Drone Wars Select Committee submission on use of the military drones in countering migrant crossings

In Sept 2021 the prototype of the UK’s new armed drone flew from Scotland to undertake a mission involving a search pattern over the Channel.

Boris Johnson announced in mid-January that the armed forces was to take charge of limiting migrants crossing the English Channel. The announcement was described by The Times as one of a series of populist announcements by the embattled PM to save his premiership.

Soon after, the Defence Select Committee announced that it was to scrutinize the decision and sought submissions from interested parties:

“The Government’s decision that the Royal Navy should take over operations in the Channel has taken Parliament (and it seems the MOD) by surprise.  There are significant strategic and operational implications surrounding this commitment which need to be explored.”

Shockingly, both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office refused to submit evidence or send ministers to answer questions from the Committee.

Our full submission to the Committee on this issue – looking in particular at how drones are often seen as a ‘solution’ – is available on their website, while here we offer a short summary.

  • Drone Wars argues that the military should not be involved in day-to-day border control operations in the absence of any threat of military invasion. This role is primarily a policing and enforcement role centred on dealing with civilians which should be conducted by civilian agencies.  Military forces are not principally trained or equipped to deal with humanitarian or policing situations.  The UK borders are not a war zone, and civilians attempting to enter and leave the country are not armed combatants.

  • Academics Rey Koslowski and Marcus Schulzke have pointed out that “it is often important to politicians to demonstrate to voters that they are ‘doing something’ to control immigration” and that actions to stop illegal border crossings “are highly visible and make for wonderful ‘symbolic politics’”. This approach has long shaped UK border control policy-making, and was exemplified by the highly publicised deployment of Watchkeeper drones, in the Channel in 2020.
  • Watchkeeper took its first operational flight in support of the UK Border Force on 2 September 2020, undertaking 15 sorties with a total flight time just short of 44 hours during the month of September 2020. In the following month, the number of sorties was down to six, with a flight time totalling slightly under 24 hours up to 16 October, at which point the operation was quietly stopped.  The drones were only permitted to fly in areas covered by temporary airspace restrictions.   It is clear that Watchkeeper’s contribution to operations in the Channel was minimal.
  • In September 2021, while undertaking a series of test flights in the UK, the prototype of the UK’s new ‘Protector’ drone flew down from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland to undertake a mission which involved employing a search pattern while flying over the Channel. This suggests that the highly sophisticated and expensive strike-capable drone is being considered for a border patrol role.  We would strongly argue that the use of military-grade Protector drones for this type of operation is highly inappropriate and unnecessary.
  • Importantly, an audit by the US Department of Homeland Security into the use of Predator drones by the US Customs and Border Patrol for border security found that it cost five times more than expected, found little evidence that the drones had met expectations, and concluded that money could have been put to much better use.
  • Should UK armed forces become involved in border control operations in the Channel, the basis of this involvement must focus on saving lives, meeting humanitarian needs, and be human-rights led.

For more on the issue of drones and border control see Crossing a Line: How the use of drones to secure borders threatens everyone’s rights’   

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