Unmanned “drone” technology is vital, which is why we should be open about it

by Kevan Jones

UK defence policy must aim to meet key objectives when making decisions over military equipment and its deployment: maximising strategic advantage over our enemy; protecting UK service personnel; minimising civilian casualties; acting at all times within humanitarian and international law; ensuring value for money; and making sure that deployment is in line with our national security interest and right to self-defence, as well as our commitment to conflict prevention and the protection of universal rights.

It is the shadow defence team’s judgement that the UK’s current position in relation to the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAVs” or  drones) meets these criteria, but we must continually ensure this remains the case.

For the record, it is worth outlining current UK policy on unmanned technology.

The UK is one of 76 countries who operate UAVs.  Today we deploy four drones in Afghanistan only.  One of these, the Reaper, is armed.

The benefits of unmanned technology are clear.  It can be more cost effective than manned.  UAVs provide significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.  They can minimise collateral damage and civilian casualty through precision.  They limit danger to UK personnel by reducing the number of personnel in theatre.  By providing greater speed and height than conventional aircraft UAVs can hugely improve an equipment programme that today must prioritise adaptability and agility.

There are of course weaknesses, for example costs may rise, but while unmanned technology is no silver bullet they will be an increasingly predominant feature of UK defence, supporting all three services.

It is both desirable and inevitable that unmanned technology is an important element of future military capabilities, complementing manned. Desirable because of the clear operational advantages UAVs bring; inevitable because the technology exists and is being rapidly developed – and it is at the cutting edge where our national interest lies.

We recognise that the use of unmanned technology by our most important strategic defence partner, the United States, is the source of much public controversy. While it is essential that we at all times distinguish between the use of drones by UK Armed Forces and the US – the UK deploys no unmanned vehicles outside of Afghanistan – it is worth revisiting the reason why the US is undertaking the deployment of unmanned technology around the world.

We all know that there exists an extreme and destructive strand of contorted Islam which seeks to eliminate liberty and tolerance and take innocent lives in doing so.  No-one, however, reads about civilian casualties arising from drone strikes with anything other than feelings of tragedy and deep concern.  Everything must be done at all times to minimise civilian loss of live.

It must always be the case also that drone use is permissible only provided any such use is undertaken in accordance with international law, the law of armed conflict and restricted by respect for nation states’ sovereignty, where consent must be gained prior to an operation.

We support recent reports that the US is considering codifying the use of UAVs and we believe that this is something the UK could also examine.

A UK code could look at the contexts and limitations of usage; the process for internal government oversight of deployment; command and control structures; and acceptable levels of automation. A code could also outline, where possible and appropriate, the process followed in targeting.

It is currently the case that the rules of engagement for UAVs are the same as those for manned aircraft, with lawyers advising on targeting. That is the way it must stay and we will not tolerate any compromising of these procedures.

Further, current procedures rightly mandate that there is always a human being in the chain of command. We have no appetite for full automation. This is not a suggestion that there is not a rulebook already, but rather that it must be clarified given the significance and spread of the technology.

Valid or not, there is a public perception that unmanned technology is shrouded in secrecy, which increases the potential for its demonization.  Being open about usage and codifying our policy would help confront this, and would increase accountability and transparency in the system.

This is more important given that the large-scale shift to drones could become a 21st century arms race. Countries such as the US and UK should take the lead in the debate over the ethics and practical deployment of new technologies.

Unmanned technology is a lasting and essential element of our defence equipment programme.  That is why we have a duty to be clear about the contexts in which it will be used.

Kevan Jones is shadow armed forces minister and MP for North Durham

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6 Responses to “Unmanned “drone” technology is vital, which is why we should be open about it”

  1. swatantra says:

    The use of UAV is OK for space exploration or reconnaisance. but its a cowardly way to fight, just as cowardly as suicide bombing or using Bio WMD. Anyone using it should be ashamed of themselves. The sooner it stops the better.

  2. Henrik says:

    @swatantra: that’s a ridiculous assertion and shows a truly terrifying lack of grasp of military operations. Are you suggesting that it’s somehow more sporting, or virtuous, to risk the lives of soldiers (your fellow-citizens), than to use unmanned vehicles for reconnaissance – or that indiscriminate artillery fire or inaccurate fast jet- or attack helicopter-delivered ordnance is somehow morally superior to precise delivery of munitions by UAV?

    Folk get killed in combat. As an ex-soldier myself, I have a very strong preference for maximising the risk to the enemy while minimising the risk to our side. May not be sporting, may not be gentlemanly, but, as Kevan says, as long as it’s legal and in pursuit of our national interest – and has political sanction – it’s a smart thing to do.

  3. swatantra says:

    You as an ex soldier should know that even in war there should be honour, otherwise its a free for all. What is to stop Israel using its nuclear weapons, or Assad using his Bio Chemical weapons for advantage?

  4. Henrik says:

    There is a Law of Armed Conflict, to which the UK subscribes. Our forces are required to comply. Honour in warfare is possible between symmetric combatants who largely share values and where the stakes are minimal. It’s been a long time since there was a war like that.

    Israel has no doubt its own reasons for not using nuclear weapons, my guess would be that there hasn’t, yet, been an existential threat serious enough to warrant their use. Ditto Assad with chemical weapons, unlike his dear Papa, he’s aware that actual use of WMD would be seen, widely, as a profoundly unacceptable escalation.

  5. uglyfatbloke says:

    A good, thoughtful article – but it’s worth remembering that we too have a tradition of governments that don’t like liberty.

  6. For Liberty says:

    The potential for abuse is off the charts. The thought of this technology in the hands of tyrants is chilling.

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