Five years on from UK’s first drone targeted killing, increasing secrecy needs serious challenge

Secret British drone operations getting little scrutiny

The long delay to the release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report showed all too clearly just how much control the government can wield over Parliament’s weak powers of scrutiny.  While the ramification of this latest setback to parliament’s role of holding the executive to account are still being worked out, the consequences of a similar failure five years ago – when MPs attempted to investigate the use of drones by British forces for targeted killing –  are now apparent.  This should act as a salutary reminder of the need for MPs to constantly push to strengthen their oversight powers.

Five years ago today (21 August 2015), an RAF Reaper drone operating over Syria launched a missile at a vehicle travelling along a dusty road in Raqqa, killing its three occupants including the target of the strike, 21-year old Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan. The targeted killing caused a storm of controversy when then PM David Cameron reported it to parliament three weeks later. The government had not only for the first time launched a lethal strike in a country in which it was not at war, but had also defied a resolution supporting use of force in Iraq though specifically ruling it out in Syria. The government insisted that the operation was necessary as Khan was instigating and encouraging terror attacks in the UK. Read more

Drone Strikes in Popular Culture: Eye in the Sky

Examining how popular culture discusses and presents drone warfare is increasingly important today, as public understanding of drone warfare is developed through movies, novels, TV and other cultural forms as much as it is through more traditional news media. Popular culture representation of drone warfare helps to circulate and amplify political ideas about what drones are, how drones are used, and what is ethically and politically at stake.

Take, for example, Gavin Hood’s 2015 film Eye in the Sky, in which civilian and military authorities disagree over the ethics of authorizing a drone strike against an al-Shabab cell planning an imminent suicide attack. Eye in the Sky’s ethical debate is structurally analogous to the ticking bomb scenario, a misleading yet very popular narrative which articulates a defence of extreme violence in ‘emergency’ conditions. As a consequence, the movie frames the moral quandaries of drone warfare in such a way that on the one hand, a Hellfire strike seems to be a simple military necessity and, on the other hand, many of the most important and controversial aspects of drone warfare are left unexplored. Read more

Drone Wars at Ten #3: What’s next? A peek at the future

In this final post to mark our 10th birthday, I want to peer a little into the future, looking at what we are facing in relation to drone warfare in the coming years. Of course predicting the future is always a little foolish – perhaps especially so in the middle of a global pandemic – but four areas of work are already fairly clear: public accountability over the deployment of armed drones; the push to open UK skies to military drones;  monitoring the horizontal and vertical proliferation of military drones and opposing the development of lethal autonomous weapons, aka ‘killer robots’. Read more

Drone Wars at Ten #2: A decade of challenging drone secrecy

We were excluded from our 2017 Information Tribunal when it went into closed session

A key aspect of our work over the past decade has been to challenge the secrecy that surround the use of armed drones. The Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) insist that many aspects of these operations must remain secret in order to protect lives and national security.  And in some cases, that is no doubt true. However, it is also without question that some of the secrecy that surrounds the use of drones is to enable these systems to be used without awkward and difficult questions being asked by parliamentarians, press and the public.

A narrative has been created around the use of armed drones to try to negate criticism – that they protect troops lives, that they are, in effect, no different from traditional aircraft, that they enable careful and precise airstrikes that ‘take out’ bad guys and leave the innocent untouched. Information and data that could challenge this framing, or enable us to have a better understanding, is often amongst the information refused.  Here are some examples from our work over the past decade: Read more

Happy birthday to us! Drone Wars UK is ten

Rather unbelievably, Drone Wars UK is ten years old this week. Although I had been researching and writing about drone warfare earlier, Drone Wars UK as a blog, an organisation, an entity came into being on 1st June 2010.  In the decade since, the use of armed drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles – or ‘remotely piloted air systems’ as we are pressed by some to call them – has (ahem) taken off.  As we and many others feared and predicted, the use of these systems has become virtually normalised and are spreading across the globe, and yet this is still only, I would suggest, the beginning of the drone war era.

While the existence of Drone Wars UK does not, of course, coincide with the existence of drone warfare itself – unarmed UAVs have been used in warfare in various ways for decades with the first air strike from a drone taking place soon after 9/11 – the past decade has undoubtedly seen drones established as a key tool of modern warfare.

We had a public event planned for this week, bringing experts together to discuss and reflect on drone warfare – and with cake to mark the anniversary – but sadly due to Covid-19 restrictions, that has had to be postponed till later in the year. In the meantime, I answered a few questions about our work over the past decade and our future plans in a video interview, and I’ll be sharing a short series of reflections, taking stock of where we are now, what has changed over the past decade, and where we are likely headed in the near future.  As always, we rely on donations to keep our campaign work going. If you are able to make a contribution to our 10th birthday appeal we would be extremely grateful.  

Reflections #1: Are ‘drones’ (still) a thing to focus on?

Throughout the past decade, with perhaps the exception of an 18-month period in 2012/3, we’ve been repeatedly told that drones are not something to focus on.

At the very beginning this was because they were thought too obscure and irrelevant to what was happening at the time and there were other issues around peace and security to work on.  As time went on and the use of drones became more prominent, we began to be told that drones were in fact no different from other forms of air power so there was little point on limiting our work to simply drones. Later still, as the media coverage of the US use of drones to carry out targeted killings in Pakistan and Yemen grew, and the UK followed down this path, Read more

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. Read more