On Killing Remotely by Tom Reynolds
SCOPE recently wrote about Lieutenant Colonel Wayne Phelp’s book “On Killing Remotely” which contained a lot of inside information on how military drones are operated. With the latest controversy over a drone killing in Afghanistan, it seems appropriate to write about that incident and more about the book.
There are usually three parties involved when a missile is fired from a drone (Remotely Piloted Aircraft - RPA):
The pilot controls the aircraft and releases the missile. The pilot may be a few miles from the RPA or he may be on the other side of the world.
A second RPA puts a laser on the target and it’s this laser that pin points the target and guides the missile. (If the 2nd RPA is not available, the pilot goes on his own.)
The third party is the tactical commander who authorizes the missile to be fired. This can be anyone from the local intelligence officer to the President of the United States. This person is responsible for establishing the identity of the target, ensuring that the rules of engagement are followed and that appropriate laws are obeyed.
When there is adequate time, the three parties share information but when immediate action is needed, they have to trust each other’s judgement. They especially have to trust the judgment of the tactical commander who has identified the target as someone they are justified in “taking out”.
All on the “team” are supposed to obey orders. If anyone has concerns and does not obey, that is a career threatening move. However, that does happen. When an American citizen who was openly working as an ISIS terrorist was targeted, the “team” refused to kill him, because he was an American citizen. The commanding officer was reassigned and the job was given to the CIA, which eventually did kill him. (Note, obedience to orders is a mainstay of the military but when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, openly disregards the highest authority – the President - that sets an example that van echo through the ranks.)
There are subtle ways of disobeying without openly disobeying; it’s called missing your target. Who can say if it was intentional - or not. Phelps believes it happens but, for obvious reasons, no one is publicly admitting to it. Hitting a moving target from a drone flying thousands of feet above the ground and commanded from thousands of miles away is not a foolproof operation.
Phelps book recounted a story that is appropriate to the recent Afghanistan killing. A terrorist on the kill list knew he was targeted and knew the Americans’ rules of engagement. The terrorist was followed, remotely for months, but no opportunity to kill him appeared because he always kept at least one of his children with him, which kept him safe under our rules of engagement. Our military waited for him to be alone and when he finally made the mistake of going out without one of his children, they instantly reacted and killed him.
Occasionally, a target is cleared to be hit without collateral damage but before the missile can strike someone unexpectedly enters the area. There may or may not be the time or the ability to react. For instance, the laser could be moved to target another nearby area – if there is a safer area available and there is time available to do it.
One of the most psychologically difficult tasks is staying around after the strike to document its level of success. Watching the victim’s family members pick up the body parts of someone you just killed can take a toll. Phelps recommends that a 2nd RPA be tasked to do this, not the one that fired the missile.
Which brings us to the incident in Afghanistan where a car believed to be loaded with explosives and an imminent threat to American forces was targeted. But in what may or may not be a case of mistaken identity, children and others were killed. All we know is what is being reported (not always the best source since it is primarily the NY Times, which usually proceeds on the assumption that America is wrong).
The NY Times says that, according to the military, the drone had been following a white sedan for several hours after it left what may or may not have been an ISIS safe house. It had been loaded with a suspicious cargo earlier in the day and more was added later in the afternoon. US officials believed that cargo to be explosives but some claim it was water for his family. US officials claim to have intercepted communications between the driver and the ISIS safe house instructing him to make several stops, which he did. Eventually, the driver went to his home, which was near the airport. The military knew little of his identity but they believed he was an imminent threat to the troops at the airport. The drone operator scanned and saw only a single adult male greeting the vehicle, and therefore assessed with “reasonable certainty” that no women, children or noncombatants would be killed. (The driver’s relatives claim that some children ran out to greet him.) General Milley said there were secondary explosions but the NY Times claims not. (The pot calling the kettle black?) The NY Times words their story in a way that makes the Afghans seem more credible than the US military. Is that a surprise?
Obviously, stories are different and it will take further investigation to determine the factual story, if it can ever be determined. But…the US has a history of taking great pains to avoid killing civilians – as explained above. While there can always be exceptions and mistakes do get made, it’s doubtful that the US would intentionally fire a missile that would kill innocent children. Especially since the driver was not driving to the airport at that moment and, thus, he wasn’t forcing an immediate decision. Was the area clear when the missile was fired and the children ran out at the last moment? There can also be other factors, such as the drone running low on gas and forcing a hurried decision before it had to leave the area. Ultimately, it was the tactical commander’s decision based on the best information available, which doesn’t always mean sufficient information but decisions have to get made on what you have where you are. Did any of the other team members disagree? The drone operator scanned the area and said it was clear.
One thing that Phelps does say in his book that there is always an after-action report done at the end of the shift. That might spread some light on what happened.
A tragedy, that’s for sure when children are killed. Was it a case of mistaken identity or was the driver really working for ISIS? Since we don’t have access to the Taliban, we may never know.