Defence Select Committee issues report on drones: PR trumps transparency

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Three years ago today (25 March) four Afghan civilians were killed and two seriously injured in a British drone strike in the Now Zad district of Helmand province. According to the MoD the strike, which also killed two men believed to be combatants, was investigated by ISAF who found that the strike had been “in accordance with extant procedures and rules of engagement.”  Words of regret were issued, the case closed and British and US drone operations in Afghanistan continued unabated.

Seemingly by coincidence, the Defence Select Committee chose the third anniversary of this tragic event to release the report of its inquiry into the use of ‘Remotely Piloted Air Systems’.  Not only is the anniversary itself ignored, so too is how UK drone strikes are actually impacting on the ground in Afghanistan. The fact that casualty figures from UK drone strikes in Afghanistan are not made public is not even mentioned, never mind challenged. Just as the four Afghan civilians killed in that British drone strike three years ago remain nameless, so to do all victims of UK drone strikes in Afghanistan

A number of organisations, including Drone Wars UK, submitted written evidence to the Committee but despite our urging, no public evidence sessions took place.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the report is enthusiastic about the use of drones, calling them “a key military capability for the future.” While the report pays lip service to the need for more openness, it stops far short of making any specific recommendations that would ensure greater transparency in relation to the use of armed drones by British forces. The Committee states:

“We are satisfied that RAF Reaper pilots and flight crew have a high level of experience and appropriate training to conduct such strikes. We are also satisfied that the RAF rules of engagement for Reaper operations … provide a high level of assurance that, as far as possible, civilian casualties will be avoided and collateral damage minimised.”

Although the report acknowledges a sense of public disquiet about the increasing use of armed drones, they suggest this is fed by “misunderstandings and misinformation.” This is nonsense. There is a serious and well-informed argument against the growing use of armed drones for remote warfare.

The report also argues that it is “of vital importance” that a clear distinction be draw between the use of drones by UK armed forces and what it discreetly calls “those of other States elsewhere.” It urges the MoD to continue its PR campaign – what the committee calls a “public awareness programme” – in order to “aid public understanding and acceptance.” PR it seems trumps transparency.

Specific Recommendations

The report makes a number of specific recommendations. The MoD should revisit the issues raised in the Joint Doctrine Note on Remotely Piloted Air Systems and publish an updated version by September 2014 says the Committee.

Defence Select Committee - wider questions
Defence Select Committee

The MoD should provide absolute clarity about whether UK Reapers have been used by US personnel outside of the launch and recovery phase and clear up “the apparent inconsistent answers” given by ministers. (Note the MoD have just issued a response to Drone Wars UK on this matter which states that UK owned Reapers have never been operated by US pilots outside of the Launch and Recovery element).

Importantly the Committee also urges the MoD to detail its plan for the use of drones after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. However the report argues that the ‘strategic choice’ that the UK needs to make in relation to its use of armed drones in the run up to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 is whether to continue to work bilaterally with the US or, if it is more advantageous, to form collaborative arrangements with other European nations operating drones. The option of ending or even pausing our involvement in the drones wars after the withdrawal from Afghanistan is not even presented. While the possibility of withdrawing from using armed drones many seem unimaginable to some, it should be remembered that Germany has ruled out acquiring or using armed drones.

On a more positive note the report recognizes the fears that many have that drones may lower the threshold for military intervention. The Committee argues that this “perception” cannot be allowed to develop and the calls on the MoD to set out how it intends to address the issue.

In addition the Committee says it recognises the growing concern that the sharing of UK intelligence information with the US may be used for targeted killing and states “there should be greater transparency in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK Government has in place for the sharing of intelligence.” The Committee suggests the Intelligence and Security Committee should consider the issue while they also say they will work with the Committees on Arms Export Controls to ensure that “appropriate scrutiny” is given to the issue of exports.


In his report to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month the UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson QC, urged the UK to “declassify and publish the results of the investigation into the March 2011 drone strike and of any other report relating to the infliction of civilian casualties through the use of remotely piloted aircraft in Afghanistan.” The Committee in their report agree and say that MoD should publish details about such incident as long “as it is operationally secure to do so.” Whether the MoD would ever think that it is, appears to be another matter.

The Committee concludes by arguing that drones contribute greatly to the effectiveness of military operations and have “undoubtedly saved lives and prevented casualties.”  This is, in essence, the National Rifle Association line on gun control, i.e. ‘weapons save lives’.  The problem is, as anyone who even glanced at gun-related death figures in the US knows, weapons don’t save lives. The more people who rely on guns for security, the less security there is. The more countries who will start using armed drones, the less secure the world will be.

Finally, the Committee urges the MoD to turn its attention to the future and expects drones to be “an important strand of the SDSR 2015 equipment programme.” Any reservations or concerns appear to have been swept away. The future is drone.

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