As Craig Jones has discussed in detail, it’s been much easier to get information about the ways in which the United States has incorporated drones into its military and paramilitary operations than to prise open the door of UK operations (see also Chris Cole on ‘five basic facts we are simply not allowed to know here).
But the House of Commons Defence Committee has just published a two-volume report, Remote Control: remotely piloted air systems – current and future UK use.
Volume 1, the report and formal minutes (58 pp), can be downloaded as a pdf here, and Volume II, written evidence (130 pp), is available here. The second volume includes submissions from the Ministry of Defence, Northrop Grumman, and General Atomics together with critical submissions from Drone Wars UK, Reprieve, the Network for Social Change’s Remote Control project, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Over at the Bureau, Alice Ross has a first response and summary here, while Chris Cole has a trenchant critique at Drone Wars UK here.
I’m still working my way through all this, but here are some key passages.
First, on the ‘double proximity’ of drone operations – as I’ve said before, even though these platforms can be controlled from thousands of miles away they are not weapons of global reach:
‘The MoD told us that in order to utilise unmanned air systems in the most efficient manner, they should be based as close as possible to the target area of interest to allow for the longest loiter time possible. In a “non-permissive” or hostile environment this would be “extremely difficult”.’
The other side of this is the invocation of a new (though, as I’ve also emphasised, thoroughly conditional and technologically mediated) quasi-intimacy:
‘It was very clear from the visit to XIII Squadron and discussions with Reaper aircrew that all were experienced professional personnel with a clear purpose and keen understanding of the Rules of Engagement which govern their operations. Despite being remote from the battle space they exhibited a strong sense of connection to the life and death decisions they are sometimes required to take. This was in stark contrast to the image portrayed by some commentators of “drone” pilots as video gaming “warrior geeks”.’
Again, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that ‘sense of connection’ is much more highly developed in relation to troops on the ground than to others who are in (or beyond) the field of view, and who are inevitably shut out from audio or online communications, which in part accounts for the risk to non-combatants whenever troops are ‘in contact’ with the Taliban and other fighters.
Second, the report seeks to draw a line between the US program of targeted killing and UK military operations in Afghanistan:
‘We acknowledge that over the last few years there has been a growing concern in relation to the sharing of intelligence with allies and the uses to which such data may contribute. While the issues raised by Reprieve stray beyond the terms of reference for our inquiry and indeed the remit of the Defence Committee, we do believe that there should be greater transparency in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK Government has in place for the sharing of intelligence…
‘We consider that it is of vital importance that a clear distinction be drawn between the actions of UK Armed Forces operating remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan and those of other States elsewhere… In Afghanistan UAS provide intelligence in support of our ground commanders, enabling them to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Whether for targeting the Taliban or supporting troops on patrol, their ability to loiter over and survey areas for enemy activity and then feed back images and video in real time means they are an invaluable asset to our forces on the ground. Together, the UK’s fleet of UAS have carried out over 160,000 hours of ISR operations.
‘The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper operated by the RAF is the UK’s only armed remotely piloted air system. The RAF fleet rose to ten in early 2014 as an additional five aircraft were accepted into service. RAF Reapers provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) for ISAF forces in Afghanistan, mostly in support of UK forces in Helmand province…. Since May 2008, UK Reaper aircraft have been armed with precision-guided weapons—Hellfire laser guided air-to-ground missiles and GBU-12 Paveway 500lb laser guided bombs… By 31 August 2013, UK operated Reaper aircraft had flown over 50,000 hours on operations in the ISR role with 418 weapons fired in the same period.’
Here are the raw figures released to Drone Wars UK last month, following a FoI Request to the Ministry of Defence:
Chris Cole is not convinced by the Committee’s (and, by extension, the Ministry’s) attempt to draw the line:
‘The report also argues that it is “of vital importance” that a clear distinction be draw between the use of drones by UK armed forces and what it discreetly calls “those of other States elsewhere.” It urges the MoD to continue its PR campaign – what the committee calls a “public awareness programme” – in order to “aid public understanding and acceptance.” PR it seems trumps transparency.’
Third, and closely connected to Chris’s misgivings, the report restates without examination the legal armature for UK military operations:
‘…the MoD told us that UK remotely piloted aircraft operate within the constraints of UK rules of engagement (ROE) and policy, even where operational control is assigned to a Coalition Commander, such as the Commander of ISAF. The MoD also stated that UK policy relating to targeting by remotely piloted aircraft is exactly the same as that for manned aircraft (and land and maritime weapons where applicable):
‘It is entirely compliant with International Humanitarian Law. Targets are always positively identified as legitimate military objectives and both pattern of life assessment and collateral damage estimate conducted. Strikes are carried out in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict.
‘Personnel were keen for the public to know more and understand better what it is they do and to dispel some myths that have grown up about Reaper operations in particular. One pilot commented that the public needed to know that remotely piloted aircraft are “not robots, they’re not autonomous and we spend an awful lot of time training to fly them”. This training emphasised all aspects of the RAF rules of engagement such as whether a strike is necessary, whether any civilians are nearby, and what instructions have been received from the ground commander. Reaper aircrew were firmly of the view that the loiter time of remotely piloted aircraft allowed more informed decisions to be made and consequently the risk of civilian casualties was reduced should a missile strike be required….
Fourth, on civilian casualties and transparency:
‘The MoD told us that it was aware of only one incident involving an armed UK remotely piloted air system Reaper, which had resulted in the deaths of civilians:
‘On 25 March 2011 [three years ago to the day!] an attack on two pick-up trucks resulted in the destruction of a significant quantity of explosives and the death of two insurgents. Sadly, four Afghanistan civilians were also killed. In line with current ISAF procedures, an ISAF investigation was conducted to establish if any lessons could be learned or if any errors in operational procedures could be identified. In that case, the report concluded that the actions of the Reaper crew had been in accordance with extant procedures and rules of engagement.
…We note the conclusion of the UN Special Rapporteur [Ben Emmerson] that in any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been, killed, there is an obligation on the State responsible to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation. We recognise that this is not a simple and straightforward request as to do so could seriously jeopardise continuing operations. Nonetheless, we recommend that, to the extent that it is operationally secure to do so, following an event which has resulted in confirmed civilian casualties the MoD should seek to publish details about the incident and any lessons learned from the review process…’
For a good discussion of the UK’s definition of ‘civilian’ in such cases, see Dapo Akande at the European Journal of International Law here.
To be continued.