it hasn't changed the world, but if it's made a small difference to a number of people in this crucial role, then that's really important to me.
Perhaps the thing that gives me the most professional satisfaction is looking at the research that started initially just to tell the story about Reaper personnel,
then noticing this moral injury and other psychological effects, and the need for ethics training and education,
And then seeing it extend to the police and then see new opportunities.
And that's what makes me passionate about it, because there are so many others in fields where they're affected psychologically, emotionally and in other ways.
And if I can help others to come through that and work more effectively and live more effectively, then that will be a life and career well spent.