The Overseas Operations Act, drone strikes, and the presumption of lawfulness

The Overseas Operations Act, which recently became law, aims to limit the exposure of members of the armed forces to prosecution for crimes committed in the course of armed conflict. Unsurprisingly its passage through Parliament was fraught with controversy. In addition, the Parliamentary debate surrounding the Act highlighted that government thinking around the use of armed drones continues to rely on problematic presumptions and tropes. In its response to questions raised in Parliament, the government has betrayed its underlying view that drone warfare is inherently lawful and clean.

With the aim of limiting ‘vexatious claims and prosecution of historical events’ that emerge from the ‘uniquely complex environment of armed conflict overseas’, the Act is divided into two substantive parts. Part 1 creates a new framework of hurdles to be overcome before members of the armed forces can be prosecuted for crimes committed more than five years ago during overseas operations. These prosecutions will now only go ahead in ‘exceptional cases’. Part 2 reduces the time period within which civil and human rights claims can be brought against the Ministry of Defence or armed forces. Additionally, the Act seeks to place a duty on the government to consider derogating from (i.e. suspend) aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to ‘significant’ overseas operations. Unsurprisingly, the Act has been subject to a great deal of criticism. It has been described as a ‘significant barrier to justice’, contrary to the rule of law, and likely to hamper the training of soldiers.

Beyond this, the passage of the Act has incidentally allowed insight into the government’s thinking around the use of drones, and lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). In a House of Lords debate on 11 March 2021 Lord Browne of Ladyton tabled an amendment which would have required the government to produce a report into the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes. Lord Browne’s reason for tabling this amendment was his belief that the Act is based on incorrect perceptions of the future of war, focusing on traditional ‘boots on the ground’ operations, and ignoring the increasing use of remote and autonomous technology.  Read more

The iWars Survey: Mapping the IT sector’s involvement in developing autonomous weapons

A new survey by Drone Was has begun the process of mapping the involvement of information technology corporations in military artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics programmes, an area of rapidly increasing focus for the military.  ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’, the recently published integrated review of security, defence, development, and foreign policy, highlighted the key roles that new military technologies will play in the government’s vision for the future of the armed forces and aspirations for the UK to become a “science superpower”.

Although the integrated review promised large amounts of public funding and support for research in these areas, co-operation from the technology sector will be essential in delivering ‘ready to use’ equipment and systems to the military.  Senior military figures are aware that ‘Silicon Valley’ is taking the lead in  the development of autonomous systems for both civil and military use’. Speaking at a NATO-organised conference aimed at fostering links between the armed forces and the private sector, General Sir Chris Deverell, the former Commander of Joint Forces Command explained:

“The days of the military leading scientific and technological research and development have gone. The private sector is innovating at a blistering pace and it is important that we can look at developing trends and determine how they can be applied to defence and security”

The Ministry of Defence is actively cultivating technology sector partners to work on its behalf through schemes like the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA). However, views on co-operation with the military by those within the commercial technology sector are mixed. Over the past couple of  years there are been regular reports of opposition by tech workers to their employer’s military contacts including those at Microsoft and GoogleRead more

As the government set out its plans to fund hi-tech war, can you donate to help our work?

Dear Friends,

Last week Boris Johnson published his government’s Integrated Review of defence, security and foreign policy, setting out the government’s commitment to develop and use emerging military technology to engage in both overt and ‘grey zone’ warfare.

Today will see the publication of a Defence Command Paper, giving more detail on which military programmes and defence company projects will receive funding for developments “in cyber, AI and drone warfare – all the warfare of the future” as Boris Johnson put it.

Boris Johnson flies a drone during a military exercise on Salisbury Plain in 2019.

Over the past decade Drone Wars has scrutinized and challenged the government’s use of drones and other emerging technology and we very much need your help to continue to do so. Read more

New details of US drone flights in UK this summer raise concerns over safety and corporate cronyism

New details about the British government’s plans to allow US defence manufacturer General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new SkyGuardian drone in the UK this summer have emerged in MOD documents published on the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) website.

SkyGuardian flights are to be conducted from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, beginning in July and lasting until September, and then from RAF Lossiemouth in North East Scotland, until mid to late October.  The RAF is acquiring a version of the SkyGuardian drone, which it is calling Protector, and which will be modified for UK requirements. Protector will enter service in 2023 to replace the UK’s current Reaper armed drone fleet.  General Atomics’ SkyGuardian flights are significant because they signal the coming integration of large drones, such as Protector, into UK airspace.  This is set to further normalise the use of large drones within the UK, not only by the military, but a host of other operators.

The planned SkyGuardian flights also raise concerns over safety and questions about undue corporate influence over the UK government and airspace regulators. In terms of safety, both RAF Waddington and RAF Lossiemouth are surrounded by houses, school buildings and local businesses. Planned flights of the same drone over San Diego in the US last year did not go ahead, apparently after safety objections from US airspace regulator, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).  The flights instead took place away well from populated areas. US and British armed forces have regularly flown large drones for more than twenty years, yet the constant communication links which they rely on are often lost. Such drones also continue to crash for several other reasons—including poor maintenance and pilot error.  Recent public polling carried out for UK Drone Watch found that 67% of respondents were worried about the safety implication of large drones flying in the UK, with 70% agreeing that such flights should be kept to segregated airspace.  Read more

Death TV: Drone warfare in contemporary popular culture

Click to open report

For those of us who have no direct experience of drone warfare, popular culture is one of the major ways that we come to understand what is at stake in UAV operations. Movies, novels, TV and other cultural forms can inform our ideas about drone warfare just as much as, if not sometimes more than, traditional news media or academic/NGO reports.

Death TV is a new study that looks in depth at how popular culture informs public understanding of the ethics, politics, and morality of drone operations. It looks at a wide range of popular drone fictions, including Hollywood movies such as Eye in the Sky and Good Kill, prestige TV shows such as Homeland, 24: Live Another Day and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, and novels by authors including Dan Fesperman, Dale Brown, Daniel Suarez, and Mike Maden. Death TV looks at these cultural products and gets inside the way they work. It identifies six main themes that can be found across many of them, and examines the ways that they inform and shape the drone debate.

In broad terms, Death TV argues that popular cultural representations often have the effect of normalizing and justifying drone warfare. Enjoyable narrative texts such as films, TV series, novels, and some forms of popular journalism play a role in the process by which drone warfare is made comprehensible to those of us without first-hand experience of it. Importantly, they also do so in a way which has, however critical any individual story may appear to be, the general effect of making drone warfare seem a legitimate, rational and moral use of both cutting edge technology and lethal military force.  Read more

Online Event – 25 March: Meaning-less human control: Lessons from air defence systems for LAWS

Together with Center for War Studies of University of Southern Denmark, we are hosting an online event on Thursday 25 March at 2pm (GMT) to discuss our co-published report, Meaning-less human control: Lessons from air defence systems for Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS).

In recent years, autonomous weapons systems have increasingly come to the attention of the international community. Debates on these weapon systems centre on whether they reduce meaningful human control over the use of force.  This event will discuss our latest report with an expert panel:

  • Dr Ingvild Bode (Associate Professor of International Relations: Centre for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark)
  • Maaike Verbruggen TBC (Doctoral Researcher: International Security, Institute for European Studies )
  • Richard Moyes (Managing Director: Article 36)
  • Dr Peter Burt: Chair: (Researcher: Drone Wars UK)

Click here to register for the event and further details