Unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as ‘drones’, are in high demand and are a multimillion dollar industry. They are praised for not risking pilot’s lives and are formidable weapon – a nightmare for the enemy. But there are loud voices that label them as unaccountable killing machines and demand they be banned. Today we talk about the drone controversy with a former drone pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Black.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today is Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Black, a retired US Air Force drone pilot.
Bruce, you said in one of your interviews that the time it took you to get from your home to work, to your box from which you were carrying out missions – that was just enough time to put on your ‘game face’. What exactly does that mean?
Bruce Black: It’s a transition from what, I guess, you can call a civilian life to the military life, and in particular for ‘Predator’ pilots, because you are living in a civilian atmosphere, and are not surrounded constantly by the military, by the war-time mentality. It’s an important transition.
SS: Did you at any point experience some sort of cognitive dissonance? I mean, one moment you’re living a normal life, the next you’re killing the enemy, and probably civilians as well via screen of the battlefield?
BB: If there was any of that, it was going back the other way – it was being able to put it aside as you went back to the civilian life.
SS: One of the most vocal drone critics is Brandon Bryant - he was on CNN not too long ago. He spent several years as a drone sensor operator. Now he believes that drone technology is very dangerous, because it removes the natural psychological fear of killing, making the operator detached from what they are doing. Does this describe you in any way?
BB: I don’t think so, as a matter of fact, I would that it’s just the opposite. Whenever the strike happens in the ‘Predator-Reaper’ community, you are intimately involved in that, you are so much more involved in that particular action, than, say, an F-15,F-18 driver who shows up, drops a weapon, and then flies off. You have been there, watching the subject, watching the target for hours, maybe days, on end, and when the action happens you’re the one who has eyes-on to see what happens. And they use you to make sure the battle damage that occurred is what was required.
SS: When you are away from the warzone and you don’t actually experience the horrors of war – doesn’t that numb your feeling of killing someone else? Because you’re away from it, you don’t actually experience, you don’t see…it’s a blip on your screen.
BB: No, absolutely not. What I would say, again, is that a Predator operator is so much more involved in what is going on than your average fast-moving jetfighter pilot, or your B-52, B-1, B-2 pilots, who will never even see their target, they will be dropping when they’ll get to the particular point. A Predator pilot has been watching his target, knows them intimately, knows where they are, and knows what’s around them. I would say it affects the UAS community much more.
SS: Are you or your colleagues, as drone operators, would you say cut-off from the controversy that the drone program causes in the wider sense?
BB: If you were talking about the Predator itself – it’s far more intimate that we have ever been in action on targets from the air, except for, maybe, A-10, where you are right there. And actually flying the aircraft and working with aircraft – it’s nothing like a videogame, it’s far removed from that. But that removal actually places me closer to what is going on the ground, what I am doing to help the forces that I am helping. I am much closer to them, I can hear the actual battle going on, I can hear the stress in their voice, I know they are relying on me, I am much closer to them, I can see it in very good detail.
As far as the actual implementation of the weapon system – that is obviously a political calculation, made by our leadership, and their calculus is way beyond our level.
SS: I just want to walk our viewers for the pros and cons for those who are not aware. So the drones keep the American soldiers safe, while the enemy is killed – which is a great thing, I mean, who wouldn’t agree with it, killing the enemy without killing your own soldiers. On the other hand, innocent civilians die at an alarming rate. American think-tank The Brookings Institution says that, for instance, in Pakistan for every militant leader killed, 10 civilians also die. And then, you also have the UN, which is even concerned this might contravene international law. Do you consider the other side of the argument at all?
BB: There’s two points there, again. And you’re probably heading towards the Amnesty International report – I have not seen their evidence, so I can’t intelligently say that the particular two strikes that they were talking about had happened or not happened, so I have a tendency to believe that based on my own experience, that those figures are excessively inflated.
I have seen - and me and my colleagues have jumped through many very restrictive hoops before we were allowed to employ – to the point that we have actually done damage to Blue Forces because we weren’t allowed to employ.
The one incident in Pakistan that Amnesty International talked about – again, I don’t know their evidence, but a lot of things happen in that area that are unintended and are not caused by the US at all. For example, I personally watched the bomb emplacer blowing himself up. I don’t know whether or not those two incidents happened to be from a strike, or did they happen to blow themselves up, or was there something planted on the ground that that lady happened to walk over and trigger.
SS: I just want to clarify something – when I ask you these questions, I just want you to know that no one doubts the initial intention being for the greater good, because once again, who wouldn’t want to kill an enemy without having your own soldiers die. But the truth is it’s not only Amnesty International, but other think-tanks as well, other organizations that have proven extensively that when the concept of a drone is put in place and it starts to operate, it entails repercussions, it entails grave consequences that are not dealt with. Do you know what I mean?
BB: Yes, you are talking about collateral damage.
SS: Yes, I’m talking about collateral damage and the fact that for example the American government wouldn’t talk about it. I mean, it only talks about the fact that drones are good, but it turns a blind eye to the fact that there is collateral damage and it wouldn’t give us the numbers of how much people are actually dying along with the terrorists.
