Protector starts with ‘PR’: the coming battle over military drone use in the UK

UK has been using armed drones overseas since 2008

The use of armed drones by the UK and in particular, the US, grew rapidly in the early 2000s as the ability to carry out remote strikes and targeted killings, with no risk to one’s own forces, was increasingly valued. However, because the public perception of drones has always generally been negative, military, industry and government officials know that they need to shape and improve how the public perceive the use of these systems. This effort is now being ratcheted up for two key and related reasons: i) to continue to be able to use armed drones for military operations overseas ii) to fly military drones in domestic airspace.

Firstly, military officials and political leaders know that drones have a serious image problem which may place limits on their operational deployment and use. Under President Obama the US’s use of armed drones, including the Predator and Reaper models, grew massively, partly to manage and reduce public opposition to the deployment of US troops overseas following the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s former director of national intelligence, explained the US use of drones for targeted killing as “the politically advantageous thing to do – low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness.” Blair went on to comment that the policy “plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

In 2013 then UK defence secretary Phillip Hammond joined in the chorus of approval of the growing use of drones, arguing that we should “ignore the drone myths” because these weapons are not “indiscriminate killers” but rather “assets that keep civilians and troops safe”. Yet just two years later, Hammond’s fellow Conservative MP, David Davis, took quite a different view. Davis stated, regarding the UK’s involvement in the US drone programme and the policy of targeted killing, that “what we are talking about here is murder. It may be that you are murdering terrorists and the people are villains, but it is still murder. We don’t countenance murdering criminals in Britain. Why should we countenance murdering them in Yemen or anywhere else?”

Such high-level, public disagreements concerning the costs and benefits of armed drones, in addition to the widespread global opposition to US drone strikes, shows that the image problem these weapons have isn’t going away anytime soon. Yet, judging by President Trump’s decision earlier this year to kill Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani – using a Reaper drone – neither is Washington’s aggressive use of these weapons.

Secondly, the UK and US are developing military drones that can be certified to fly in domestic airspace in the next few years. As our recent briefing on the UK’s next generation Protector armed drone explains, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) would like to be able to fly this new drone in UK airspace so it can be deployed “across the full spectrum of operations”, including: domestic security purposes, such as surveillance; training personnel; and being available to civil authorities for contingencies and emergencies.

General Atomics’ ad featuring a Protector drone over London has been appearing in defence press

In email exchanges involving the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which we obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, decision-makers acknowledge that “public acceptance” will be an “important factor” in “normalising” the domestic use of Protector. The question here is, to what extent can or will the CAA, as the body responsible for ensuring “the aviation industry meets the highest safety standards”, seek to defend public concerns and interests on this issue?

Perhaps the most immediate area of concern relating to Protector is that of safety, simply because large military drones frequently crash. Data collated by Drone Wars reveals that over 250 large military drones within the same NATO classification as Protector have crashed in the past decade—twice a month on average. This fact alone raises serious questions about whether Protector drones should be flown in UK airspace. In addition to safety concerns, there are significant privacy and civil liberties issues that will need to be fully addressed if the public are to be convinced that Protector should be flown within the UK.

Opinion polls have shown that the public are worried about the domestic presence of aerial drones. A 2018 NESTA study of British public attitudes to drones found that “safety, privacy and accountability concerns dominate” discussion of the issue. Elsewhere, a recent poll of the American public’s views on commercial drones found that “68% of respondents are concerned about safety and drones; only 7% are not concerned at all.” In addition, “71%” of respondents had “privacy concerns” and “93% want some form of regulation”. The controversial nature of drones, including their surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities – and the powerful weapons they carry – is likely to undermine public support for their use in domestic airspace. An important 2014 report by Birmingham University directly addressed this issue, arguing that before drones “become common in our skies”, the UK government “needs to have consulted the public and established appropriate codes of conduct to safeguard the privacy of the citizen”.

However, rather than meaningfully engaging with these concerns, military and government bodies are actively trying to persuade people that there is nothing to fear from drones – starting with the very term used to commonly describe these systems. Tim Robinson of the Royal Aeronautical Society noted in 2011 that the public’s fear of “flying robots, ‘killer drones’ or airborne ‘terminators’” may “hamper general acceptance” of civil drones and is “difficult to counter.” However, Robinson also argues that the drone industry “has not done itself any favours with its choice of terminology” and is trying to popularise terms other than ‘drone’, which it sees as more accurate and palatable, such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) or Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).

The strategy of hiding a wolf in sheep’s clothing continues with Protector itself, which was originally destined to be named Scavenger by the UK MOD. Furthermore, the manufacturer of Protector—the US-based General Atomics—refers to it as SkyGuardian, which is part of the more commonly known Predator family of drones, so that Protector is also referred to by industry insiders as Predator B.

The Guardian, 9 March 2020

The official sensitivity and secrecy surrounding these weapons is also illustrated by recent revelations concerning the 2018 flight of a Protector drone from North Dakota in the US to Gloucestershire in the UK. This was the first time a military drone had made a transatlantic journey through British civil airspace. Based on official documents they obtained, Guardian journalists reported that the UK MOD wanted “regulators to give only six days’ warning to the public” regarding the flight in order to “prevent protesters organising a demonstration about the drone”. However, the regulator in question—the CAA—told the MOD that the longer the delay in issuing the warnings over the flight, the higher the risk of other planes crashing into the drone.

Separately, the online journal Tech Crunch reported that the RAF had edited an article about the flight intended for defence magazine Jane’s, to remove references to the “large weapons load” of the drone flying from the US. The RAF officer in question wrote: “I have cut out the weapons bit as this detracts from the article and moves focus from the achievement of the flight to how easily we can kill people”. The officer’s stated intention in obscuring the lethal nature of Protector was to maintain the “narrative that [drones] are a good thing and I am keen to keep the wind out of the anti-drone lobby sails.”

Given the ongoing absence of public discussion concerning Protector – and drones more widely – and the efforts taken to conceal what is going on behind closed doors, it is vital that civil society, the public and parliamentarians hold the UK government to account to ensure future decisions on drones are subject to transparent and democratic processes. After all, we are used to asking who guards the guardians, but now, given the concerns highlighted above, it is clear that we should also ask: who will protect us from Protector?


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