Drones are here to stay, according to the new US Roadmap on Integrated Unmanned systems, released on Christmas Eve. The Department of Defence (‘DoD) will continue to develop and operate armed and surveillance drone systems over the next 25 years with a focus on rapid deployments to troublespots in South West Asia and, increasingly, the Asia-Pacific ‘theatre’. Whatever this means, the complex environment of Asia – in which US ‘freedom of operation’ is contested and coordination with allies and host nations is required – demands continued use of unmanned systems, say the DoD.
It also demands the development of innovative technical solutions for unmanned systems with a view to reducing manpower. The Roadmap emphasises the importance of increased system, sensor and analytical automation to deliver ‘actionable’ intelligence without, or with significantly reduced, manpower [4.1.5]. This may explain why the term ‘remotely piloted’ has been avoided by the DoD. Options for weapons delivery will be expanded to take advantage of all classes of unmanned systems, for example by adding weaponised platforms on to existing, unarmed drones. This reveals the potential for overlap between surveillance and armed assets and operations. Notably, DoD drones will be set for interoperability with CIA drones [4.2.1]. This will enable integration and facilitate the DoD and JSOC’s greater involvement in the US armed drone program in 2014.
The need for international cooperation in terms of drone research, development and agreeing standards for the interoperability of allied technologies is highlighted in the Roadmap. The ‘active’ UAS program within the Technical Cooperation Memorandum (‘TTCP’) made between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand countries gets special mention: the ‘Five Eyes’ UAS program apparently conducts joint experiments on areas which include autonomous C2 and UAS self-protection. Joint programs and interoperability may facilitate the sharing of information, technology, payloads or platforms between the UK and the US. This will need to be watched and questioned by the APPG in 2014.
It is hoped that the Secretary of State for the Defence Philip Hammond will comment on the US Roadmap and the UK government’s response to US plans for extended use of armed and surveillance drones outside Afghanistan with the cooperation of allies. The Minister made a first welcome response to public concerns about UK and US drone use in his article for the Guardian ‘In Defence of Drones’ which addressed UK use of drones in Afghanistan. The article coincided with an initiative to open up the control room at RAF Waddington to selected members of the press for a snap shot view of current UK military operations.
Perhaps more significantly, the Minister commented on future use of UK drones following withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. In answer to a question about whether UK drones could be flown in Yemen, he said ‘we have to pursue terrorists wherever they take themselves’. This comment suggests that the Ministry of Defence is considering use of UK military drones to pursue suspected terrorists in ungoverned spaces outside Afghanistan. This may include counter insurgency operations in Yemen or Africa, as predicted by Ben Emmerson QC and Professor Clarke at the December APPG meeting, and may involve collaborative efforts with the US. The Minister may not have had an opportunity to comment on the opposition of the Yemeni Parliament to US drone use or concerns of 2 UN Special Rapporteurs on the Yemen ‘wedding party’ strike, including Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, a newcomer to the drones debate. Special Rapporteur Mendez commented that deadly attacks on illegitimate targets may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
In line with his intent to correct any misapprehensions which may exist and promote informed debate, the APPG on Drones will invite the Minister to address the APPG on current and future UK drone use, policy and the law.