In December 2015 the US announced plans to vastly expand its drone programme including increasing the number of drones to be purchased, doubling the number of drone operators and opening new drone bases.
According to a report in the LA Times, as part of these plans Pentagon officials are considering putting a drone operations centre at a USAF base in the UK – at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk.
An RAF base in name only the base has been used by the USAF for decades and is currently home to USAF 48th Fighter Wing, 4,800 US military personnel and US F-15 aircraft. In June 2015 US F-15’s took off from Lakenheath to undertake the targeted killing of Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Libya. While seven people were killed in the bombing, Belmokhtar reportedly survived.
Oxford MP Andrew Smith asked the MoD last week whether there had been any discussion with the US about the opening of a drone base at Lakenheath. The MoD’s just published ‘answer’ was that “the UK and US have routine discussions on all aspects of US visiting forces in the UK.” A perfect ‘Sir Humphrey’ non-answer if there ever was one.
The UK’s use of armed drones, operated by RAF pilots at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and Creech AFB in Nevada, has long been intertwined with the US drone programme. There have also been persistent reports that GCHQ has supplied intelligence to the US for drone targeted killings and that RAF Croughton (another US base in disguise) in Northamptonshire is directly linked into the US drone intelligence network. However if a US drone operations centre were to be opened in the UK, this would be a real step-up in UK support for, and connection with, the highly controversial US use of armed drones.
While some would argue there is a firewall between USAF use of armed drones and their use for targeted killing by the CIA and Special Forces outside of conventional battlefields, this is simply not the case. USAF pilots regularly operate drones on behalf of other parts of the US military and intelligence community such as the CIA and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command).
Given the US government’s record on using armed drones to undertake targeted killing outside of the laws of armed conflict – condemned in the past couple of years alone by everyone from President Jimmy Carter to Malala Yousefzai, as well as a host of senior UN experts and international law scholars – the government should not allow a US drone operations centre to be opened in the UK.
Such a move will simply be sending a signal that the UK supports the US use of drones for such purposes, damaging not only the UK’s international reputation, but perhaps more importantly encouraging the US to continue with such tactics.
* For more information on the US use of British bases see the always excellent Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB)