Military drone in the air above land. Life Solved logo and title.

Professor Peter Lee discusses how drone operators are unable to detach themselves from the act of killing

  • 25 August 2020
  • 20 min listen

A former military Chaplain, Professor Peter Lee talked to drone operators and their families and found out that in spite of popular belief, operating drones in warfare does not detach operators from the act of killing, or the mental health consequences. In this episode he explains his perspective that technology cannot remove the innately human nature of war and conflict.

Advisory: Please note this episode contains material that some listeners may find disturbing.

You can listen to Life Solved on all major podcast players, whether via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or other apps. Just search for ‘Life Solved’ and press the subscribe button.

I never felt I could possibly ask somebody to talk about what would undoubtedly be the worst day of that life.

Professor Peter Lee, Theme Director (Security and Risk)

Episode transcript:

John Worsey: Thanks for downloading this podcast from the University of Portsmouth. In Life Solved, we're asking the big questions about our world from politics to technology, our bodies and our environment. To do this our interviewers have snatched moments with researchers who are challenging existing ideas and finding new ways of solving the world's problems.

John Worsey: This time, we're asking what the human cost is of using drones in warfare. More specifically, we're looking into the experiences of the people who use these remote weapons to kill.

Peter Lee: I never felt that I could possibly ask somebody to talk about what would undoubtedly be the worst day of their life. From a camera 20,000 feet in the air, he can see her body juddering with shock.

John Worsey: In mainstream reporting, it's often assumed that operating weapons at a distance takes the emotional impact away from the act of taking a human life. But is this really the case?

Peter Lee: They all assume that if you're 3000 miles away or 5000 miles away, that you are-- if you're physically detached or emotionally detached. They're physically a long way away but the human dimension of war can never be taken away.

John Worsey: Today, Emma Field's meets a former military chaplain who turns his attention to the ethics of the technology we use in modern warfare. Peter Lee told us about his findings around the real impact of using human-operated drones.

John Worsey: Peter Lee is the Director of Security and Risk Research at the University of Portsmouth. He studied for degrees in both engineering and cultural studies before his interest in the military took him close to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Peter Lee: When I was a military chaplain in a military hospital in Akrotiri in Cyprus, all the British and some American battlefield casualties from Iraq were brought to the hospital and I would sit with them for hours every day, sometimes all night. And-- and my view of war is not guns, bombs and bullets. My view of war is wounded people, broken people, damaged people, funerals, breaking news that your son or your husband or your children's father has been killed and will not be coming home. That's-- that's my experience of war, that deeply painful human side.

John Worsey: Peter became disturbed by the suffering and trauma he witnessed, and he chose to do some research into the experience of human drone operators. Eventually, he got access to British Reaper drone sites in Britain and America, and he found himself observing the drone operators in action. What he saw in the lives of RAF Reaper operators surprised him.

Peter Lee: Although I left chaplaincy to commence an academic career, partly because of the toll the chaplaincy took on me kind of thing, I still retained that interest in military people, their welfare, and I try to understand the lives of the people who do these extraordinary things. The operators are sitting in either Waddington in Lincolnshire or in Nevada in the United States, and they are operating Reaper aircraft over Syria or Iraq. And bluntly, they are either watching or killing and then going home to their families afterwards.

Peter Lee: I'm fascinated by the differences between conventional flying and remote piloting. We'll call it that, because the word drone is often taken to suggest that they are somehow automatic or autonomous and they're not. They're piloted remotely just from a very long distance away. And in terms of comparing that to conventional flying, many of the crews used to fly conventional aircraft. The obvious difference is the lack of sensation in the Reaper. They sit in a ground control station, which is effectively like a shipping container. And there's all the computers and control equipment inside and huge amount of screens and Internet chat, secure military Internet chat not--not regular Internet.

Peter Lee: The Reaper has three crew members which you might have read, but there's a pilot to flight it. And when it comes to it, the pilot will pull the trigger to fire a missile or drop a bomb. Next to the pilot is the sensor operator who operates all the cameras and various other equipment and sensing equipment that it has. And if a missile is fired, the sensor operator will use a laser control, a joystick, to guide the weapon onto its target, whether that's a human target or a vehicle or a building.

John Worsey: It was a short step from observing the decisions and experiences of the RAF Reaper operators to asking why we so rarely hear reports of trauma in the job. Peter wasn't ready to assume that the distance and training made it all easy to process.

Peter Lee: Facebook and YouTube have been in the press talking about how their online image moderators are increasingly seeking psychological support for what they see – killings, rapes, beheadings and so on. And when you add all these things up, that can be a bad day in a Reaper. I have read a study of photojournalists who have been traumatised. War journalists who are famously robust people.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Peter Lee: Mentally traumatised. So in all these different civilian contexts, people are experiencing mental trauma. So I think it's not a great leap of the imagination to suspect that at least some of the military people are being similarly affected.

Peter Lee: He spoke to the operators, former operators, their families and spouses, and he was astonished by their candid testimonials. Even when operators were not keen to speak on the record, in some cases, they changed their minds in order to challenge the view that these remote drones somehow completely detached people from the killings they made. In fact, Peter quickly found the opposite to be true in many cases.

