Conference Report: 'Drones for the UK'

In 2014, the Birmingham Policy Commission produced a substantial report on the UK’s position in relation to the phenomenon of ‘drones’. Whilst it touched on the commercial and industrial elements, the report focused primarily on the use of drones by the British military, recognising that public concern was chiefly focused on the use of armed drones. Through a series of evidence gathering sessions with a range of experts from academia, the military, policy and politics, the commissioners identified two core barriers that the UK government should seek to overcome in relation to using and speaking about the use of drones:

‘The first challenge is in gaining wider public understanding and acceptance of the soundness of the ethical and legal frameworks within which the RAF will operate its armed RPA… A second challenge is to deal with the fears of some that the inevitable development of more advanced RPA will eventually lead to ‘killer robots’, the fielding of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS)…’ (2014: p6-7)

I reiterate these arguments here because I recently attended a workshop on ‘Drones for the UK’ hosted by the Cambridge Analysis Institute, which aimed to bring together academics, policymakers and members of the British military. It therefore felt appropriate to consider the outcomes and debates of this workshop against the backdrop of the Birmingham Policy Commission report. I wanted to ask whether the debate had progressed; whether the same questions and problems arose; what (if any) advances have been made in policy and military terms and how has this been achieved; what remains, apparently insolvable; and what new issues, problems, possibilities and futures are now arising?

It was interesting to note that, despite the title, the event still retained a core focus on the US experience, both looking at the perspectives of the United States government (on legal issues, for example) and also on their operations (casualty numbers, etc.). What this highlights is the continued lack of data available about the British use of drones. For me, the most pertinent and abiding problem for drone scholars is whether the research should be academic or policy focused. I’m aware of frustrations in the military about what they view as naive academic interpretations of their lives and realities. Equally, academics have been frustrated by the problems of accessing data. If information and resources are restricted from those without security clearance, the accuracy and authenticity of the analysis will suffer. Academics (myself included) have no desire to compromise operational effectiveness or individual safety, but the need for greater transparency in relation to the wider topic of drones is one that can only benefit the nuances of the discussion.

Public debate, education, and transparency remain challenges. It is a welcome development that all parties are starting to use the same terminology, thereby avoiding any accidental or deliberate misconstructions of the debate. At the same time there remains a significant amount of work to do for the public (and indeed academics and policymakers) to get to grips with the reality of the drone world. To take the debate out of the realms of science fiction (as neatly argued by Ulrike Franke) it is necessary to put something factual in that space. Olivier Grouille asked the important question: ‘who is going to lead the attempts to change the existing discourse’ about drones here in the UK? In all honesty, I don’t know the answer. The military, of course, would benefit from better public understanding, but they are necessarily prioritizing operational considerations. The politicians who direct the policy that include (or exclude) the use of drones would also benefit, but here too there is a paucity of knowledge. The world of British Reapers has become so tangled in a discourse of secrecy, mis-information, and shadowy background figures that even those individuals who we hope have access to the ‘real’ information are somehow caught in the flows of hyperbole.

Excellent discussions led by Sarah Kreps and Victoria Stuart-Jolley on the law as it applies to drone strikes and the way that different states have used language to justify their actions drew attention to the importance of separating the British experience from the American (something which was also foregrounded in the Birmingham Policy Commission). Here, particularly after the British strikes in Raqqa (Sept 2015) there is still more work to do. In this instance, the individuals tasked with this role are clearly the politicians and members of the government. There has been a similar reticence to commit to a ban on Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWS), despite claims that the British military will always include a person-in-the-loop. The Birmingham Policy Commission advocated that the UK lead on efforts to construct a pre-emptive ban in this area, but there is a reluctance to do so. Presumably there is good reason for this approach, but it would be helpful for scholars, advocates, and other interested parties if the ‘official line’ in this area was clarified. Refusing to do so complicates not only arguments about the future of British warfare, but also pollutes the discussions and debates around the use of current technology in ways that only polarise and alienate the parties involved.

In short, the Birmingham Policy Commission report advocated a greater degree of openness with regard to the British use of armed drones. To date, relatively little progress on this front has been made. The efforts by the Cambridge Analysis Institute to bring together practitioners and academics (and the occasional policymaker) were laudable but not always successful. There was a degree to which the parties continue to speak past one another; a problem that I cannot see being resolved until there is more data (accurate, reliable, well founded) available for analysis.

Lindsay C Clark

The views represented in this report were made by individual author and do not necessarily reflect consensus amongst conference participants or the institutional views of the University of Birmingham or the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security.