25 Mar 2014

Need for ‘more clarity’ over UK drones programme

MPs defend the UK military’s controversial drones programme, saying pilots are not video-gaming “warrior geeks”, and call for more clarity around their secretive use.

BAE Systems potential concept model of an unmanned combat system, also known as a drone, at the Farnborough Airshow

Above: a BAE Systems concept model of an unmanned combat system.

The House of Commons defence committee said that more needs to be done to build “public confidence” in the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), in a report released on Tuesday.

One of the key justifications for the use of drones is that it keeps service personnel safely away from the battlefield, but this has also created concerns that pilot may be detached from reality.

‘Warrior geeks’

Chairman of the defence committee, James Arbuthnot, said: “It is very clear that UK air crews (pictured, below) are experienced professional personnel with a clear purpose and keen understanding of the rules of engagement which govern their operations.

“These are no video gaming ‘warrior geeks’ as some would portray them. Despite being remote from the battle space they exhibit a strong sense of connection to the life and death decisions they are sometimes required to take.”

UAV operators at the controls in RAF Waddington.

Above: UAV operators at the controls in RAF Waddington.

He added that it is “vital 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”.

The “other states” could be a direct reference to the US drones programme, operated by the CIA and focused in Pakistan, which has been accused of causing a large number of civilian deaths.

‘Inconsistent answers’

US drone strikes are estimated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) to have caused up to more than 1,000 civilian deaths across Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Most of the civilian deaths are reported to have taken place in Pakistan, where the US targeting the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The MPs report notes that concerns have been raised that the UK has provided assistance to the US programme in countries including Pakistan.

It says that MPs, including Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, have provided “inconsistent” answers over the UK relationship with the CIA drone programme.

“In light of these apparently inconsistent answers by ministers, we call upon the MoD to provide absolute clarity about whether UK Reaper aircraft have ever been operated by US personnel outside the launch and recovery phase,” the report says.

“If public confidence is to be built around the use of remotely piloted air systems it is important that it is clear that UK aircraft have only been utilised within Afghanistan and always in accordance with UK rules of engagement.”

‘Secret strikes’

Part of the controversy around the US and UK drones relationship is focused on data sharing – something brought into sharp focus by the Edward Snowden revelations.

In submissions to the defence committee, UK charity Reprieve alleged UK complicity in CIA operation in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, through information sharing.

The defence committee said the issues raised by Reprieve “stray beyond… the remit of the defence committee”, but said that the committee believes “there should be greater transparency in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK government has in place for the sharing of intelligence”.

The committee said it urged the intelligence and security committee of parliament to consider the issues raised.

Kat Craig, legal director at Reprieve, said: “The defence committee is right to raise concerns over the lack of transparency around UK involvement in the US’s secret drone programme.

“A range of evidence indicates that the UK supports the secret strikes carried out by the CIA and others in violation of international and domestic law – through the sharing of intelligence and the provision of facilities at US bases on British soil.

“Yet British ministers, like their US counterparts, have refused to come clean with the public over the role our country plays. It is high time the secret drone programme – and Britain’s part in it – was brought out of the shadows.”

Civilian casualties

Civilian casualties have been a particular cause of concern amongst human rights groups in light of the alleged death toll from the US campaign.

The UK has said that there is only one incident in which civilians died at the hands of UK drones – in Afghanistan in March 2011 in a strike on two pick-up trucks that resulted in the deaths of two insurgents and four civilians.

The BIJ argued to the committee that the UK need to establish “the international precedent of publishing a fuller record of drone strikes and their impact.”

A spokesperson told Channel 4 News that the committee was satisfied that the current system for reporting civilian casualties (a report is filed every time a drone fires a weapon) was robust – but to increase public confidence more information should be shared.