Armchair killers: life as a drone pilot

ethan hawke in good kill
Modern warfare: Ethan Hawke in Good Kill 
Colin Freeman
Follow

Its nickname is Predator Porn, and Paul Rolfe used to watch it 12 hours a day. Sometimes it was horrific, sometimes it was life affirming; mostly it was just dull. But whenever fellow soldiers at his airbase in Nevada wandered past the "live feeds" from his console, he'd notice how their eyes would wander to the screen and have trouble looking away.

Small wonder. For the cameras on the Predator drones that Rolfe once operated offer a voyeuristic experience unlike no other.

Filmed from two miles up, but with a lens so powerful it feels like a hawk hovering at 100 feet, the cameras captured parallel lives in some of Iraq and Afghanistan's most hostile corners. On his screen at the Combined Joint Predator Task Force, 50 miles north of Las Vegas, Rolfe and his colleagues would watch locals going about their business, sometimes in the harsh light of the midday sun, sometimes in the black and white silhouettes of infrared night vision.

Often they would be unsuspecting farmers or market traders, women hanging out the washing or children playing, but sometimes it might be a high-value al-Qaeda or Taliban figure. At which point, Predator Porn goes well beyond mere voyeurism. The pilot sitting next to the camera operators would pull a trigger on a joystick, and a missile would snake down from 15,000 feet. Roughly 15 seconds later, whatever was in the camera lens would vanish in a cloud of dust. If the target was an al-Qaeda VIP, staff across the Task Force might even cheer.

Ethan Hawke plays a troubled drone pilot in Good Kill

"The feeds from the Predator drones are available for hundreds of different people to watch all over the drone operating centre,” says London-born Rolfe, 43, who served for six years with the task force on secondment from the RAF. “It can be hard for people to take their eyes off it. If it's an operation to hit some well-known terrorist, you'll see people crowding around the screens."

Rolfe worked with the task force from a row of drab container units at Creech Air Force base, all specially air-conditioned to deal with Nevada's baking desert heat. Like Las Vegas, it is a place that never sleeps. Throughout the theatres of the global war on terror, its drones keep watch 24-7, be it on Taliban warlords in Afghanistan, al-Shabaab militants in Somalia, or Islamic State fighters in Syria. Right now, there may be one hunting full-time for Jihadi John.

When I met Rolfe recently, however, it was to talk about how drones themselves have now had the cameras turned on them – courtesy of Good Kill, a new movie about the secretive war waged from Creech. Starring Ethan Hawke as a drone operator with a troubled conscience, it is Hollywood's first major stab at the growing ethical debate around "killing by remote control", not least in terms of the psychological impact on those who do it.

Read Robbie Collin's review of Good Kill

Just like American Sniper, Clint Eastwood's biopic of marksman Chris Kyle, Good Kill touches on controversial issues. It is about those who play God in modern warfare, the people who decide from afar who lives and who dies. Since Rolfe is one of the few ex-drone operators willing to talk about his work, I was keen to hear what he thought of the film.

That sense of "playing God" can be even greater for a drone operator than it is for a sniper. Their remoteness from their target is measured by thousands of miles, not hundreds of metres. And rather than bullets that may hit or miss – or be returned – they operate laser-guided Hellfire missiles that rain down from the heavens like a strike from the Almighty. They observe not just the gory deaths of their targets, but sometimes linger for the funerals afterwards, in case other future targets might be observed among the mourners.

And their kill ratio can be of a different order. When he quit the task force in 2011, Brandon Bryant, the real-life former drone operator on whom Good Kill is loosely based, was presented with a leaving card that credited his squadron with 1,626 kills. Kyle – the best sniper in US military history – got a 10th of that.

A Reaper drone at Creech Air Base, Nevada (Getty)

The film is set in 2010, when the drone program begun under President George W Bush was expanding hugely under Barack Obama, keen to wind down his predecessor's wars with the minimum of US troop casualties. As Egan's commander, Lt Col Johns, makes it clear in a pep talk to a group of new recruits – some recruited straight from local malls because of their computer gaming skills – drone operators are going to be the new Top Guns. "It's not the future of war, it's the here and f_____' now," he says. In Afghanistan, he adds mirthlessly, so many drones are now in the skies "they think it's the new national bird."

