Remote Control: Remotely Piloted Air Systems - current and future UK use - Defence Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.  It is acknowledged by several contributors to the inquiry that the terms remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and remotely piloted air(craft) system (RPAS) are not yet widely adopted. Nonetheless, we believe these are the most accurate terms to use when referring to the armed MQ-9 Reaper operated by the RAF in Afghanistan. These aircraft are flown remotely by a human pilot who, along with a wider crew operating from a ground control station, has general oversight and control. In relation to existing unarmed systems used by the Army for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), it may be more appropriate to refer to unmanned air systems (UAS). (Paragraph 20)

Automation and autonomy

2.  There is considerable potential for development of future remotely piloted air systems which have a greater degree of autonomy, however, the MoD has stated explicitly that remotely piloted combat missions will always involve human operators and pilots. We support this policy for all current and future UK armed remotely piloted air system operations. (Paragraph 28)

Current British doctrine

3.  The conclusion to Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 conceded that its relevance was "of the order of 18 months and during that period much of its detail and many of the issues raised will be overtaken by events". Now, some three years later it is clear that further consideration of many of the issues the Joint Doctrine Note raises is overdue. We recommend that the MoD revisit these issues and publish an updated Joint Doctrine Note setting out its current approach to remotely piloted aircraft systems no later than September 2014. (Paragraph 38)


4.  It was very clear from the visit to XIII Squadron and discussions with Reaper aircrew that all were experienced professional personnel with a clear purpose and keen understanding of the Rules of Engagement which govern their operations. Despite being remote from the battle space they exhibited a strong sense of connection to the life and death decisions they are sometimes required to take. This was in stark contrast to the image portrayed by some commentators of "drone" pilots as video gaming "warrior geeks". We record here our appreciation for the important role they continue to perform in Afghanistan. (Paragraph 57)

A combined Reaper fleet?

5.  In light of these apparently inconsistent answers by Ministers, we call upon the MoD to provide absolute clarity about whether UK Reaper aircraft have ever been operated by US personnel outside the launch and recovery phase. If public confidence is to be built around the use of remotely piloted air systems it is important that it is clear that UK aircraft have only been utilised within Afghanistan and always in accordance with UK rules of engagement. (Paragraph 62)

Civilian casualties

6.  We consider it important that the MoD is as transparent as it can be about remotely piloted air system operations in order to build public confidence about their use and to debunk myths and counter misinformation. We note that a review is conducted and a report produced after every remotely piloted aircraft weapons release. While the public do not need to know every time weapons are released they do need to feel confident that rules of engagement are applied and followed consistently. (Paragraph 66)

7.  UK operations in Afghanistan have drawn heavily on new and emerging remotely piloted air system technologies in order to offer better protection to UK, ISAF and Afghan forces on the ground. The intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of our forces have been enhanced immeasurably. More controversial has been the use of the Reaper remotely piloted air system platform to conduct strike operations using precision-guided weapons. Following this inquiry, we are satisfied that RAF Reaper pilots and flight crew have a high level of experience and appropriate training to conduct such strikes. We are also satisfied that the RAF rules of engagement for Reaper operations, as outlined to us directly by senior RAF officers during this inquiry, are common with those in force for manned aircraft, and provide a high level of assurance that, as far as possible, civilian casualties will be avoided and collateral damage minimised. (Paragraph 67)

Constraints on the use of remotely piloted air systems

8.  There are many constraints on the use of remotely piloted air systems in shared airspace whether in the UK or elsewhere. In its response to this report we invite the MoD to set out in detail what action the Government as a whole is taking domestically and internationally to facilitate the development of the technologies, systems and regulatory changes which will be required prior to the full and safe integration of remotely piloted air systems into shared airspace. (Paragraph 82)

Integration post-Afghanistan

9.  We call upon the MoD to set out which of the existing remotely piloted and unmanned air systems it intends to retain beyond the end of operations in Afghanistan and to confirm that continuing operating costs can be funded from within its core programme budget from financial year 2014-15 onwards. (Paragraph 92)

ISTAR force composition

10.  In its response to this report the MoD should set out how remotely piloted air systems, including Reaper, fit within its overall ISTAR strategy. (Paragraph 97)

