After five years of British drone strikes, five basic facts we are simply not allowed to know

Defence Minister Philip Dunne inspects new Reaper Ground Control Station at RAF Waddington Dec 2012
Defence Minister Philip Dunne inspects new Reaper Ground Control Station at RAF Waddington Dec 2012

Five years ago this week the first British drone strike took place somewhere in Afghanistan.  Like the more than 380 British drone strikes since, details of that first strike remain shrouded in secrecy.

Although we don’t know the exact day (all the MoD reported at the time was that it had taken place ‘in the past week’), subsequent MoD reports have dated UK drones strikes back to late May 2008.  The location of the strike, why it occurred and, if anyone was killed, who they were, all remain secret.

In the five years since, the Ministry of Defence has refused to answer many questions about its use of armed drones.  Freedom of Information requests and questions asked by MPs in the House of Commons have been repeatedly refused on security grounds or that to answer would endanger our relationship with another state (no prizes for guessing who that is).

There are many important ethical and legal questions about the growing use of armed drones.  However these wider questions can only be addressed by having access to basic information about how drones are actually being used on a day-to-day basis. As we reach the important milestone of five years of British drone strikes, here are five basic facts we are not allowed to know about the UK’s use of armed drones.


1)  Where do UK drone strikes take place?

This is a pretty basic question, but we don’t officially know where the British Reaper drones actually operate within Afghanistan.  Some sources have told us unofficially that UK drones only operate within Helmand Province where British troops are based.  However other sources  have also told us, again off the record, that they operate throughout Afghanistan.  The MoD has refused to answer our Freedom of Information request about the location of UK drone strikes in Afghanistan.

It should be noted that multiple sources have reported that the UK’s Reaper drones are based at Kandahar airport which is in Kandahar Province.

One of the UK’s primary justification for using armed drones is the protection of British troops.  While there are some British troops at the airbase in Kandahar and in the capital, Kabul, the overwhelming majority are in Helmand.  If UK armed drones are operating outside Helmand province, they are more than likely engaged in different tasks than force protection.  If they are just operating within Helmand, why are we not allowed to know?

 2)  How many people have been killed in British drones strikes and who are they?

There are no public figures for the number of people killed in British drone strikes, let alone details about who they were or why they were killed.  Across the border in Pakistan there are casualty figure compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from a variety of reliable sources that show between 2,500 and 3,500 people have been killed in 366 US drone strikes.  However  because of the lack of media and independent NGOs on the ground in Afghanistan there are no such reports.

In December 2010 David Cameron reportedly told journalists that 124 insurgents had been killed by British drone strikes in Afghanistan.  Later however, the Ministry of Defence said that there were unable to find a record of the PM making such a statement (although the MoD also states that this does not mean the PM didn’t say it just that there is no official record of him saying it).

Following a NATO inquiry into an airstrike in March 2011, the MoD acknowledged that a weapon launched from one of its Reaper drones  had killed 4 civilians and injured two others as well as killing two insurgents.  While the MoD regularly states that this is the only time that civilians have been harmed in its drone strikes in Afghanistan, it also regularly states that it cannot know how many people have been killed in its drone strikes.

Responding to one of our FoI requests, the MoD confirmed that it carries out what it calls a “post-strike assessment” after each drone strike.   However the MoD refuses to give details saying that “for reasons of operational security we are not prepared to comment on the assessed numbers of insurgents killed/wounded in Reaper strikes.”

3)  What is the balance between pre-planned strikes and those launched ‘on the fly’?

Perhaps the key question relation to the use of armed drones is whether they are lowering the threshold to lethality in general and, in particular, whether their ability to loiter over areas looking for suspicious behaviour and ‘targets of opportunity’ is leading to more air strikes.

RAF Reaper being readied for a mission in Afghanistan
RAF Reaper being readied for a mission in Afghanistan

The MoD flatly refuses to give details of the circumstances and reasons for launching drone strikes.  However it is hard to see why the MoD won’t release information about the balance of strikes that are launching under daily tasking orders (i.e. pre-planned) and those that are launched under dynamic tasking procedures (i.e. those ‘on the fly’).  Indeed  the MoD have insisted to the Information Commissioner when we appealed this refusal that they wouldn’t give the reason why they wouldn’t tell us!   We are pursuing this refusal to an Information Tribunal.

4)  How accurate are British drone strikes? 

Proponents of drone strikes argue they are ethical because they can be much more precise than strikes from manned aircraft.  Their ability, they argue, to loiter over targets waiting until potential ‘collateral damage’ is minimised makes them much better than old-fashioned manned aircraft.  This would perhaps be hard to argue with if it were true.  The problem is that we simply do not know if it is true or not.  Many people appear to accept the ‘drones are pinpoint accurate’ argument without any data or information.

Weapons accuracy is measured in Circular Error Probability (CEP).  Under test conditions, a number of weapons are launched and a circle is drawn around the impact point of the 50% of the weapons that hit closest to the target (the 50% that landed further away are simply ignored).The radius of the circle is given as the CEP of that particular weapon.

Tom Watson MP asked the Defence Secretary in January 2013 how many times weapons launched from British Reaper drones had fallen outside their given CEP  but again this information has been refused.  In addition requests for information about the actual CEP of the weapons, their blast radius and indeed whether the thermobaric variant of Hellfire missiles have been launched from  British Reaper drones have all been refused.

5)  Has the UK engaged in targeted killing with drones in Afghanistan?

Within Afghanistan, it appears that the UK may have used its Reaper drones to carry out targeted killings using Reaper drones although due to the lack of transparency it has not been possible to confirm this.

We know from published RAF operational updates that UK Reapers have tracked what they called “high value” insurgents for many hours before finally launching weapons.  Although the use of force in Afghanistan has been authorised by the UN and International Humanitarian Law (IHL)therefore applies, insurgents in Afghanistan are not members of uniformed armed forces and their status as combatants under IHL remains unclear. While individuals fighting in Afghanistan may be targeted while directly participating in hostilities, targeting killings take place away from the battlefield.

While UK Rules of Engagement are secret, it should be possible for the UK to confirm or deny whether it has carried out targeted killings in Afghanistan, particularly if the UK believes it is has the legal authority to do so under IHL.

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Five years after the first British drone strike in Afghanistan there continues to be huge controversy surrounding the use of armed drones.  As the MoD say themselves in their publication The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems:

“It is essential that, before unmanned systems become ubiquitous (if it is not already too late) that we consider this issue and ensure that, by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, that we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.” (Para. 517)   

The passage concludes “What is needed is a clear understanding of the issues involved so that informed decisions can be made.”  This ‘clear understanding of the issues’ can only be aided by more transparency about how Britain’s Reaper drones are actually being used in Afghanistan.

So far only three countries – the Unites States, Israel and the UK – are known to have used unmanned drones to launch armed attacks.  Many fear that this is just the tip of the iceberg however, and the proliferation of this technology will lead to multiple countries carrying out remote armed attacks with obvious implications for global peace and security.

We believe that as one of only a tiny number of countries to use armed drones, the UK has a moral duty to be much more transparent about its use of this technology.

In addition, information about the basic day-to-day use of armed drones by British forces would go a long way to help those around the globe – lawyers, politicians, military commanders, academics and ordinary members of the public  – answer the hugely important ethical, moral and legal questions that surround this new way to wage war.    The UK must answer our basic questions.

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