On 16 October, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, announced that part of the UK Reaper drone fleet would be deployed in Iraq to support coalition efforts against the terror group ISIL. This week, he confirmed they would also be flying surveillance missions over Syria. These events mark the first operational use of UK Reapers outside Afghanistan and represent a significant and timely development in the UK government’s stated policy towards ‘drone warfare’. The overwhelming vote in the House of Commons in support of military action endorsed the firm legal basis for the UK's use of force in collective defence of a friendly government. 

The decision to add drones to the current RAF package of manned aircraft will inevitably draw fire from commentators, campaigners and some politicians. Drones are today a highly controversial and hotly contested weapons system. But what the critics overlook is that the UK government has a very different approach to the United States when using this technology. UK military forces, including the RAF Reapers, operate only in internationally recognised theatres, under strict UK Rules of Engagement. This vital fact is often obscured by British political reluctance to criticise or distance the United Kingdom from the actions of its US allies.

The need to articulate a clear, distinctive British position on drones was underlined by the University of Birmingham’s Policy Commission on the Security Impact of Drones, which launched its report yesterday (22 October). The Commission’s evidence-gathering process has affirmed the UK government’s compliance with the laws of armed conflict and, moreover, established that the RAF’s use of Reapers in Afghanistan goes beyond the strict legal requirements in efforts to avoid civilian casualties. It is the Commission’s intention that these findings should help build public confidence in the UK government’s overall approach to the military use of drones.

There is nothing particularly novel about accelerating developments in military technology, and arguments that drones represent a fundamental shift in the ethical framework of modern warfare are overstated. Where the drone differs from manned aircraft is simply the location, rather than the absence, of the pilot. It is significant that the Ministry of Defence routinely uses the term Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) rather than Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), firmly establishing the human presence at the controls. As long as the pilot remains at the centre of the decision-making process, the legal safeguards in place under the UK Rules of Engagement effectively defuse the scare stories around drones as ‘killer robots’.

But taking the pilot out of the loop completely would pose an altogether different, and more troubling, ethical and legal challenge. The thought of programming computers to distinguish between legitimate military targets on the one hand, and friendly forces and civilians on the other, seems a step well beyond presently conceivable technology. War, by its very nature, is messy and chaotic – certainly not conducive to an autonomous weapons system making split-second decisions of life and death. The prospect of developing this technology pushes us deeper into the realms of science-fiction, striking fear into the hearts of those who value the laws of war, the sanctity of life and the values of human justice, responsibility and accountability. This is not something that can be programmed.

Thankfully, the UK government, like the United States, has pledged not to develop such technology for the foreseeable future. But others may not have the same qualms. In our Policy Commission report, we urge the government to take a leading role in the arms control negotiations taking place in Geneva next month. There is a strong need for an international consensus on the regulation, or even pre-emptive prohibition, of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. The UK has an opportunity to guide discussions towards an internationally acceptable and effective agreement that will also mitigate controversies surrounding drone technology in general.

The combination of greater transparency, clearer distinction between UK and US policy and practice, and a well defined diplomatic position against the development of autonomous weapons will begin to change the focus of public debate on the UK use of drones. That is not to say that any potential problems should be shrugged off, but rather that they should be met head-on. As long as the UK government maintains its own high standards of legal accountability, drones are, and will continue to be, a practical and efficient addition to UK military capabilities.

Professor Sir David Omand GCB
Chair, University of Birmingham Policy Commission on the Security
Impact of Drones

Professor Nicholas J Wheeler
Professor of International Relations and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security, University of Birmingham