Peter Lee: One of the most significant, if not the most significant incident in the history of the Royal Air Force Reaper operations was a strike, a bombing event in 2011 where a crew dropped a 500 pound bomb on a vehicle. There was two vehicles that they were targeting. The vehicles, the information they had intelligence information, said they were full of homemade explosives, which turned out to be accurate, and they were each being driven in Afghanistan by someone from the Taliban, which is also accurate. What was not accurate-- because they influence the situation. They're given information and they then do the targeting in this chapter on this. What they didn't know until they dropped the first bomb on the first vehicle and the second vehicle stopped behind it. It was at night in the dark. And as they went round to bomb the second vehicle, what they found instead of one male driver in each, there was a whole family in each and they watched as two dead children and two dead women were pulled out of the vehicle that they had just bombed and laid under a tarpaulin. And my interview was with one of the crew members. He recounts his experience of what it's like to live with that all the years afterwards, knowing, knowing what you did and having seen it and going through the whole process. And I always knew about this event. It's on public record. It's very important historically. But I never felt that I could possibly ask somebody to talk about what would undoubtedly be the worst day of their life.

Peter Lee: Through his research, Peter was able to build up a relationship with some of the people he interviewed, including their 25 spouses and partners. The result was that some felt candidly able to share things that otherwise wouldn't be represented anywhere.

Peter Lee: I got this email. It said, Pete, I think your book will be lacking something if it doesn't talk about that civilian casualty incident. So I will be willing to be interviewed. And I think he spoke to wives who told us that we spoke about it at great length. And-- and whenever people say anything in the public domain about Reaper operators, the one thing that is almost guaranteed is that they will not actually have spoken to any. They'll assume that if you're 3000 miles away or 5000 miles away, that you are if you're physically detached, emotionally detached. But it's actually the opposite. They're physically a long way away. But the detail of the camera is so much that in the distance there's some men maybe 50 metres away there. So in terms of what they can see in the camera their-- their view, the detail of the view is somewhere between close armed combat and Port and Archer would have had at action core. So they see in tremendous detail if they blow a limb off, they so is deeply affecting. And when they're going in to take shots to fire weapons, their heart rates go through the roof. The hair on the back of their neck stand up. They get a sick feeling in their stomach. It's all adrenaline because they know what they're about to do. They know they're about to kill someone. And this is not a game.

John Worsey: Further to this finding, Peter explained how the unique nature of Reaper drone operation can lead to a far deeper emotional impact on teams who sometimes have to watch targets for days. Operators must witness the emotional consequences of their actions upon the lives of other humans. This can be about as far from a remote experience as imaginable.

Peter Lee: The people who've done both and I've spoken to them about this, they will say that it is harder on the Reaper. Because in a conventional aircraft if they fly in at 420 knots, they have several-- so depending what height they're at -- they'll have several seconds to lock onto the target. You've seen it in the films. Pull the trigger, but after the trigger is being pulled, they're flying off 400 knots as well. So straight through. Whereas the Reaper is much slower. So they will have watched for hours and possibly days and sometimes weeks before they watch one person, and there's one person for days, hours or weeks, brought up in the entire picture of that person. They will see them playing football with their sons or going for a walk with his wife, or because it's usually men that they're after. And then the day will come when-- so they know where to goes to the Mosque, you know, where his friends are. They'll know who his children are. And then when the day comes, they will kill that person and then they will keep watching as parts of his body-- those parts you can find are put in a wheelbarrow and they will keep watching as that wheelbarrow is delivered back to-- to the wife. And I've got a quote that I use of an operator from thousands of miles away and his kind of horror at seeing his wife presented with this wheelbarrow and she drops her knees on the ground and from a camera 20,000 feet in the air, he can see her body juddering with shock. You know, I'm seeing children finding their father. And so it's deeply humanising.

John Worsey: Peter noted that drone personnel were offered voluntary mental health support should they need it, as well as trauma working groups. But there was no regular framework in place to assess the mental state of personnel on an ongoing basis.

Peter Lee: Another insight is, is of someone who towards the end-- and this is really common, people do get affected by this, but he is getting more and more affected. And so by the time he finished his two-year tour he was getting aggressive and, by on own admission, I saw him again last week actually, he seemed much better but he was getting aggressive. This is someone who was known for being really placid and gentle. And he was a SMIC – senior mission intelligence coordinator. So as well as supervising two boxes with what they're doing, seen all the imagery, after a strike, he would have to basically clip out a couple of minutes of the footage. So he'd be watching and re-watching the actual strike bit. So he would be watching and re-watching the most dramatic bits of every day, multiple times. And so all of these images were being firmly embedded in his mind.

Peter Lee: And so he took himself to the NDHU of the military mental health support unit and got an appointment. And he's still serving. He's still-- not on the Reaper force but he's still in the Air Force. And as he walked into the waiting room, one of his colleagues that he had flown with many times, was sitting, waiting to see the psychologist as well. They'd never even discussed it. Never knew about one another. But it's not that everyone is sitting there traumatised, it affects people to different degrees. I think one or two are and they probably have left or will leave. Um. I'm almost more interested in how some people have managed to do this for five, six, seven years continuously. That's almost more fascinating than the fact that some people are struggling after a couple of years.

