Droning On – What does the expansion in Britain’s UAV force mean?

Within six weeks, the Royal Air Force will begin flying their five new ‘Reaper’ unmanned aerial vehicles out of a high-tech facility constructed over the last eighteen months at RAF Waddington. The drones themselves are based at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, and are controlled remotely by pilots based at the RAF base. This dramatic expansion of the United Kingdom’s UAV combat capabilities has led to a renewed conversation about the complex legal and moral issues surrounding the use of such technology.

Within six weeks, the Royal Air Force will begin flying their five new ‘Reaper’ unmanned aerial vehicles out of a high-tech facility constructed over the last eighteen months at RAF Waddington. The drones themselves are based at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, and are controlled remotely by pilots based at the RAF base. This dramatic expansion of the United Kingdom’s UAV combat capabilities has led to a renewed conversation about the complex legal and moral issues surrounding the use of such technology.

The new vehicles will join the existing squadron of five drones that are controlled by RAF pilots from an American air force base, Creech, near Las Vegas. In an excellent and in-depth piece for the Telegraph, Rob Blackhurst describes the operation of the drone forces based at Kandahar. The drones cannot take-off and land when being controlled remotely – the latency of the link between operator and vehicle is too slow for such delicate control. Instead, they are piloted into the air by personnel based at the airfield, and half an hour later, control is transferred thousands of miles away to an RAF pilot, in full uniform, sat in front of a number of computer monitors in Nevada.  Once he has control, the remote pilot carries out a wide range of various surveillance and combat tasks, providing vital support for MoD operations in the war-torn state.

The narrative described by Blackhurst’s interviews with drone pilots and combat troops on the ground in Afghanistan paint the use of the UAVs in a positive light. They are quick to anger when asked whether the remoteness of their control of the vehicles means that moral judgements are any less considered than they otherwise would be:

“The plane cannot start, cannot fly and cannot release a weapon without us doing it. Human beings are in the cockpit – exactly the same as when I was flying a Tornado. We just happen to be 8,000 miles away from the plane.”

In fact, they are convinced that the unique capabilities of the drones – vastly extended flight time and high-resolution cameras – allow the pilots to make more considered judgements. Situations that would otherwise have resulted in civilian deaths due to time-restraints in traditional surveillance and combat aircraft can be watched for longer and re-evaluated.

Despite the pilot’s beliefs, the debate over the use of drones rages on. With the dramatic expansion of the United Kingdom’s drone capabilities, such discussion has recently reached fever pitch. There are several campaigning organizations dedicated to reversing the growing trend of drone combat – such as Drone Wars UK. Many have called into question the reporting of civilian casualties by the Ministry of Defence – apparently only four Afghan civilians have been killed since the program began in 2008 – and even the MoD admits that it bases its casualty figures on the numbers reported by Afghan nationals to authorities, due to the “immense difficulties and risks” of verifying who has been hit. The isolated locations of the majority of the strikes, the difficulty in reaching appropriate people in authority and the lack of systemized grievance and compensation processes in Afghanistan all contribute to an understanding among campaigners and politicians that this number is likely inaccurate by several orders of magnitude.

The debate in the UK over drone warfare is part of a much larger, global trend. The abundance of drones in the United States forces – 6000 drones in operation – makes the RAF’s expansion look insignificant in the extreme. The Obama Administration has dramatically expanded the role of drones in international conflict, carrying out large numbers of high-profile strikes on targets across the Middle East. With American UAVs carrying out strikes in states with whom the US is not currently ‘at war’ with, such as Somalia and the Yemen, and even apparently allied states, such as Pakistan, questions surrounding the international legality of drone strikes are becoming increasingly important. The use of drones is not just limited to Western military powers, however, and the focus on the United States risks blinding people to the extent of drone proliferation. Upwards of 40 countries now admit to running UAV operations, including Iran, whose recent announcement concerning UAV surveillance of Israeli military sites has raised eyebrows in the defence world.

There are those that argue that the debates surrounding drones are over-stated. The popular perception in the Western press is that the dramatically expanded program of US drone strikes in Yemen is driving youths into the hands of Al-Qaeda and causing ‘drone blowback’ – a rise in extremism rendering the UAV strikes counter-productive and dangerous. Christopher Swift, a professor of National Security Studies at Georgetown University, has carried out in-depth research in the field in Yemen, and found that the reality is not so simple – the vast majority of the prominent tribal leaders and politicians he interviewed believed that the drone strikes were helping stabilise the state. Drone strikes were not radicalising the youth – instead, economic hardship, access to water and maternal and child health care were providing an environment in which Al-Qaeda could flourish by providing an alternative for young men. The drone attacks are, according to these leaders, doing enough damage to Al-Qaeda networks to easily counter-balance their impact on perceptions of the West. Swift believes that arguments surrounding drones are a distraction from the true and complex problems – and thus, complex solutions – in states like Yemen.

Whether or not they are an effective extension of military force, the use of drone strikes outside of official combat zones does set a worrying precedent. International law is routinely flouted, but it is undeniable that UAVs provide states with a perfect method of carrying out attacks and surveillance in areas where they would not risk the possibility of losing troops or causing international incidents. Closer to home, there are also growing worries about non-military use of drones in Western countries. While they are still in the early stages, it has become clear that the next few years are likely to see a dramatic rise in the number of UAVs being used by civilian forces and organizations. This can certainly be a good thing; there are suggestions that they will be useful for fire fighting and the monitoring of nuclear or chemical plants. They have begun to prove useful for journalists as well, as a recent story on a record drought in Nebraska showed.  However, there is an understandable worry about civil liberties, as law-enforcement agencies begin to use camera equipped UAVs – sometimes with facial recognition software – to carry out surveillance in the U.K.

Personally, I consider the expansion of the U.K’s combat drone capability a relatively minor event. It is a small scale operation, and the fact that our drone pilots are now moving across to a U.K base can only help with oversight. I also believe it is easy to over-state the impact that non-military drones will have on law-enforcement and privacy in the U.K. However, it is clear that developments in drone technology and proliferation are moving faster than legislation or social convention can keep up. We urgently need a public debate and consultation on the proper and proportionate use of this technology, and international law and convention needs to adapt, and quickly, to the new emerging paradigm of drone combat.

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