A Reaper drone at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan (Photo: Ministry of Defence)
The British parliament will examine the use of drones as part of an overarching inquiry into the future of the UK’s armed forces.
The defence select committee – a panel of 12 politicians led by James Arbuthnot MP – has published its programme of inquiries for the remainder of this parliament. This includes an investigation that will touch on, among other areas, ‘the effect of changes in the interpretation of the law on the prosecution of operations, and the use of remotely piloted aircraft [drones]’.
Alongside this, the select committee will examine broad strategic issues such as the legitimate use of force, and the balance between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power. No further details or schedule have yet been published.
Reflecting the rising parliamentary interest in unmanned aircraft, a briefing paper on drones was added to the parliamentary library yesterday.
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The increasingly important role played by British drones in Afghanistan was highlighted earlier this week, when the Bureau published research showing that UK-piloted drones fire a high proportion of all drone-fired missiles in the conflict. The UK had a fleet of just five drones in Afghanistan last year, but 38% of all missiles released in the conflict last year were fired by British pilots. This year to date the proportion is over a quarter.
A defence spokesman pointed out to the Bureau that the ratio of missiles fired to hours flown had actually fallen since its 2008 peak, and the increased number of missiles being fired reflects the increasingly important role played by drones.
The UK also flew US-owned drones in Libya, the Ministry of Defence revealed earlier this year.
The role of drones in modern wars and counter-terrorism operations is coming under increasing scrutiny. In October, MPs and peers led by Labour MP Tom Watson and Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith launched an all-party parliamentary group to examine issues surrounding drones.
The UN recently announced it will set up a special unit to examine claims of civilian deaths in US drone strikes, led by special rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC.
While in the US, in recent months academic studies – including two by Columbia Law School and one by Stanford University and New York University – examined the impact of the US’s drone campaigns on civilians, and the legal structures for overseeing drone strikes.