UK armed drone deployment: brief report from Information Tribunal

Tribunal in closed session

Our appeal against the Ministry of Defence’s decision not to release the number of UK Reapers engaged in operations against ISIS, nor the location of all UK Reapers was heard before an Information Tribunal yesterday (11 July). Despite such details being regularly released for ‘manned’ aircraft engaged in such operations – and as we demonstrated in court – many other operations including Operation Herrick (Afghanistan), Operation Ellamy (Libya) and even Operation Desert Fox (Iraq), the MoD insisted in court there were “appropriate reasons”, which could not be revealed in open court, why deployment details of armed drones could not be released. Group Captain Mark Flewin, attached to Permanent Joint Headquarter (PJHQ) and responsible for managing information operations in support of Operation Shader gave evidence for the MoD in open session but repeated stated he could not answer some of our questions in open session.  His redacted statement is below.  GC Flewin stated in open session:

  • ISIS is a more dangerous and sophisticated enemy than has been faced by UK armed forces on previous operations and that is why the information cannot now be released when it has been in the past;
  • Reaper has “specific capabilities” which other aircraft do not possess and releasing details of how many are deployed against ISIS could allow them to change their tactics;
  • The UK relies heavily on the US for Reaper system and they have made release process clear. Information release could affect future procurement of both manned and unmanned aircraft.

The hearing then went into a closed session with the Tribunal panel listening to arguments from MoD lawyers and evidence from the MoD witness while Drone Wars was excluded.  At the end of the closed session we were handed a gist as follows:

 Gist of Closed Session

During the course of the closed session, Group Captain Flewin was asked questions and invited to address certain topics.  These included:

  • The distinction between generic numbers and specific deployment numbers
  • The particular capabilities and threat posed by DAESH
  • The distinction between manned and unmanned platforms
  • The nature of the harm to international relation arising from Part A [numbers deployed]
  • Whether the USA had been given an effective veto over disclosure
  • The extent to which DAESH could have guessed the answers to Part A [numbers deployed] and Part B [locations of Reapers]
  • Other elements of the closed statement

None of the evidence given in response by the witness can be given in open.

Following the closed session, both Drone Wars and the MoD made oral submissions to the Tribunal (copies of the skeleton arguments in this case are below). In essence we argued strongly that if some UK Reapers are deployed on operations outside of Iraq/Syria, or if some are in storage in the UK, there is weighty public interest in this being disclosed. Judgement from the Tribunal panel is expected in a few weeks time.

Tribunal documents
Witness statement, Ministry of Defence  –  Group Captain Mark Flewin
Witness statement, Drone Wars UK  –  Chris Cole
Open skeleton argument – Ministry of Defence
Skeleton argument – Drone Wars UK

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