Film Review: Eye in The Sky


Last night I saw ‘Eye in The Sky‘ (trailer here), I enjoyed it. Due to discussing some of the later stages of the film, I do give away spoilers in this post, sorry. If you want to get the most out of my analysis, you’re probably best watching the film first anyway.

The plot revolves around a UK directed mission to capture UK and US Islamic Extremists, who have joined al-Shabab. The mission was intended to have a drone observing, and providing intelligence to a UK-based command cell, which would then direct Kenyan Special Forces to raid a house in Nairobi. But, the extremists go to the wrong house, capture becomes infeasible, and some other people, higher up on the kill list are present, in addition to them preparing for a suicide attack inside the house. Thus, the mission becomes one intended to kill, rather than capture, with the aim to prevent greater loss of life through the impending terrorist attack.

Notably, all the drone footage was in crystal-clear HD. However, in reality the view for a drone camera is much poorer. Few have HD cameras, and they don’t zoom-in smoothly. They have two cameras, a wide-angle, and a close-up lens. The wide-angle is not clear enough to see detail with, and the close-up is reportedly like ‘looking through a soda-straw‘. So, consider the film, and the following analysis, from a much less-clear viewpoint. See this drone footage for the current capabilities of drone Full Motion Video (here and here, note the lack of sound).

Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS)
A Reaper drone of 39 Squadron Royal Air Force. (Photo: UK MoD)

The film grappled quite well with the legal issues in modern war, and covered rules of engagement, collateral damage, distinction, and the film really agonised over a proportionality decision. But, I thought it glossed over the legal issues of Use of Force. The fact that the UK-directed mission involves Kenyan Special Forces, and Intelligence Officers, indicates that the UK would be operating at the invitation, or at least consent of the Kenyan State in their ongoing Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC) with al-Shabab. But, the film didn’t really make this clear, and I think some people who are very anti-drone could walk away from the film thinking that the UK and the US decided they would run this mission, and strong-arm the Kenyans into agreeing.

A large amount of the film is spent looking at people referring up decisions for greater levels of clearance about whether a strike can take place with a girl likely to die from the blast. The large blast radius being not from the Hellfire missile strike, but from the suicide vest also set off by the initial strike impact. Noticeably, a later strike with only a missile impact had a much smaller blast. I’m glad the film makers included this, because a Hellfire missile is a 500lb bomb, which sounds a lot, but really isn’t. It only has a 15-20m blast radius, and I’ve heard a US Air Force Colonel, M.S. Riza, state that he has seen cars be struck by 500lb missiles, and the people inside walk away (see/hear audio recordings here).

The referring up for greater authority is really interesting to show. In a war, planned missions which expect collateral damage have to be authorised at higher levels, when higher collateral damage is expected. The levels of collateral damage which a particular rank of officer can authorise are set by governments. So a Colonel could authorised a particular amount, and a General a greater amount. Giving examples of numbers would make conveying this information to you easier, but Law of Armed Conflict academics don’t like to give them, because acceptable levels change depending upon the intensity of the conflict. But, in Gregory McNeals ‘Targeted Killing and Accountability‘, he states (p. 752-753) that during the Iraq War in 2003, which was classified as a high-intensity conflict at that time, if expected civilian casualties (not including Civilians Directly Participating in Hostilities) were greater than 30, the Secretary of Defense would have to authorise missions, if less that 30 they could be authorised by a Force Commander (General, 4* rank), or Division Commander (Major-General, 2* rank). However in Afghanistan post-2009, which was classified as a counter-insurgency operation, and therefore a low-intensity conflict at that time, operations expecting civilians casualties of one were required to be authorised at ‘the highest level of government‘. Thus, the fact that Eye in the Sky shows the military chain of command deferring to their civilian superiors for authorisation of one potential civilian casualty reflects reality rather well.

However, during these referrals, the films shows UK ministers asking for US ministerial approval to kill US citizens. The US Secretary of State, and National Security Council lawyer are both show as calous, and with have little regard for civilian casualties, which I thought was rather unfair. The idea that all Americans are cowboys who don’t care about civilians is plainly wrong, particularly at the highest level, as shown above by the requirement for high-level approval for single civilian casualties.

RAF Reaper MQ-9 Remotely Piloted Air System
A Reaper MQ-9 Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) prepares for takeoff in Afghanistan. (Photo: UK MoD)

During the Collateral Damage Estimation process, the targeting cell commander (Helen Mirren), encourages her targeteer to produce a lower estimation, and the put that in his final report. This is obviously very wrong, but understandable in the context of trying to prevent a greater number of civilian deaths through a suicide bombing, when prevented from striking by civilian ministers who do not understand the gravity of the risk they would be taking.

Another thing the film did really well was to show the vast numbers of people who can see drone video feeds, and observe missions. Throughout the mission, the UK command cell, a UK government COBRA meeting, a US image analyst in Pearl Harbour, a Kenyan Special Forces Major, the drone pilots intelligence officer, and the drone pilot and sensor operator are all show the be viewing the video feed. In addition to the UK foreign secretary who patches in from Beijing for a time. This would be in addition to other viewers not shown, likely to be intelligence officers from the UK, US, a legal cell, and officers in charge of the African area of operations for the UK, and US, and possibly others too. Derek Gregory does a brilliant analysis of the sheer numbers of people who observe, and can become involved in drones strikes here (Part 1, and Part 2). Peter Singer also covers these concepts of the ‘Strategic Corporal’, and ‘Tactical General’ in his wonderful book, Wired for War.

An MQ-9 Reaper UAV. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

Notably the film briefly uses the term ‘assassination’, which I don’t like in relation to targeted killing/capture. It’s really too emotive, and implies actions for political gain, rather than to protect civilian life.

A lot of people will connect this film with other films about drones, but I think a better comparison is Zero Dark Thirty, showing the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This shows the other element of Targeted Killing/Capture in the War on Terror: The Special Forces Raid. Such raids can have lower civilian casualties, bullets are more discriminatory than missiles, but are also more dangerous for those involved (the attacking side is under no obligation to take increased risk to their own forces under the Law of Armed Conflict), although this does overcome the objection by some that drone strikes are wrong because the pilots are not in immediate danger. However, by their nature they are also as secretive, if not more so that drone strikes.

75th Ranger Regiment, Afghanistan, Aug. 14, 2012. Photo by U.S. Army Spc Justin Young (USGOV-PD)

Overall, I thought the film was a really good overview of the sheer difficulty, and moral weight which such decision makers have to deal with. Just because everyone apart from the Kenyan Intelligence officers were a safe distance from the fighting does not make it easy to kill. The idea of a ‘Playstation mentality’, I think is rather fanciful. As shown here, the people involved in flying drones are very aware that they are flying a military aircraft, it is not a game to them at all. In fact, I think the film showed that just because the military personnel involved are not in front-line infantry regiments, does not make their job easy, and it also brings home that even a so-called ‘clean’ way of war is still very dirty, and messy, and incredibly difficult to deal with for all involved.

Until next time!

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