Sat listening glumly is Hawke's Major Tom Egan, one of the few recruits has actually fought combat sorties in Iraq. Like any man whose job is replaced by a computer, his professional pride is under threat, and he misses "the danger" of real-life missions in his F-16.

Killing by drone feels sanitised and disconnected, an experience as anonymous as the Predators themselves, with their faceless grey nose cone where a cockpit would normally be. Now he is just a "chairborne ranger" who flies, kills, and then goes home to his family. As Egan tells an astonished store clerk: "I killed six Taliban today in Pakistan, now I'm off home to barbecue."

Egan's sense of the anti-climactic nature of waging war from suburbia echoes the sentiments of a rap video apparently made by two real-life ex-fighter pilots who transferred to drone units. “You know I used to fly in the sky, flying so high," sing the pair, who call themselves One G and made a humourous video about their experiences. "Now all I do is sit and cry.”

However, for all the ennui, Egan's commander is always keen to remind his recruits that "this isn't f------g PlayStation", and that their targets are "not a bunch of pixels, it's flesh and blood". Which makes it particularly traumatising for Egan one day, when his team is unable to divert a missile in Afghanistan after a child wanders into view during the 15 or so seconds it takes between launching and landing.

There is futher moral anguish when his team are assigned to CIA "black ops" duty, routinely firing when civilians are in the vicinity. When they query the orders, an anonymous CIA handler tells them that "the target poses a grave enough threat to justify the taking of civilian lives."

A pilot's eye view from a Reaper drone (Getty)

The mental breakdown that Egan eventually suffers appears to be based on the case of Bryant, who claimed that waging war from the comfort of suburban America made him "lose respect for life". Raised in Montana, Bryant joined the Air Force as a 19-year-old and began operating drones a year later, having never set foot in combat zone. Very soon, though, he learnt what it truly means to kill in cold blood. One of the first missiles he ever launched amputated the leg of a man in Afghanistan, and as he watched him dying via an infrared camera, he could see the pool of blood in which he lay gradually disappear as it lost its heat signature.

“The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,” he told a later TV interview. “And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.”

The child's death in Good Kill also echoes another of Bryant's experiences, in which "a little human person" scuttled into a mud-brick Afghan home just as a missile was already was speeding towards the Taliban leader thought to be sleeping inside. When he flagged it up to a supervisor, Bryant claims he was told "per the review, it's a dog". He eventually quit, claiming PTSD, and has since become one of the very few ex-drone operators to speak out against the programme.

So did Rolfe suffer the same issues? In short, no. After spending much of his career as an electronic warfare expert on Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, Rolfe joined the Predator task force when it was still in its infancy in 2004, as part of a US-UK training deal.

Unlike Bryant, however, he remembers as it as the most rewarding experience of his military career. Not that it always felt like that at the time. Most of it was the drone equivalent of a detectives' stake out, and involved endlessly hovering for hours or weeks over a certain house or building, to build up a so-called "pattern of life".

"You are looking for new vehicles arriving in an area, for example, or a convoy of pickup trucks," he said. "Another might be a change in the roads that local people are using, which might mean that they are avoiding a certain road where local insurgents have planted an IED (improvised explosive device). But it's not actionable intelligence, just indications. And 90 per cent of the time it can be the dullest, most inert job in the world. You have to stop yourself falling asleep at your screen."

And the other 10 per cent? He nods, and talks matter-of-factly about how his team dropped a 500lb bomb on some Taliban who were battling British troops. "We were talking to the soldiers on the ground by radio, and you could the rounds going off in the background. One soldier very bravely stood up and pointed a laser guider at the exact direction where the Taliban fire was coming from, from behind a small building. So we put a 500lb bomb down and that was that.”

Rolfe insists that any talk of drone pilots treating their work like playing a video game, and removing themselves from the experience, is far from the truth. “No, it isn't like fighting on the ground itself, not knowing if you're going to survive or not, and I would never seek to compare it to that,” he admits. “But you do feel 100 per cent in the fight. You can hear what is going on over the radios, and you know absolutely the importance of your bomb hitting its target."

