Busy autumn on drones front

newspapersAfter a relatively quiet summer, the military use of drones is likely to hit the headlines again this autumn

UN Drone Investigation to report in October  

Perhaps likely to garner most column inches will be the report of Ben Emmerson,  Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, to the UN General Assembly in New York on 25 October.

In January 2013 Ben Emmerson announced that he was undertaking an investigation into the use of armed drones for targeted killing at the request of several states and in response to what he called “the increasing international concern surrounding the issue of remote targeted killing through the use of UAVs.”  The investigation is focusing on 25 ‘cases studies’ from Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

During the investigation, Mr Emmerson has met with officials from “relevant States” including Pakistan, the US and the UK.  After meeting with US officials Mr Emmerson said he was expecting a  “significant reduction” in US drone strikes, while after meeting with Pakistan officials in March 2013 he put out a very clear statement on the ‘consent’ issue:

“The position of the Government of Pakistan is quite clear. It does not consent to the use of drones by the United States on its territory and it considers this to be a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As a matter of international law the US drone campaign in Pakistan is therefore being conducted without the consent of the elected representatives of the people, or the legitimate Government of the State. It involves the use of force on the territory of another State without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”

Although not looking at the wider global peace and security implications of the growing use of armed drones, the report will examine the impact of drone strikes on civilians and the human rights and legal consequences of such technology.

Europe, drones and cash carrots

Meanwhile Europe continue to argue over whether to invest billions in developing  their own armed drone industry – and if so which countries will get prime constructor status or secondary supplier status – and  whether in the long run it would be simpler, quicker and cheaper to buy drones ‘off-the-shelf’ from the US or Israel.

The European track record on joint ‘defence’ industry co-operation is poor to say the least and so far initiatives to work jointly on developing a new armed drone are not getting very far.  Due to the delays many European countries now want to buy armed Reaper drones from General Atomics in the US.  However so far only the UK has received Congressional approval  as many in the US Congress believe that proliferation of such technology is not in the US interests.

While this impasse has been ongoing for some time, it is likely things may come to a head this autumn as the US has now signalled it is willingness to export armed Reaper drones, with a sale of Reapers to France receiving Congressional approval in late July.   Italy, German and the Netherlands also want armed Reapers and the sale to France is likely to trigger renewed efforts from them to secure approval this autumn.

If these sales go through it will be even harder for European countries to justify investing billions in developing new armed drones at a time when many key social programmes are being cut.  However the industry is fighting back with Defense News reporting that a “cash carrot” of  €100million ((US $132.7 mil­lion) is to be offered to persuade European governments to ‘invest’ in drones.  Defense News says “ The cash offer, plus an offer of technical assistance, will be made to European defense ministers when they meet in September in the hope that a deal on a common medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) program can be reached during an EU defense summit in December.”

US Review, UK Inquiry

Also this autumn the USAF will be releasing a report revealing its thinking on drone requirements over the next 25 years.  The 100-page RPA Vector Report will look at large themes and reflect on the needs of the US military in regard to the use of unmanned drones over the next quarter of a century.     

The UK Parliamentary Defence Select Committee is also reviewing the use of drones, or as they insist on calling them ‘Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS).  Key questions that the Committee’s Inquiry seeks to address include

  • What governance and oversight arrangements are in place for the use of RPAS in the UK and overseas?
  • What lessons have been learnt from RPAS operations in Afghanistan, and elsewhere (including present and planned weapons), and how will this enable the future development of doctrine on their use?
  • How dependent is the UK RPAS programme on technology, training and operational support from the USA?
  • What additional capabilities will the UK seek to develop from now to 2020?
  • What ethical and legal issues arise from the use of RPAS?


Meanwhile drone campaigners will also be busy this autumn with many events and protests planned in the US and the Drones Week of Action planned for October in the UK.  Drone campaigners are planning to challenge the drone industry at the DSEI London arms fair and there will be a two-day Information Tribunal hearing in London brought by Drone Wars UK to try to overturn the MoD’s refusal to release more information about UK use of drones in Afghanistan under the Freedom of Information Act.   CodePink are also organising an international Drone Summit in November aimed in part at forming a Global Drones Network.

All-in-all, Autumn 2013 is likely to be a busy time on the drones front.

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