In an interview with the Telegraph ahead of the Tory party conference, David Cameron announced that the UK is to again double the UK’s fleet of armed drones, this time up from 10 US Reapers to 20 ‘Protector’ drones. No such drone currently exists and some began to wonder whether Cameron had simply got the name wrong. However later clarification from the MoD seemed to indicate that the ‘Protector’ was to be the British name for the longer range and extended endurance Predator-B drone (commonly known as the Reaper) which is currently going through a development programme in the US in part to gain the necessary certification to fly in European airspace (although this is not confirmed).
The Ministry of Defence has long talked up the need for a new armed drone to come into service around 2017/8 (the Scavenger programme) to replace the current Reaper procured in 2007 under urgent operational requirement rules and meant for limited service in Afghanistan. British and French companies initially put forward a drone called Telemos to meet the requirement. However budget cuts and the problems of working in international partnership – and the development of much more advanced drones in the US – soon sank this project.
While the outcome of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) currently taking place very much behind closed doors is still months away, this announcement seems to commit the UK to buying off-the-shelf US drones for the medium term while in the longer term funding an advanced and much more autonomous drone – likely to be based on BAE Systems’ Taranis drone.
What’s in a name?
Naming has always been a crucial issue in the drone debate. Both the military and the drone industry have long fought a fruitless battle to get the media and the public to call them ‘Remotely Piloted Air Systems’. The desire to control the narrative around the use of drones in this way is almost certainly what has led the MoD to baptise this ‘new’ drone as the Protector, a far more soothing name than ‘Predator’ or ‘Reaper’. The name also points up the desperate desire of drone advocates to break the connection in the public’s mind between drones and targeted killing. ‘Protector’ seeks to highlight armed drones being used for close air support – flying above soldiers out on patrol – rather than for tracking down and executing enemies.
But anodyne names and placid reassurances about drones operating to ‘protect the public’ are unlikely to take the heat out of the drone debate, especially now the that the UK has opted to follow the US down the dangerous path of drone targeted killing outside of conventional armed conflicts. Here too we see the battle to frame the reality of drones, with David Cameron and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon describing such strikes as “thoroughly justified” and “in self-defence” while international law experts and UN officials speak of serious disquiet and a dangerous precedent.
Remote armed drones, as we continue to argue, are lowering the threshold for the use of force and the increasing proliferation of such systems will undermine global peace and security. Legitimate questions about drones need to be properly addressed as, thankfully, some MPs are now making clear:
- How can there be meaningful transparency and oversight on the use of these systems?
- Should such systems ever be used outside of International Humanitarian Law situations?
- Are these systems transferring risk from combatants onto the shoulders of civilians?
- Where is the evidence for the precision narrative which for many legitimises their use?
- Are drone strikes in fact counter-productive for long-term counter terrorism work?
All these and more are questions about the UK’s use of armed drones that could be and should be addressed seriously. However it’s now clear that the Cameron government is committed to using armed drones in the long-term, both on what is described as the ‘normal battlefield’, but also beyond. Rather than putting forward its arguments and seeking to persuade the public about the efficacy of their use, we can see through this cynical re-branding exercise that Cameron is seeking to avoid the difficult questions and opting instead for PR.
- If you haven’t done so yet, please sign this petition calling for a halt to the use of British drone targeted killing
(6 Oct) First paragraph updated to clarify that the MoD has not as yet confirmed that the basis of Protector is the Predator B.
(9 Oct) ‘Protector drone’ now confirmed as Predator B/Reaper: “Air Commodore Peter Grinsted, Head of Unmanned Air Systems at MoD, disclosed the ‘Protector’ drones … will be an “upgraded Reaper with greater capability”… Specifically, it will be the enhanced variant of Predator B (Reaper)”