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War waged by remote control: What goes on behind the scenes of a drone attack

The new movie, Eye in the Sky, puts drone warfare under the spotlight.

WAR FILMS HAVE been around for a long time in Hollywood. All Quiet on the Western Front, Apocalypse Now and Platoon all spring to mind – but they can often lack realistic detail of what is the reality of war.

In modern warfare there are less boots on the ground these days and more drones in the sky carrying out the dirty work. There are over 10,000 military drones in operation around the world. 

Eye in the Sky, starring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, is one of the first films to shine a light on the legal and ethical dilemma with the use of drone attacks. 

Source: FilmTrailerZone/YouTube

The Hollywood movie focuses on Colonel Katherine Powell, played by Helen Mirren, who is in command of a top secret drone operation to capture military targets in Nairobi.

Just when they think they have secured their target, the operation stalls when a nine-year-old girl enters the kill zone. Action is needed and as the minutes pass a decision must be made on whether the military should carry out the strike.

Making decisions from a room 

Ethical discussions ensue between military leaders, soldiers, and government ministers on what is the correct decision. If they strike, they kill their targets, but also risk killing the young girl. If they don’t, their targets escape and could go on to carry out further atrocities.

War waged by remote control, with men and women thousands of miles away in an office making the call, is often the reality of war these days. The film raises the issue of whether the consequences are as considered as were the people on the ground pulling the trigger.

271A0386 (Custom) Chris Lincoln-Jones on set of the new movie Eye in the Sky.

Chris Lincoln-Jones, a former artillery officer with a career spanning 25 years, was the military advisor on set.

As an Intelligence Surveillance and Target Acquisition Specialist he has specialised knowledge of unmanned air systems and has operational experience in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Cambodia, Afghanistan and the Libya Campaign.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Lincoln-Jones said Eye in the Sky is the most accurate portrayal of modern war he has seen.

TA3A6837.CR2 Alan Rickman plays Lieutenant General Frank Benson in what is the last feature film he worked on. Source: Keith Bernstein

“Those moral discussions do take place,” he said.

He advised the director, Gavin Hood, on the tactics that would be used in a situation like this, the procedures that would have to be carried out under rules of engagement, right down to the uniforms, where he supplied real medals worn by the actors.

In most war movies, when decisions are made, they are just done, without question. However, in reality, it is very different, explained Lincoln-Jones.

‘Referring up’ 

During the movie, when decisions can’t be made or are outside Mirren’s control, the saying “refer up” is used, whereby a military lawyer steps in to tell the colonel if she is operating within the rules of engagement agreed for the mission.

If he can’t tell her she is in the clear, she has to put it to the Attorney General and on to the relevant government ministers to make the call.

TA3A2926.CR2 Helen Mirren plays Colonel Katherine Powell. Source: Keith Bernstein

So, does this really happen? Yes, says Lincoln-Jones.

“The interaction between the lawyer and Dame Helen Mirren, that was really realistic.”

“Every year there are military training tests. One is on law of armed conflict (LOAC). It is set in stone, yearly,” he said.

Collateral damage 

LOAC training informs military personnel “what is lawful and what is proportional”.

Sitting in a room in Las Vegas, the drone pilots Steve Watts, played by Aaron Paul and Carrie Gershon, played  by Phoebe Fox, get visibly emotional throughout the mission at the thought that the young girl could die at their hands.

Lincoln-Jones said the emotion portrayed in the movie is for dramatic effect.

He was in the bunker where Mirren shot most of her scenes. He said he would often step in and tell the director that certain emotions would just not be present in an operation like this.

EITS 3 Aaron Paul plays Steve Watts, the drone pilot.

“I’m making a drama, Chris, not a documentary,” the director told him, adding that he understood drama was needed in the movie if it was going to appeal to an audience.

In reality, Lincoln-Jones said emotion or upset really would not happen in the tactics of war.

“Our rules are strict. When you get orders to execute you wouldn’t delay. The pilots I know wouldn’t be so bothered about it – they would regret it – but they would look at the wider picture,” said Lincoln-James.

Dealing with emotions 

He explained that pilots are specially trained to put their emotions aside in conflict and execute the orders given to them, trusting that the senior officials have a mission to complete.

The movie also features robotic birds and beetles that spy on the terrorists in the target house by flying inside buildings and sending back video images.

Lincoln-Jones said the micro prototypes are based on real-life military initiatives, however, he said the movie uses liberties as nothing as advanced is being used in the field at present.

Facial recognition software also features, as does software that give a “collateral damage estimate”.

The military analyst uses the software to look at the area where death or injury will be most prevalent in the strike zone. Lincoln-Jones said this system is in operation and basically attempts to predict where a blast will impact the most, and give a percentage estimate on the loss of life or injury of civilians.

What percentage risk to the innocent is acceptable?

In reality, it depends on the mission. In the movie, the leaders want it below 50%.

Eye in the Sky raises some important questions about the future of warfare. Many leaders in the past have said that war is a necessary evil, and in order to spare the lives of soldiers technology has stepped in, removed the boots on the ground and allowed drones be operated by soldiers thousands of miles away.

Eye in the Sky makes for tense viewing, as the leaders sitting in a boardroom make decisions from far away and soldiers control the MQ-9 Reaper drone and Hellfire missiles from the comfort of their chair.

“It’s the most accurate and authentic portrayal of what actually happens,” said Lincoln-Jones.

If you watch the news, see the air strikes and really want to understand what goes on behind the scenes, this film will be an awakening to most about the removed, cold and calculated approach to modern warfare.   

Eye in the Sky is out on general release.

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