Natural born killers: the real American Snipers

That is far as he will go in terms of discussing kills. There were others, he says, though it was less than 10 in six years; so as not to be seen as boasting, he restricts himself to the one illustrative example. Some might draw certain conclusions from that, but Rolfe sees himself as ambassador for a form of warfare that he thinks is unfairly maligned. Drones, he points out, can save lives as well as take them: by hunting for hostages, or by guarding soldiers when they need a break.

"One night we were asked to fly over a Canadian forward operating base in Afghanistan, which had been attacked nearly every night for a week. We flew just low enough for the Taliban to know we were there, and six hours later an officer in the base rang up to say: 'this is the first time in a week we have got any sleep.’ You come away with a good feeling on days like that."

So what did he think of the film? "Perfectly entertaining, but mostly a pile of rubbish in terms of accuracy," he tells me afterwards. "It was as if they had spoken to the anti-drone lobby and taken only their concerns."

Everything you need to know about drones

He ticks off a long list of factual shortcomings. Firstly, he says, drone operators have no "discretion" about who they fire at: that is always decided by a chain of commanders and superiors, based on rules of engagement that stop indiscriminate fire. Nor does anyone ever turn up to work smelling of booze, as Egan does in the later stages of his breakdown. Instead, checks are regularly made on staff's mental health.

Pilots flying Predator drones from Creech air base (Getty)

And if, say, a child wanders into the line of sight, the drone operators usually have a designated spot somewhere away from the target where they can divert the missile, albeit only up to about three seconds from the point of impact.

And the CIA black-ops stuff? "I have no idea if that was happening, and it is not something I was involved in," he says. He does, however, concede that civilian casualties can be inevitable. He cites the case of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the prolific al-Qaeda terrorist who killed the Briton Ken Bigley and countless other people in Iraq, and who was eventually taken out in a US jet strike on a house north of Baghdad in 2006.

"If someone like Zarqawi is the target, civilian casualties would probably be considered to be justified, although not if he was in a primary school. The beauty of drones, though, is that you can hang around in the sky above for hours and wait for him to leave."

Drones: the future of war

Rolfe actually worked alongside Bryant during his time with the task force, and says he "seemed like a very normal guy", although he does not think his views are "representative" of most drone operators. He does, however, think that more could have been done to train people for the unusual working environment at Creech, where they switched from combat zone to shopping mall in the course of a few hours.

"I also spent some time operating drones in Afghanistan, and when you finished a day's work there, you were still in a combat zone, on a military base surrounded by people walking around with guns. You can decompress more easily by chatting to them and comparing experiences, whereas at Creech I would just to home to the wife and kids and have a glass of wine. Some of the stuff you might have seen at work that day could be pretty horrible, and while I understand that counselling is available now, it wasn't back when I was there."

A survey by the US Air Force psychologists in 2011 reported that one in five drone operators suffered burnout, although some combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan query Bryant's right to even be traumatised. As one comment on a Facebook discussion board put it: "Maybe he should ask someone to shoot him in the thigh with an AK 47 so a bit of reality will snap him out of his brain cramp!"

Paul Rolfe now uses drones for more peaceful purposes (Andrew Crowley)

For his part, Rolfe, though, believes the burnout rate among US drone operators may have been due not to existential angst, but simply the very long shifts they worked: 12 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes switching from days to nights within 24 hours. The Brits, who worked under RAF rules, did a rather easier six days on, three days off. "They did ridiculous hours and were often exhausted," he says.

Rolfe's days of watching Predator Porn are now over. After his time in the US, where he helped hone the skills of the RAF's first Reaper Squadron, he helped set up training programmes at Britain's newly-built drone base at RAF Waddington, Lincs, and now works as a resident drone expert for a British company that provides military training.

He lives with his wife and two children on a sheep farm in England, where he uses a miniature drone watch over his flock. The only predator-related bloodshed he has to worry about is the odd fox killing a sheep. But he still misses every day of his time in the air-conditioned containers at Creech.

"It could be the most mundane task, yes," he said. "But it could also be something that was operationally effective, that was really making a difference. And that is the Nirvana of being in the military."

Good Kill is on release now

Start your free 30 day Amazon Prime trial»

Source : telegraph[dot]co[dot]uk
post from sitemap