Drone technology, both civil and military, under proper legal regulation, can continue to deliver ‘significant benefits’ for the UK’s national security policy and economy in the coming decades. That is the conclusion of a new University of Birmingham Policy Commission Report which launches today. But the Government, and especially the Ministry of Defence (MoD), should do more to reach out to the public over what the Commission sees as the globally inevitable use of drones in armed conflict and in domestic surveillance.

The Report, titled The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK, finds that over the next 20 years, drones – or what the Commission and the RAF prefer to call Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) – will become an integral part of Britain’s aerospace capability, providing both advanced surveillance and precision weapons delivery. They can support UK forces deployed overseas, as in Afghanistan, or help prevent mass atrocities, as with the British Government’s decision to deploy the RAF Reaper fleet against the Islamic State (ISIS). This decision was announced after the Report was completed but is entirely consistent with its conclusions.

'Warning Drones Overhead' sign against dark sky

The Report examines the distinctive and unavoidable choices for the United Kingdom over a crucial emerging technology and sets out the under-appreciated distinction between legally constrained British practice and the US Government’s cross-border counter-terrorism strikes which dominate and distort UK public debate.

The Commission considers various moral arguments and concludes that the current and emerging generation of RPA pose no greater ethical challenges than those already involved in decisions to use any other type of UK military asset. The Report shows clearly that the UK has operated its armed Reapers in Afghanistan according to the same exceptionally strict Rules of Engagement (no weapon should be discharged unless there is ‘zero expectation of civilian casualties’) that it applies to manned aircraft.

But the Commission adds its voice to the wider coalition of international opinion that warns against the development of ‘killer robots’ – or what the Commission terms Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) in accordance with the emerging international legal terminology. The Commission believes that it will not be possible to develop autonomous weapons that can meet the core legal obligation under international humanitarian law to distinguish between combatants and civilians. As a result, the Commission recommends that the UK Government take a leading role in the arms control negotiations that are due to resume next month in Geneva. But it recognises that some nations may ignore such restraint. The Commission therefore urges the UK to lead efforts to build a new international consensus around an effective ban.

Launched today (22 October) in Whitehall at the Royal United Services Institute, the Report brings together the expertise of leading academics at the University of Birmingham and senior figures with backgrounds in the military, aerospace industries, the UK’s intelligence and policing communities, and international law.

Policy Commission Chair Sir David Omand, the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator and a former Director of GCHQ, said: ‘For too long drone technology has carried a burden of ethical suspicion given its controversial use for counter-terrorist strikes by the US. The recent decision to deploy RAF Reaper to Iraq is a welcome sign in line with our findings of the growing acceptance of RPA technology as an essential component of modern military capability – provided it is used strictly in accordance with international law, in the same way as for other UK weapons systems. RPA add precision targeting capabilities and long loiter times that can minimise civilian losses and protect friendly troops. We need not fear that their use by the UK Armed Forces represents a shift in the ethical framework of modern warfare. RPA will also have an important role in future in civil security and commercial use. This Commission has highlighted the need for more work on the policies for such applications, and we hope that our findings will help clarify the issues that will need more attention, as well as providing a vision for how the UK can exploit this innovative technology.’

Academic lead Professor Nicholas Wheeler, Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘The University of Birmingham has a fine tradition, going back to the beginning of the 20th century, of public policy engagement on matters of emerging national concern, and I am delighted that this Policy Commission, like its five predecessors, has built on this distinguished record. It has been a pleasure to work with the chair, Sir David Omand, and to bring together the diverse expertise of the other Commissioners.’

There are three main obstacles affecting the UK Government’s use of drones that must be overcome: gaining public understanding and acceptance of the legal and ethical soundness of the practice; allaying fears over the potential development of LAWS; and safeguarding British airspace and the privacy of British citizens if drones are to be increasingly used for domestic surveillance and security.

The Report states: ‘With the right policy choices to overcome these challenges, the Commission believes that significant benefits can be reaped – military and civil – from RPA capabilities. We have, in our report, ventured a description of a position of which the UK could be proud over the next 20 years.’

Specifically, the Commission assesses that:

  • Future RPA, both ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and armed, based upon a legally sound mandate, should continue to make a positive contribution to UK national security.
  • Careful decisions on the deployment and specific use of drones need to be made on a case-by-case basis at a senior level of command.
  • There is no convincing ethical objection to acquiring RPA, while the ethical acceptability of their armed use is dependent on context and control. Indeed, it may be positively ethically desirable to use them rather than other kinds of firepower which are less capable of avoiding civilian casualties and which expose UK military personnel to avoidable risk.
  • The Ministry of Defence must do more to reassure the public that RPA will continue to be subject to the same strict rules as other weapons systems and to overcome pervasive confusion between RAF practice and the US use of armed drones beyond legally accepted theatres.
  • Whatever decisions are taken by the British Government, the threat to deployed UK forces and UK interests from RPA operated by hostile groups and states must be expected to increase.
  • The Commission supports the UK Government’s decision not to develop LAWS and urges it to take a leading role in securing an international framework for their control.
  • New integrated policies are required to regulate RPA in civil airspace in the UK and on the rules that should apply to their use by police and security authorities for surveillance purposes. The Home Office should lead on drawing up a code of practice and addressing public privacy issues.


For further information, a copy of the full report, or to arrange interviews, please contact Stuart Gillespie in the University of Birmingham press office on +44 (0)121 414 9041. Out of hours, please email the press office or call +44 (0)7789 921165.

The Commissioners are:

  • Professor Sir David Omand GCB (Chair), Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King’s College London
  • Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler (Academic Lead), Professor of International Relations, Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS), University of Birmingham
  • Sir Brian Burridge, Vice President, Strategic Marketing, Finmeccanica UK
  • Professor David H. Dunn, Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham
  • Ms Jennifer Gibson, Staff Attorney, Reprieve
  • Dr Peter Gray, Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies, University of Birmingham
  • Professor Keith Hayward, Head of Research, Royal Aeronautical Society, and Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute
  • Lt Gen (Ret’d) Sir Paul Newton, Director of Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter
  • Mr Paul Schulte, Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College London, and Honorary Professor, ICCS
  • Sir David Veness, Honorary Professor of Terrorism Studies, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews
  • Professor Mark Webber, Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham
  • Ms Elizabeth Wilmshurst, Associate Fellow, International Law, Chatham House
  • Professor Stefan Wolff, Professor of International Security, University of Birmingham