The rapid development of remotely piloted air systems (commonly called "drones") by the UK Armed Forces over the past decade has contributed greatly to the effectiveness of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, says a report, published today, by the Defence Select Committee. The provision of enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to our troops on the ground has undoubtedly saved lives and prevented casualties.
There has been an increasingly contentious debate in the UK in recent years surrounding the development and use of Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS), mainly due to a lack of information or misunderstanding about their operation, function and potential present or future use.
The Committee visited the personnel of XIII Squadron, RAF Waddington, responsible for operating the RAF’s Reaper aircraft. Reaper pilots have a mix of previous experience, having flown aircraft as diverse as Harrier, Nimrod and Tornado. Personnel were keen for the public to understand better what it is they do and to dispel myths that have grown up about Reaper operations in particular.
Chairman of the Committee, Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP, says,
"It is very clear that UK aircrews are experienced professional personnel with a clear purpose and keen understanding of the Rules of Engagement which govern their operations. These are no video gaming “warrior geeks” as some would portray them. Despite being remote from the battle space they exhibit a strong sense of connection to the life and death decisions they are sometimes required to take."
The Committee is satisfied that a robust system is in place to review every remotely piloted aircraft weapons discharge by a UK aircraft. However, the report recognises the desire of some interested organisations and the public to see a greater degree of disclosure from the MoD.
Chairman of the Committee, Rt Hon James Arbuthnot, says,
"It is vital that a clear distinction be drawn between the actions of UK Armed Forces operating remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan and those of other States elsewhere. On the basis of the evidence we have received we are satisfied that UK remotely piloted air system operations comply fully with international law."
The United Nations Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson QC, has said recently that in any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been, killed, there is an obligation on the State responsible to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation. However there are a number of legal questions on which there is no clear international consensus. The Committee urges the MOD, to the extent that it is operationally secure to do so, to seek to publish details about any incident involving civilian casualties and any lessons learned from review processes. The Committee recommends that the UK Government engage actively in the debate on a legal framework for use of RPAS and report on the progress which is made.
As part of the next Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015, the MoD has a strategic choice to make about the future direction for UK RPAS. Until now, all UK unmanned air systems have been funded as urgent operational requirements, rather than being budgeted for in the long-term. Post-Afghanistan, a commitment to the existing partnership arrangements with the US Air Force, including a continuing presence at Creech Airforce Base in Nevada, would provide the RAF with access to future upgrades to the Reaper platform and training opportunities for UK Reaper aircrew. Training in the UK would be extremely difficult due to current European airspace restrictions. However, with other European NATO nations now operating Reaper it may be advantageous to form more collaborative arrangements at a European level. The Committee recommends that the MoD clarifies its intentions and explains how European level co-operation can be co-ordinated with existing bi-lateral partnership projects.