UK government must clarify position on drone intelligence-sharing, MPs say

The £1bn Watchkeeper drone will not be used in Afghanistan, the report reveals (Photo: Defence Images)

The British government should be more transparent about intelligence-sharing that leads to covert drone strikes, say MPs in a report published today.

The call for greater transparency ‘in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK Government has in place for the sharing of intelligence’, came in a report on drones by the Defence select committee. The report acknowledged that intelligence-sharing was outside the committee’s remit and called on the Intelligence and Security Committee to examine the issue.

The report adds that it is ‘vital’ that a ‘clear distinction’ is drawn between UK drone operations and covert strikes such as those conducted by the US in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The British government has refused to confirm or deny whether it shares locational intelligence with the US that could lead to drone strikes, including contesting a court case brought by Noor Khan, a Pakistani tribesman whose father was killed in an attack in March 2011.

Related story – GCHQ intel sharing for drone strikes may be ‘accessory to murder’

However, Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism who has conducted a year-long investigation into the use of armed drones by the US, UK and Israel, told a parliamentary meeting last year that intelligence ties between the UK and US are so closely intertwined that it is ‘inevitable’ such sharing had taken place.

The select committee considered submissions from 21 experts and organisations including the Ministry of Defence (MoD), defence manufacturers, activist groups, and academics. Madeleine Moon MP, a Labour member of the committee, visited several British drone bases and spoke to pilots as part of the inquiry.

 ‘We consider that it is of vital importance that a clear distinction be drawn between the actions of UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan and those of other States elsewhere’
– Defence select committee

The Bureau submitted evidence highlighting the prominent role played by UK-piloted drones in Afghanistan – data obtained by the Bureau shows that they have carried out over a fifth of all drone strikes in the country, and the proportion of strikes carried out by UK pilots has grown over time. The Bureau’s submission outlines the need for transparency on drone strikes.

Read the Bureau’s full submission here

The report is highly supportive of British drone operations and crew, who it described as ‘experienced professional personnel with a clear purpose and keen understanding of the Rules of Engagement which govern their operations’. It notes that British-piloted drones have killed civilians in a single incident, taking place in March 2011.

Conservative MP James Arbuthnot, chair of the committee, said in a statement that pilots 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.’

Drones are a ‘key capability’, the report adds, and their use has helped avoid battlefield casualties and particularly civilian casualties. This is because the ‘persistence’ of drones – the length of time they can observe a scene – means that commanders are more aware of the situation.

However, the committee emphasised the differences between British battlefield operations and the operations of ‘other States’, including covert drone strikes away from internationally recognised armed conflicts such as those carried out by the US in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

‘We consider that it is of vital importance 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,’ wrote the MPs.

Related story – UK drones three times more likely than US to fire in Afghanistan

They also call on the government to clarify its position on whether covert strikes such as those in Pakistan are legal under international law.

‘The Committee calls for the Government to ‘draw a clear distinction’ between UK use of armed drones and the US use outside of International Humanitarian Law situations. The best way to do this is for the UK government to condemn such use and to be clear that any intelligence it provides the US should not be used for unlawful attacks,’ Chris Cole of campaign group Drone Wars UK told the Bureau.

The Association for Military Court Advocates warned in its submission that drones offer ‘unparallelled opportunities for secrecy’, and the committee says the MoD should be ‘as transparent as it can be… in order to build public confidence about their use’. The report quotes the Bureau’s argument that it is ‘important that the British government establishes the international precedent of publishing a fuller record of drone strikes and their impact, to the extent that is operationally secure’.

Other topics tackled in the wide-ranging report include:

• Pilots and crew
The committee spoke to pilots and crew members, who listed ‘Upgrades to the sensor suites on the Reaper’ in order to do their jobs better. Reaper is often described as having top-of-the-range sensor equipment. Crews also said they needed more staff, and the Royal Aeronautical Society described the ‘strain’ on squadrons of delivering round-the-clock drone surveillance. Crews also called for a ‘UK training system’ rather than the current ‘reliance’ on the US Air Force for training.

• Future
Air Vice-Marshal Philip Osborn said in January that the Air Force has ‘every intention’ of carrying on using Reaper after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the report notes that it is unclear which other unmanned aircraft the UK will continue using after the end of 2014, and calls on the MoD to clarify this.

• Autonomy
The MoD told the committee that it has no intention of using fully autonomous armed drones. ‘[C]urrent UK policy is that the operation of weapon systems will always be under human control’, the report says.

• Watchkeeper
The UK originally awarded Thales UK a contract to develop the Watchkeeper surveillance drone in 2005, with the intention of deploying it in Afghanistan. In 2008 the committee was told that Watchkeeper would be ready for use by 2013. But the report notes that the aircraft did not begin flight training until this month, and ‘it is now unlikely that Watchkeeper will be utilised in Afghanistan, the theatre for which it was originally procured’. The programme has cost ‘approximately £1bn’, the report notes.

• Naming
The report describes the term ‘drone’ as ‘inaccurate and misleading as it fails to capture either their purpose or degree of technological sophistication’. It recommends ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ (RPA) and ‘remotely piloted air(craft) system’ (RPAS) as ‘the most accurate terms’ for referring to armed drones.

The full report is here

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