Wing Commander Chris Thirtle, from the Remotely Piloted Air Systems Strategy unit at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), confirmed last night that the UK currently has five Reaper drones in active service. Speaking at Science Policy Centre event at the Royal Society in central London, Chris Thirtle said he could not confirm for security reasons whether the Reapers were all in Afghanistan. This may simply be the UK military secrecy culture in operation or could perhaps suggest that Reapers are also operating in other locations such as Iraq.
Wing Commander Chris Thirtle spoke about the use of Reaper drones in Afghanistan although he refused to use the term ‘drone’ arguing that as Reapers were remotely piloted’ they should not be called drones.
The focus of the event was on whether increasing autonomy in military systems should be allowed or controlled. Chris Thirtle repeated current UK policy that there is a ‘man-in the-loop’ with regard to decisions about whether to launch weapons but argued that “there are limited circumstances where autonomous systems could be used.”
Chris Thirtle also refuted the suggestion that drone operators are susceptible to a ‘playstation mentality’ arguing that there was little or no difference from launching weapons from an aircraft a few thousand feet from a target instead of 8,000 miles away. Indeed, he suggested that the ‘persistence’ of observation allowed to Reaper operators gave greater time for consideration about whether to launch weapons or not. Pressed about the recent US military inquiry which found that a drone operator had ‘played down’ the prescence of civilians in a convoy leading to 23 civilians death, Wing Commander said that was a US operation and he couldn’t really comment.
As is well know the British Reapers are currently operated by 39 Squadron currently based at Creech AFB in Nevada. I asked Wing Commander Thirtle after the event whether about rumours that 39 Squadron were coming home to Lincolnshire. He said that although the RAF had made the ‘business case’ to have ten Reapers, and at that level it might make sense for the Reaper Squadron to be based in the UK, the question of the number of Reapers to be procured was now part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and a decision had yet to be made. In addition, Chris Thirtle stated that there was ‘synergy’ to be gained from having the US and UK Reaper being operated from the same location. On a side note, in response to a question from one of the other presentations at the event, Professor Juergen Altmann, from Technische Universität in Germany about whether the Reapers had been registered under the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty, Chris Thirtle stated that as the Reapers were not operating in the area covered by the Treaty they had not been registered.
While many questions about UK Reaper drone operations remain unanswered the presentation by Wing Commander Thirtle was helpful and a hopeful sign that the UK MoD may be willing to be more accountable to the public about UK drone operations