Last week, the United States Navy landed an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air system, as they like to call them, on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Virginia. The X-47B is a prototype drone, roughly the size of fighter jet and the manoeuvre, landing on an aircraft carrier, is considered one of the most difficult that a pilot of a manned aircraft can undertake. The US Navy’s press release was glowing in its praise of this landing, quoting Navy UCAS Program Manager Capt. Jaime Engdahln as saying:
Today we witnessed the capstone moment for the Navy UCAS program as the team flawlessly performed integrated carrier operations aboard USS George H.W. Bush with the X-47B aircraft… Our precision landing performance, advanced autonomous flight controls and digital carrier air traffic control environment are a testament to the innovation and technical excellence of the Navy and Northrop Grumman team.
The US Navy has much to be pleased about. The development of this new drone capability means that no longer will the US be reliant on the need for air force bases in other countries. This will mean that the US can operate more freely, e.g. no longer subject to relevant local legislation, and have the potential to be far more mobile. The previously static airbase, reliant on the hospitality of allies, can now become a thing of the past – the aircraft carrier will allow drones to undertake more missions, closer to the “action” able to respond in a shorter timeframe. This capability marks a new era in the US use of drones, increasing the capacity of the Navy to use this technology; as indicated by their Unmanned Carrier-Launched Air Strike and Surveillance programme for which contracts were awarded to Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics Aeronautical systems and Lockheed Martin, in March 2013.
The US has shown it is keen to expand the geographical reach of its drone programme. For example, in February 2013, a new base was opened in Niger. However, this expansion was not without security concerns. The Guardian noted
US and Nigerien officials had worried that the drones might spur a popular backlash in Niger, where about 90 % of the population is Muslim. Extra security barriers were raised outside the US and French embassies as a precaution.
To date however, this fear has not been realised. US airbases can also prove tricky for host states, as shown when the news of a US drone base in Saudi Arabia, operated by the CIA, was revealed. It was significant that the US media had known about the presence of the base for two years but chose to respect an agreement with the Obama Administration not to report on its existence.
The presence of United States personnel at RAF airbases in the UK is well-established. But this presence has not been without controversy. A number of allegations have been made that the US is carrying out drone operations from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Attempts to apply Parliamentary scrutiny to this issue have been problematic. For example, John Hemming MP’s question as to reports that the US administration is operating drones from UK RAF bases and the range of RAF oversight of such operations, found that “The US does not operate remotely piloted aircraft systems from the UK”. In contrast, a question on whether “the cable linking RAF Croughton to Camp Lemonier is used to support US unmanned aerial vehicle operations”, received the response that “RAF Croughton is part of a worldwide US Defence communications network, and the base supports a variety of communications activity. The Ministry of Defence does not hold information on what support to US operations is provided by RAF Croughton.” The Government also stated, in response to a question in the House of Lords, that “The use of bases in the UK by the United States visiting force remains subject to long-established agreements and procedures which ensure that the UK Government are fully satisfied as to the propriety of any US activity undertaken.” But no information was provided on these agreements and procedures or on the process used to ensure compliance with them.
The development of this latest aspect of the US Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Air Strike and Surveillance programme enables the United States to bypass the reliance on the goodwill of allies and the political acceptability of the presence of US airbases on foreign soil. However, it also serves to remove another layer of transparency and accountability in the US’ drone programme. While the above may have illustrated how difficult it is to get clarity on the nature of US operations from UK airbases, under international and domestic law, such as the Visiting Forces Act, the UK Government is provided with some opportunity to ensure that the US is not carrying out illegal strikes from UK soil. If this is taken away and US drones being to operate from aircraft carriers, subject only to their own interpretation of international law, then the potential for then the damaging drone programme seems set to continue and expand.