BB: I don’t know what numbers have been listed officially by the government, I can’t speak intelligently about that. I can tell you though, as our leadership thinks, and in their calculus, they have to weigh in to the fact that we need to action this, we do need to use force, we need to protect our forces, and within that calculus there is the collateral damage aspect of it: how much can we accept in what particular phase of the conflict?
As the leadership figures that out, they’ll obviously want to minimize it as much as it’s possible for the obvious reasons you are talking about here - it’s bad, it’s a horrible thing when somebody dies who doesn’t need to. And they want to minimize that. If you were going to minimize that, this is the weapon to use. This is like a surgeon walking into the operating room with a scalpel as opposed to an ax.
Chances of collateral damage happening from a UAV strike who’s been overhead of target for…well, for example Zarqawi - 600 hours. The Predators flew on Zarqawi for 600 hours before they actioned that target. The knowledge gained, the ability to wait, the ability to strike when the time is right is so much better with this weapon system than has ever been experienced in any phase of warfare in any other time.
SS: Did you ever think or consider that maybe the leadership is turning a blind eye on the collateral damage and is not really getting too deep into the collateral damage problem, because it is just so convenient the way it is? American soldiers aren’t dying, and who really cares that others are? It’s a clean war for America; do you know what I mean?
BB: I think that’s a mischaracterization of our mindset. None of the leadership that I’ve ever dealt with, none of the rules that I have operated under have ever placed collateral damage on “who really cares, because Blue Forces are okay.” We have always been very, very conscientious of the image that our community is portraying and what responsibility we have to the people we are trying to protect and trying to save in that country.
SS: On a larger scale, Bruce, do you ever question America’s policy on War on Terror, for example?
BB: No, I do not.
SS: This is a question I am genuinely curious about – is there a regimental pride among drone operators? Would you want your child to serve as a drone operator, for example?
BB: I would be proud if she did, yes.
SS: I want to talk a little bit about technical side – how that actually happens. Were there different types of missions or did you always have to eliminate someone?
BB: No, no. It makes me cringe when I hear that question. 99.9 percent of my time I am trying to gather intelligence and trying to keep people from being killed. I saved far more people, orders of magnitude more than I ever had to fire, including Afghanis [sic] and Iraqis. And 99 percent of our time is spent trying to get intelligence – for example, right now in Afghanistan, the way I understand it, it is very, very difficult, and it was very difficult in Iraq as we left, to fire. You get no intelligence from a dead person, or you get very little.
SS: These so-called ‘mission control boxes’ – they are usually placed out in a desert somewhere. Why are they so remote?
BB: We put them where they need to be, for example they were in downtown Las Vegas at one time. It’s just where the current activity was. Where we launch and control the aircraft from happens to be in-country, because we need to be in a very close proximity to the aircraft and it’s on the Air Force base there in the country, where we launch the aircraft.
SS: You just mentioned Afghanistan and Iraq – which other countries were on your mission list?
BB: Those are the two I can talk about, sorry.
SS: So how hard do you have to study the characteristics of the targeted areas, or did you have to blindly rely on the intelligence provided?
BB: A little of both. What we used to say when I was on the unmanned aerial system taskforce is “the only thing unmanned about UAS is that piece of the fiberglass on the end of a very long trail.” For example, for every Predator CAP [Combat Air Patrol] it takes 175 people to make it happen. For every ‘Global Hawk’ it can take up to 400, and most of that are people behind the scenes, working the intelligence, working the IT, working the communications, and oftentimes when I would step to the box or replace somebody in the box on a mission, I had a lot of data on what we were doing. Like I said, we’ve been sitting on them for days, weeks, trying to figure out where the people were going and what they were doing. Sometimes, we would show up in the middle of the firefight and not know a thing, and be trying to build a picture at that point.
SS: How much is shared about the purpose or the specifics of a mission?
BB: I will know a fair amount about what we’re doing; I may not know the individuals. If it’s data that I need to know, in particular “he drives a blue car with a sunroof,” they will tell me that, and they’ll tell me who it is that we’re following. Sometimes there are missions where I go and I wait, and I may not know why I am waiting there, at that particular time.
SS: So, you’ve said that 99 percent of your missions are monitoring and then the 1 percent is may be eliminating someone. When it comes to that 1 percent, are you the one who decides when to pull the trigger?
BB: That varies with the phase of war that we’re in. Early in Iraq and the Afghanistan war is was much easier to lose a weapon and you always worked with the ground crew. I might be following a convoy and if they came under attack, I would work directly with the ground controller, and he would tell us where he needs help, he would say “look at that person, we’re taking fire from that person,” and I would tell him what I see and then he would clear me hot, and then the decision was on me for when to fire.
When the phase of war changed, those restrictions became greater, and greater and greater. We could not lose weapons, and towards the end of our occupation in Iraq we were weapons-tight. It took an act of a President to say “Yes, that’s somebody we need to strike,” because again, you don’t need to be killing people, you need to be arresting those people and getting the intelligence from them.