John Worsey: Work is now being done to revise the support offered to operators. But what wider conclusions was Peter able to draw from his extensive research? He concluded that technology cannot remove the innately human nature of war and conflict.

Peter Lee: There's an example that I use in both my own book and this much shorter case study of an incident in Afghanistan, where a British Reaper crew was tasked with targeting Taliban high-value target, as you call them, I think is a bomb maker. The crew and the relief crew had been authorised six times and cleared hot as a-- cleared hot means all the legal authorisations are in place. You can fire at them. So they were cleared hot six times to-- to fire a missile and kill this-- this Taliban target. And six times they didn't and couldn't because there were civilian vehicles going by or civilians in the vicinity. The seventh time the target, the man who they're targeting is in the local bazaar. They're-- they are observing what's going on. He gets on his motorbike, puts a box in the back and starts riding towards his-- his home and compound, which is a number of kilometres away.

Peter Lee: So they're getting ready. They're cleared hot. They've got permission to strike as soon as he is driving along the road, far enough away that no civilians are going to be hit. Anyway. They go through all the final checks. Cleared hot. And the last thing the pilot would say is everybody happy? And then over their earpiece from the operations room next door where they've got two supervisors, one is the authorising officer. And the message came through just before they're about to pull the trigger and said negative. The SMIC, senior mission intelligence coordinator, says there's a kid on the back of that bike. And so they all look at it. No, no, there's not. There's no high definition like it is now, but it's still pretty good. SMIC says, negative. Oh, by the way, the senior mission intelligence coordinator, she's a corporal. She's the most junior member of this entire crew and is on her first day in a supervisory job.

Emma Fields: Oh my god!

Peter Lee: And the crew itself is just about the most senior crew that could be compiled from the squadron. So there's very senior experienced crew are all saying this is fine, a second aircraft is saying this is fine. The authorising officer is also saying it's fine. The headquarters, the commanding headquarters, they're saying get on with it. This is fine. So anyway, after all this is going on and they look and-- and they can rewind the video in real-time so you can have different screens and rewinding, watching, rewinding. And this is all happening at high speed. They want to see anything. And so anyway, this is all taken several minutes, by which time the man arrives back at his family compound. They can't fire because he's now surrounded by family and he stops his motorbike, turns around and puts a two-year-old child on the ground. And they all just, you know, they've got blood chills. And they watch and rewatch. And after all the reviewing, they could still not see how this SMIC on her first day. I mean, she had to have five hundred hours experience in order to do this job, but she'd never done this. And she stood up to all the pressure around about her and said, no. I think the person read the body language and can-- and at a subconscious level recognise him but couldn't even explain it. And that is why I am strongly against automating these things, because how can you teach a machine...

Other: To recognise body language?

Peter Lee: Yeah. When at the moment autonomous cars are both call-- cause fatalities in recent times.

John Worsey: Peter's point is that automation can't yet account for human intuition or emotion, and indeed technology can't replace the complex ethical judgements that operatives and teams of operatives are required to make.

Peter Lee: The key thing that comes out of my research is that it almost seems to be the case that despite rapid advances in technology, the human dimension of war can never be taken away, can never be removed. And I think those who have a fixation, it might be politicians, it might be the media, it might be some military people themselves, those who have an obsession with the technological aspects of war are missing the point. And that is war is a deeply human activity.

Peter Lee: And I sometimes think, despite this being my personal area of academic interest, I sometimes think this obsession with drones is-- is a first world self-indulgence because eight hundred and fifty thousand people died in Rwanda in 1995 – was it 94,95? And they were killed mainly by machetes and garden tools. And yet if you think about the amount of coverage the drone strikes get in the media, compare that to almost a million Rwandans. It does seem a bit self-indulgent to-- to focus so intently on one aspect.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Peter Lee: And overlook things that don't involve Western technology. So. So I think we shouldn't lose sight of the human factors and human cost.

John Worsey: Perhaps recognising the inevitable, emotional engagement required to operate remote warfare technology will inform how it's used and the values attached to those actions going forward.

John Worsey: Thanks to Peter for sharing some of the stories that came from his research. You can find out more in his book Reaper Force: The Inside Story of Britain's Drone Wars. And for more information on our research areas and how they overlap to answer big questions, go to

John Worsey: Next time on Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth, how can one of life's most basic resources be political?

Julia Brown:: Very, very powerful people will always have access to waters. It's always the most vulnerable, the most marginal who have problems accessing water.

John Worsey: Tell us what you think of the series via social media. You can also share this podcast using the hashtag Life Solved, or maybe just share the big idea with a friend. If you subscribe in your podcast app, you'll also get each episode of Life Solved automatically. Our new magazine, Solve, follows University of Portsmouth research when it's put into practice. It's full of news and stories on our world-leading advances and the changes these are making to lives and futures across the world. Get it at Catch you next time.

Previous episode

Next episode