After more than a decade of responding to our requests for statistical information about the use of armed drones, the MoD abruptly refused our January 2023 request. At first we thought it may be an administrative error but it soon became clear that it was a policy decision.
The MoD now argues that the information that it had previously released without any suggestion of harm for more than a decade will now be refused due to the data being related to bodies dealing with security matters (Section 23) and/or national security (Section 24). Last week, the Information Commissioner finally responded to our appeal, upholding the MoD’s decision based on “confidential submissions” from the MoD. The Information Commissioners Office wrote:
“Based on submissions provided to him by the MOD during the course of his investigation, the Commissioner is satisfied that the information sought by questions 1b) to 4 of the request either falls within the scope of the exemption provided by section 23(1) of FOIA or falls within the scope of the exemption provided by section 24(1) of FOIA, and that if the exemption engaged is section 24(1) then the public interest favours maintaining the exemption.
The Commissioner cannot elaborate on his rationale behind this finding without compromising the content of the withheld information itself or by revealing which of these two exemptions is actually engaged. The Commissioner appreciates that this is likely to prove frustrating to the complainant. However, the Commissioner would like to emphasise that he has carefully scrutinised the MOD’s submissions and that in doing so he has taken into account the complainant’s position that such information has been previously disclosed.
Our analysis of the statistical data on UK armed drone operations, gathered via these FoI requests, enabled some understanding of UK’s use of its armed drones over the past decade or more. Asking a specific set of questions every quarter over several years gave us a dataset which enabled a degree of transparency.
For example when the MoD insisted that its armed drones were primarily used for intelligence gathering – strongly implying drones were rarely being used to launch strikes – the data showed that for periods of time between half and a third of UK air strikes were being carried out by drones. The data also enabled greater understanding of what was happening on the ground, for example the extent of the switch of UK air and drone strikes to Syria from Iraq in certain periods of the war. The FoI data also enabled us to discover when strikes had taken place that had not been disclosed by MoD press releases. The data also allowed us to see the number and type of weapons being used and therefore to calculate the cost of the munitions being used. Indeed one response also let slip that the UK drones were firing thermobaric weapons.
While we have asked both the MoD and the Information Commissioner to explain why the situation has changed, no answer has been forthcoming forcing us to speculate. It may be that as the UK and its NATO allies are now concentrating on possible conflict with ‘peer states’ rather than non-state groups it has been decided that it should no longer release the data.
On the other hand, the use of the Section 23 exemption (of the FoI Act), claiming such information is related to ‘security bodies’ such at MI5, MI6 or Special Forces, may mean that the current use of drones in Iraq and Syria is being more closely directed by those bodies than the MoD. The last publicised strike by a UK Reaper drone in December 2022 was the targeted killing of an ISIS leader who the government claimed was involved in chemical or biological weapons.
Finally, it is clear that the UK wants to use its armed drones outside of on-going military operations like Operation Shader. We previously challenged the UK to detail its use of Reaper drones outside of Operation Shader but the MoD refused. At the Tribunal dealing with that matter the MoD argued that
“The effectiveness of operations conducted using Reaper outside Operation Shader in future depend, in part, on a greater degree of ambiguity as to the employment of Reaper in order to be successful. It is important to retain a degree of ambiguity regarding the full extent of Reaper operations now in order to maintain this flexibility in the future. “ (Quote from Tribunal decision Notice)
Whatever the reason, as the UK begins to replace Reaper with its new ‘Protector’ drones this decision means much less transparency about how, where and why the UK is deploying its armed drones. Without public and parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of drone deployments it is highly likely that their use will increase. We have no choice but to challenge this decision at an Information Tribunal.