The search for truth in the war over drones

An ‘opinion’ piece’ for Defence Management Journal I was asked to write this week 

The news this week that four Afghan civilians had been killed and two injured in a British Reaper UAV strike has sparked the latest skirmish in the battle for and against the use of unmanned weapons systems.  I am one of those who are extremely concerned about the use of ‘drones’ as they are commonly known, and it was my Freedom of Information request, in part, that led to the revelation of civilian deaths as reported by The Guardian.

Many people around the world are extremely  troubled by the growing use of unmanned systems to launch attacks at great distances. Traditionally, one of the key restraints on warfare has been the risk to one’s own forces and, as the MoD themselves admit in a recent publication, if this restraint is taken away, unmanned systems may make war more likely.  The way that unmanned drones have enabled a huge increase in targeted killing is also causing deep disquiet amongst legal experts and scholars.  Of particular concern is the way that the CIA is using such unmanned systems to undertake extrajudicial killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – countries against which war has not been declared.

However, perhaps the greatest concern relates to what is seen as one of the most important capabilities or characteristics of UAVs – their ability to loiter over an area for hours or even days. Evidence is beginning to emerge from Pakistan, that it is the persistent presence of UAVs sitting over remote villages and towns simply looking for ‘targets of opportunity’ that may be leading to civilian casualties.

Despite growing public concern, the UK is to double the number of armed Reapers in operation by 2013 and is also pressing ahead with plans to develop a ‘sovereign’ armed UAV in conjunction with France.  A recent internal briefing on Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), as the British military prefer these systems to be called, stresses the need for the MoD to develop a “communication strategy” to win over public opinion in support of armed drones.  As part of such a strategy, MoD Air Staff officer Wing Commander Chris Thirtle, the leading RAF staff officer working on the weapon system, urges the MoD to “stress the equivalence of  RPAS to traditional combat aircraft.”

I am all for greater and better MoD communication in relation to both the wider strategic policy of using Reapers and their day to day use. What worries me however is that MoD seem not to have gone into the business of communication,  but rather into the business of persuasion, more commonly known these days as ‘spin’.  Rather than relating impartial information on the use of drones which would enable decision makers and the public to make up their minds carefully, we now have to decide if occasional piece of information provided by the MoD about Reapers is objective, or if it is primarily part of a ‘communication strategy’ meant to persuade us of the efficacy of using armed drones.

Equally worrying is the fact that when non-classified MoD material about Reapers, which does not fit in with the approved narrative, is brought to the public’s attention it is suddenly withdrawn or simply disappears.  When the Guardian revealed that the MoD’s Joint Doctrine Note, ‘The UK Approach to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’ suggested there were legitimate legal, moral and ethical issues with unmanned systems, the document was withdrawn from the MoD website, only returning to public view months later.  More recently, I publicised on my website the MoD’s Current Issues Briefing on RPAS,  which reveals the existence of the Reaper communication strategy. It too has disappeared from the MoD website (apparently along with all the other Current Issue Briefings). Should the MoD really be involved in manipulating unclassified information
in this way?

There are several ‘fronts’ in the on-going war over whether it is acceptable to use armed drones. Does the geographic and psychological distance between the operator and target make a positive or negative difference?  Does using unmanned systems mean attacks happen more often?  Does the supposed accuracy of drone sensors and cameras mean that commanders are more willing to undertake ‘riskier’ strikes (in terms of possible civilian casualties) than they would previously have undertaken? All of these questions and many more need to be debated openly and honesty and require careful analysis and clear-headed judgement based on the available evidence. Unfortunately, that evidence, is being kept strictly under wraps.

While it may be necessary to keep some information secret, I do not believe it is appropriate, or legitimate to simply refuse to disclose any and all information about the circumstances of the use of Reapers over the past three years.  There is, at the very least, the sense that public discussion is being manipulated.  With the use of armed drones only set to increase, we need a serious, public – and fully informed – debate on all  these issues.

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