This morning here at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 40 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the day’s first practice run of the Reaper (technically referred to as the MQ-9 Reaper Hunter/Killer UAV) took off at 7:06 am and circled to practice landings and take offs every 18 minutes through the morning hours. I have joined a group this Holy Week to vigil and pray under the banner Ground the Drones. The training and piloting of the aircraft now carrying out their mission of information gathering and destruction in Afghanistan and Pakistan is headquartered here at Creech. Unlike the first Predator, an earlier unmanned aerial vehicle now widely used and armed with 2 Hellfire missiles, the Reaper is pressed into service because it is capable of carrying 14 Hellfire missiles.
Our group has enjoyed almost a cordial welcome from base workers, pilots, officers and enlisted people as they enter and depart the base. Many wave and occasionally the horns are tooted or the V sign is flashed in support. Between these signs of positive connection are challenges like the man yesterday who rolled down his window and shouted at me, “Do you have any idea how many American soldiers’ lives are saved every day by these aircraft?” I replied that I didn’t know and he advised me that the true number of saved service lives was 20 to 30 per day. I have not been able to confirm these numbers from any scientific source but I did remind him that the drone air crafts create enormous hostility in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq that will take generations to overcome. He was not impressed.
A chaplain from the base told a colleague who is vigiling here that disturbing dysfunctions are beginning to show up among officers and enlisted people who pilot and support these aircrafts. Flight crews of two, including a pilot and a technical support person called a sensor, sit here in rooms with several monitors and digitally guide these crafts as they move through their missions thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The pilot is experienced, but the sensor is a fresh from basic training and technical school.
These aircraft are capable of remaining airborne for extended periods of time. According to the International Online Defence Magazine, “The availability of high performance sensors and large capacity of precision guided weapons enable the new Predator to operate as an efficient ‘Hunter-Killer’ platform, seeking and engaging targets at high probability of success.” The Reaper also known as Predator II began flying missions in 2007. It was pressed into service according to Defence Magazine because it filled a gap, “between conflicting demands for payload,, altitude, speed and persistence.” Unlike the first generation Predator, the Reaper can fly at an altitude of 50,000 feet.
In the coming months and years the full implications of the US military transformation to digital warfare will become apparent. The outrage we now see in the countries where they are used and the signs of trauma now becoming visible among soldiers, designers and victims will signal a new era of brokenness and anger. Yesterday US Secretary of Defence Gates announced a 127% increase in funding for drones and other digitally guided military hardware. These crafts are much cheaper and believed to be less risky for military personnel than the more expensive weapons like the $350 million dollar F 122 which is to be cut.
Our local communities here in the US host the corporations that develop these new and smarter instruments of war. The workers who build them, the designers who create them and the day by day operators of these wily crafts worship in our churches.
The Indian Springs Motor Motel where our vigil group has rented a room for logistical support is packed solid with young marines, here for some last minute training in desert warfare and basic training in coordination with the new age of digital war. They are friendly, serious and some are worried. Yesterday morning two of them described their inner conflicts and ambivalence as they recovered from a hard night on the town. In a few days they will be off to the front lines.
About three hundred yards down the road from the main entrance to Creech there is a small building set aside for two week training programs for military chaplains who are about to depart for duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. We know that the military chaplain is one of the first to be contacted by soldiers who are disturbed and morally shaken by what they experience in combat. Every month dozens seek a way out and often encounter enormous difficulty and little support even from chaplains, all of whom come from religious traditions that teach love and upholding of life.
Like the chaplains, all of us who claim faith are invited to reach deep into the wealth of our traditions that are built on the ethics of love and discern what our responses can be in this new age of digital warfare. We will be further enabled to do this when our religious support structures – churches, denominations and institutions – also reach deep into the humanizing and peaceful resources of holy tradition. The desert here in Indian Springs, Nevada where native people once came for water to sustain life, is waiting for the transformation inherent in our faith.
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