The Government Response to the Defence Select Committee Report on ‘Remotely Piloted Air Systems’ (drones to the rest of us) was published on 29 July. As we wrote when the Committee’s report was originally published in March, there is a gaping hole in the document where actual details of UK drone operation in Afghanistan – and an analysis of their impact on the ground – should be. Without this crucial information it is, in our opinion, impossible to undertake any proper assessment of “the current and future use” of drones, as the Committee claims it has done.
Despite this obvious omission from its investigation – or perhaps because of it – the Defence Select Committee was able to be enthusiastic about the use of drones, calling them “a key military capability for the future.” The report did however make some observations and recommendations, to which the Government has now responded.
The Select Committee called on the Government to set out which remote and unmanned systems it would retain post the Afghanistan conflict. The Government response is:
“The Ministry of Defence plans to retain the Reaper for contingent purposes, principally for its ISR capabilities, following the end of operations in Afghanistan. The Defence Board recently gave approval for funding to allow the Reaper capability to be maintained until SCAVENGER enters service towards the end of the decade; plans for this bridging capability are currently under development.”
The MoD says that it will also continue to use Desert Hawk III and the Black Hornet.
With regard to future drones, the Government states that the SCAVENGER programme is aimed at replacing Reaper towards the end of the decade with a “sovereign armed RPAS capability for the UK.” The Taranis programme and the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) programme are aimed at “informing” this eventual aim. The Government goes on to say:
“Key attributes of a UCAV [Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle] would include the ability to undertake long range missions and to provide high levels of persistence and survivability in a contested environment featuring advanced air and ground threat systems. These attributes of range, persistence and survivability coupled with an advanced suite of sensors and weapons should permit a UCAV to make a major contribution to the provision of precise attack and ISTAR capabilities for the UK. “
This programme cannot be described as being for ‘defence’ or ‘security’ purposes in the true meaning of those words, but rather is about projecting armed force in future military interventions.
On the ‘ethical and legal’ aspects of the use of armed drones the Select Committee recommended that the MoD revisit and update the Joint Doctrine Note on the UK approach to the use of unmanned systems by September 2014. This document looked, for the first time, at the ethical and legal issues associated with the growing use of drones. In its response the Government has said it will neither revisit nor revise the document (and will in fact withdraw it), arguing that the issues have been taken forward in other documents such as UK Air and Space Doctrine and the Global Strategic Trends 5. Although these documents do touch tangentially upon the ethical and legal issues associated with drones they can in no way be seen as documents focused on these issues.
Elsewhere the Government stated that it was “aware” of the perception that the operation of drones may lead to a reduced threshold for military intervention but it “does not believe this is the case.” It argued that its use of military forces was always the “last resort” and had a proper legal basis.
On the UN Special Rapporteur’s report on the impact of drones on civilians the Government simply states that the Rapporteur “identifies a number of interesting legal questions” and so it was “carefully considering the recommendations.” With regard to UK sharing intelligence with the US which could lead to drone targeted killings, the Government gives its the usual bland ‘we comply with the law’ statement .
Although the Select Committee paid lip service to the need for more openness and transparency, it stopped far short of making any specific recommendations leading perhaps inevitably to little impact on the current lack of transparency on the UK use of armed drones. The Government states in its Response that it had carried out a number of “media events” and that it
“intends to continue communicating with the public, the media and Parliamentarians on Unmanned or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems in the future, and promote a better understanding of what we do and why we do it. This will include information on operational activities where it is operationally secure to do so.”
Public relations exercises falls far short of appropriate parliamentary oversight and proper public scrutiny. PR is no substitute for accountability and to suggest otherwise is – like the ridiculous attempt to rebrand ‘drones’ as ‘RPAS’ – Orwellian.