SS: How do you know a terrorist from the civilian? Or does somebody else decide it for you?
BB: It’s usually a guy pointing a weapon at somebody or guy, digging a hole on the road or in a field somewhere and planting a 105mm shell with wire attached to it. Actually knowing whether somebody is a terrorist or not comes from the intel that is gathered in many, many places and fed to us. We never action somebody just based on their shape, we don’t do that - it’s just not what we do. Oftentimes I would see somebody carrying something that looks like a gun and we wouldn’t do anything, because he was just carrying a gun - people have guns over there - we don’t do it. We don’t just walk around and kill people.
SS: I am not saying you just walk around and kill people, I am saying when it comes down to pulling the trigger, how are you 100 percent sure that is the person you are looking for, especially in a country where everyone is carrying guns? You know, terrorist is not always wired up with explosives, he could just be walking around with the gun like peaceful civilian who is also walking around with a gun, and this is a black and white screen after all and you can’t really see well who is who.
BB: Two misconceptions here. One, it’s only black and white when we are looking at them in infrared, and it’s not just little figures – I can see how many fingers somebody is holding up, depending on how close I am flying to the subject. So also we have a very good day camera, but I am not making my decisions on who to action based on what they look like.
SS: I do want to get a little bit back to the civilian casualties. I get your position, you think the numbers are greatly exaggerated, and there hasn’t been, in your opinion, enough proof to actually talk about them. But we both agree that there are civilian casualties – so when that happens, is someone ever held responsible for that, or not?
BB: Yes. They are.
SS: How does that happen?
BB: I gave an interview earlier and they asked if I’ve ever seen an incident like that, and I couldn’t remember off the top of my head and I thought about it later. There was one particular incident that I recall and I’m not going to go in details on it, but instantly whenever they think something like that has happened that we caused, everything is - and I don’t know how they do things in Russia, but like we do here in US – everything freezes that has to do with that particular incident, including the GCS and all the tapes, and everything is frozen and kept as evidence. And then a separate group - not from that squadron - somebody from somewhere else comes and reviews the evidence and reviews everything that is going on, both on the side of the Air Force and on who we were supporting if there was special operations, or if it’s Army or it’s Navy. That team will be put together and they will do a regular investigation.
SS: Does anyone go to prison, or is anyone suspended?
BB: They could be... Suspensions, yes. They could go to prison if it was willful, if they were intentionally trying to kill somebody.
SS: Does something like that happen? Is there ever a willful thing?
BB: I don’t know of any, I don’t know if I would know of somebody that has just decided to lose a weapon and kill someone. I would doubt that, because there are just too many people watching this; there’s 175 people watching what you do, and everything you do is being recorded. So some cowboy is not going to get into Predator and go galavanting around Pakistan, killing people.
SS: I know military keeps record of targets terminated during the missions. Do you know the approximate number that you’ve helped to eliminate, terrorists or people of your targets.
BB: I do.
SS: Is this something that actually gives you force to go on, or is this something you don’t want to think about?
BB: It’s something I put aside. It’s not something like, you know, sit in the bar and count the notches on your gun. You don’t, and anybody that does needs to be talking to somebody for help. It’s not a proud thing. It’s something you have to do and you do your job.
SS: You won’t tell us the number, would you?
BB: No, no…
SS:The other thing with civilian casualties is that for example, when people are living in Yemen, or Pakistan, and see these drones flying around – they kill the terrorists, but along with the terrorists they kill however many civilians they kill, then this really incites controversy and negative feelings towards the US. Couldn’t that actually be inciting terrorism even more?
BB: I don’t know how it would get worse. The incitement is happening because of the stories they get told, and the misconceptions that happen, and who controls the ground there. Who can actually walk up to the huts and say “see that airplane over there, it’s going to kill you children – that’s what they are here for, to kill your children,” and the stories are wrong. And if terrorists are being incited, they are being incited out of falsehoods and lies.
SS: Did you ever stop to think that such high-tech weapon as a drone – how could that be that it could still target someone precisely and yet kill someone that you weren’t targeting?
BB: Accidents, proximity, losing the weapon on someone who is hiding among the civilians which they do quite often – remember, these are the people that send their children in to blow others up. These are not fighters like we are used to, they like using civilians as human shields. I personally have called off strikes because the bad guys were in and around the civilians and were using civilian buildings as a hiding place.
SS: Do you see future warfare being dominated by unmanned machines? Some are predicting for example that in the future drones will be able to carry out missions fully autonomously from people – isn’t that a bit scary? Won’t you be scared to wake up in a Terminator movie or something?
BB: Well, if it gets to a Terminator stage, I would. But it doesn’t scare me that drones are doing that, because remember, every Predator CAP took 175 people to do it – it is far more controlled now than sending one guy out, one airplane out. I got 175 eyes looking at what I’m doing, making sure I’m doing it right, making sure that I’m hitting the right target, calling the strike. The president, personally, can call up any Predator feed down in the office and say “Yay” or “Nay.” It’s much more controlled, that sending one person out with a bomb with what he thinks is the right target.