The Defence Committee report

Yesterday the Defence Committee published its report into ‘Remotely Piloted Air Systems – current and future UK use’. The report, led by Madeline Moon MP, is a welcome contribution to the debate on military UK RPAS use and those areas of UK policy which support other states’ use of armed drones. It reinforces calls for the MOD to take steps to increase transparency and accountability in a number of key areas – shared resources, future options, investigations into civilian casualties and trials on emerging technologies; and to update JDN 2/11 formulating a clear, overarching policy on drone use, integration and strategic partnerships which will survive withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

Significantly, the Defence Committee welcomes recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC. In line with the recent European Parliament’s resolution and the Early Day Motion tabled by APPG members, the Defence Committee recommends that the UK Government ‘engage actively in the debate on these matters and report on progress in its response to our report.’ This would involve dialogue, internationally and with the FCO, on the core principles or legal questions governing use of armed drones, as the APPG have consistently advocated.

In this context, the Committee draws a ‘vital’ distinction between the actions of UK armed forces operating drones in Afghanistan, and those of other states elsewhere. The distinction suggests the Committee’s own view of the principles of international law governing drone use, although not spelt out, reflects that of the European Parliament and mainstream academia on the scope of key terms ‘armed conflict’, ‘self defence’ and ‘combatant’. The report notes the evidence given by Dr William Boothby, author of ‘the Law of Targeting’ and ‘Weapons and the Law of Armed Conflict.

The Committee rightly supports MOD policy that combat missions will always involve human operators, although degrees of automation within combat, other missions and support systems are not addressed. Members of the Committee were obviously influenced by meeting individual RAF Reaper aircrew. They conclude, based on impression rather than objective psychological or impact assessment, that the crew exhibit ‘a strong sense of connection to the life and death decisions they are sometimes required to take.’ The report emphasises the potential for military use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone capabilities. For this reason, presumably, the report seems to have been welcomed by the Rt Honourable Mark Francois MP and the MOD. There is much work to be done but, nomenclature side-show aside, it is some feat to capture positive attention from both sides of the debate in the way the report has done.

The short section on non-military uses should not go unnoticed. The Committee notes current domestic use of applications, insofar as that is known, including trials run by Research Councils UK funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the ASTRAEA consortium. The report quotes from the European RPAS roadmap which identifies that increased use of drones ‘may cause serious and unique privacy and data protection concerns’ potentially undermining the overall benefits from this innovative technology, and notes the need to amend existing regulatory frameworks. As APPG members have requested, the report calls on the UK Government to set out in detail joint working across departments so that the implications of drone use in the civilian environment can be properly considered.

The APPG is hosting a meeting on the Use of RPAS by the UK’s Armed Forces later today, at which Mark Francois MP will speak with Air Vice Marshal Osborn and Professor Clarke, Director General of RUSI.

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