‘An Unmanned Combat Air Systems Concept of Use’ : A case study in drone secrecy

Click image to download document

A little over a year ago I discovered someone in the MoD had written a document called ‘An Unmanned Combat Air Systems Concept of Use’. It was mentioned in Defence Reporter, a useful bi-annual bulletin on research being carried out by the MoD’s science and technology labs. The summary said the document:

“aims to provide a broad outline of how it is envisioned that an Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) will be employed both in preparation for, and when operationally deployed from 2020 and beyond. It provides a vision of a potential UCAS, from which questions will naturally be generated, possibilities assessed and conclusions drawn. These questions, analysis and conclusions will help build the UK’s knowledge of a UCAS and therefore enhance our aptitude towards making future procurement decisions with regard to the utility of UCAS in any future force mix.”

Naturally as someone very interested in the development of British combat drones it is a document I would find extremely useful. As the bulletin is aimed at journalists and academics as well as the defence industry I duly applied to the MoD’s Knowledge and Information Services unit for a copy. After a couple of months back and forth about why I wanted the document, my request was refused.

I requested a copy of the document under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) last summer and was again refused. I appealed this refusal (a process that is suppose to take no more than 40 days at the extreme) and now almost seven months later, have received a heavily redacted copy of the document (click image above) together with a long letter setting out all the reasons it has been so heavily redacted.

The letter acknowledges that “disclosure of information from the UCAS CONUSE document would demonstrate openness and improve public understanding on the development and employment of a potential UAS … would also increase confidence in the military’s responsible current and future use of UAS, in particular help to allay concerns that the deployment of UAS are carried out in accordance with International Law…” Release of the full document however has been refused as it would “increase the security threat to our own forces and those of our allies.” (The full letter is here.)

Apart from one or two paragraphs the document is almost entirely redacted. Information that ‘would increase our confidence about current and future use’ of drones has been removed along with almost everything else.

A couple of days ago someone commented here on the blog to the effect that the public has no right to comment on or have oversight of the development of new weapon systems as they do not know enough about it. Only the professionals and experts with inside knowledge are capable of having oversight and control it seems. Alas, of course the same was said about the banking/financial system until its recent virtual collapse…

It is imperative that there is proper, public accountability and control over the actions of our armed forces and the development of new weapon systems. We will continue to challenge the secrecy that surrounds the development and use of British drones.