An initial response to the report of the Birmingham Policy Commission on Drones

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The Birmingham Policy Commission has released a new report entitled The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK. While Drone Wars UK welcomes the attention this important report brings to the issue – and would support some of its recommendations – we have to disagree with the main conclusion and thrust of the report.

The Birmingham Policy Commission says that its aim is to “to bring leading figures from the public, private and third sectors together with Birmingham academics to generate new thinking on contemporary issues of global, national and civic concern.” A specific group of ‘commissioners’ are gathered together to look at each particular issue and the Commission on drones is chaired by Sir David Omand, former Head of GCHQ, and made up of academics, former military officers, and representatives of the ‘defence’ industry. Jen Gibson of Reprieve seemed to have the sole responsibility for representing civil society organisations (a full list of Commissioners for this report is here).

The Commission stated that the aim of its inquiry was “to cut through some of the over-simplifications and misconceptions that shape much of the current British debate on drone technology” and the report is unashamedly ‘pro-drone’.  The executive summary states that drones – or Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) as the report prefers to call them

“now represent an increasingly important potential for the modern military as well as for civil authorities concerned with safety, security, and policing. The application of RPA technology has great economic value and social benefit…. We must expect RPA to become ubiquitous in the short to medium term in the world’s advanced economies, and the United Kingdom will be no exception.”

The report does argue for greater transparency from the MoD on the UK use of armed drones and specifically calls for the report of inquiry into the UK drone strike in March 2011 in which four afghan civilians were killed to be made public.  In addition the report strongly argues against the development of autonomous weapon systems and calls for the UK government to take a leading role in international discussion with a view to obtaining a ban on the development and use of autonomous weapon systems.

However the main conclusion and thrust of the report is that the UK should continue to invest in and encourage the development of drones for both military and civilian purposes.

UK Drones in Afghanistan

With regard to UK armed military drone operations in Afghanistan the report has no detail or information about the actual impact of UK drone operations in Afghanistan (the Defence Select Committee report earlier this year also omitted this crucial aspect). What factual information there is in the report on UK drone strikes in Afghanistan mainly comes from Freedom of Information work undertaken by Drone Wars UK. Nevertheless the report seems able to say that UK drone operations in Afghanistan have been “highly effective…”

I asked at the launch of the report earlier this week if the Commission had seen information that was not in the public domain, as without empirical data I wondered how this conclusion had been reached. Although Professor Nicholas Wheeler stated that the Commission had received non-public information in terms of oral testimony from witnesses, it was apparent that no data on UK drone operations that was not already in the public domain had in fact been seen by the Commission. Without such detailed information – looking for example at where and how UK drones are being used in Afghanistan; casualty figures, and statistical information about that actual accuracy and precision of these system in theatre – we would strongly argue that it would be difficult to judge the real effectiveness in the short and long-term of UK drone operations.

UK Drones and the Law

One chapter of the report examines the legal debate surrounding the use of armed drones and helpfully sets out the issues as they relate to the UK use. The report highlights, as we have reported previously, that during the UN inquiry into the use of armed drones, the MoD told Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights and counterterrorism, that

“It is the policy of the Ministry of Defence that weapons should not be discharged from any aerial platform unless there is a zero expectation of civilian casualties, and that any individual or location should be presumed to be civilian in nature unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.”

While this policy goes further than current international humanitarian law I suspect it is the least that the general public would expect when airstrikes are being undertaken by the RAF.

The chapter also looks at the UK’s connection and cooperation with US drones operations in regard of British pilots operating US armed drones while embedded with the USAF, and the provision of intelligence information that may end up being used to facilitate targeted killings by drone. The report urges the government to put in place guidance to ensure that international law is not being breached.

Public diplomacy

One of the main conclusions of the report is that the MoD and the government should engage in what the Commission calls “public diplomacy” – perhaps what the public would call ‘PR’ or ‘spin’ – to convince a sceptical public of the efficacy of using armed drones. It argues that the negative public perception of drones is partly due to the name ‘drone’ (yes, that old one again) and confusion between the US use of drones for targeted killing outside UN-authorised conflicts and the legally authorised UK use of UK (and US) drones in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.

Again we would strongly argue that we do not need ‘public diplomacy’ but transparency. Already we have to analyse pronouncements and information from the MoD about the UK use of drones to see if they are factual or part of a PR programme designed  to persuade the public of the efficacy of using armed drones. What MPs, academics, civil society groups and the public really need in relation to this issue is reliable data and accurate information on which to base decisions about the legal and ethical issues raised by the growing use of armed drones.

To be absolutely fair to the Commission when I made this point at the launch they strong resisted the idea that ‘public diplomacy’ meant PR. We shall see.

Lowering the threshold for use of lethal force

With regard to ethical arguments the Commission stated that they are “not persuaded” that the threshold for use of force will be lowered by drones “as long as Parliament plays its proper oversight function.”

Firstly, the question of course is how can parliament have proper oversight and accountability over drones without much greater transparency from the MoD? Indeed I suspect that really only around 30 MPs (less than 5%) know in any great detail about the UK’s use of armed drones – meaning that 95% know next to nothing – hardly proper oversight

But more importantly as we have argued, the ‘lowering the threshold for the use of force’ argument is a matter of global peace and security. The UK response to this concern cannot be addressed by merely stating that there should be proper oversight over UK drones.  The UK, as one of the three nations initiating the era of drone warfare has an international responsibility to ensure the use of these systems does not lower security overall, particularly – as the report itself predicts – it will not be long before multiple nations are operating multiple armed drones.  Would it not be better for global (and UK) security to prevent this happening before it’s too late? To dismiss this important global security concern out of hand is rather disappointing.


There is much of interest in this report (including an important  chapter looking at the security, safety and privacy implications of the growing civil use of drones) even though Drone Wars UK cannot agree with all its conclusions. We very much hope that this report kicks off the long overdue (and promised) public debate on the use of armed drones. Overall this is an important report and anyone interested in the use of armed drones (and especially the UK use of armed drones) should read the document in full.



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