Emerging technologies

11.  Due to significant delays to the programme, it is now unlikely that Watchkeeper will be utilised on operations in Afghanistan, the theatre for which it was originally procured. The MoD should set out in detail in its response to this report the reasons for the delays experienced in bringing Watchkeeper to full operating capability and the lessons identified for future remotely piloted air system programmes. (Paragraph 102)

12.  It is of vital importance that the lessons identified from the much delayed Watchkeeper system inform the development and trials of all future remotely piloted aircraft and any associated weapons systems by the MoD. In its response to this report we call on the MoD to provide us with a more detailed update on the Scavenger and Taranis programmes and explain how they will contribute to future UK air combat and ISTAR capabilities. (Paragraph 108)

13.  We recognise the importance of sensor technology for ISTAR capability whether deployed on manned or unmanned platforms. We consider it vital that UK ISTAR assets are equipped with up to date sensor suites which maximise their effectiveness. We call upon the MoD to provide us with details of its planned investment in future sensor technology and exploitation for remotely piloted air systems and other ISTAR assets. (Paragraph 112)

14.  We note the potential for deployment of new and increasingly accurate weapons systems, including the Brimstone missile, on UK armed remotely piloted aircraft. We call on the MoD to provide us, in its response to our report, with a progress report on current trials and future plans. (Paragraph 114)

Partnering—strategic choices

15.  As part of SDSR 2015, the MoD has a strategic choice to make about the future direction for UK remotely piloted air systems. Post-Afghanistan, a commitment to the existing partnership arrangements with the USAF, including a continuing presence at Creech Airforce Base, would provide the RAF with access to future upgrades to the Reaper platform and training opportunities for UK Reaper aircrew which would be likely to prove problematic in the UK given the airspace restrictions which exist presently. However, with other European NATO nations, including France, Italy and the Netherlands now operating Reaper it may be advantageous to form more collaborative arrangements at a European level in order to share experience and seek economies of scale for the delivery of training and maintenance. In the medium to long term, projects such as Scavenger and the Future Combat Aircraft System demonstration programme being developed with France may require a shift in focus. We recommend that the MoD clarifies its intentions and explains how European level co-operation can be co-ordinated with existing bi-lateral partnership projects. (Paragraph 124)

Non-military uses

16.  Remotely piloted air systems have extensive potential for non-military uses in the UK and overseas. Projects such as those developed by the ASTRAEA consortium have begun to test the technologies and operating procedures required to make the use of RPAS more commonplace and research into the potential for other uses is continuing. We welcome Government support to strengthen UK research and development programmes which have the potential to expand the nascent civilian market for remotely piloted air systems in the future. We call upon the Government to set out in detail what joint working is currently ongoing across government departments to consider the implications for the utilisation of remotely piloted air systems in the civilian environment. In relation to the issue of privacy, we recognise that existing laws which protect personal privacy, including data protection and surveillance, whether by the police, state intelligence agencies or private companies, will need to be carefully reviewed and updated. (Paragraph 131)

Ethical and legal issues

17.  It is important in maintaining the public acceptability of remotely piloted air systems that the perception cannot be allowed to develop that their increased use has in some way reduced the threshold for military intervention. We call on the MoD to set out how it intends to address this potential problem in its response to this report. (Paragraph 137)

18.  We welcome the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. We note that he has identified a number of legal questions on which there is no clear international consensus. We recommend that the UK Government engage actively in the debate on these matters and report on progress in its response to our report. (Paragraph 157)

Targeted killings

19.  We acknowledge that over the last few years there has been a growing concern in relation to the sharing of intelligence with allies and the uses to which such data may contribute. While the issues raised by Reprieve stray beyond the terms of reference for our inquiry and indeed the remit of the Defence Committee, we do believe that there should be greater transparency in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK Government has in place for the sharing of intelligence. Matters concerning the activities of the intelligence services are more appropriately addressed by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC). We invite the ISC to consider in future work programmes the issues raised with us during this inquiry which fall within its remit. (Paragraph 161)

20.  The licensing of arms exports and other controlled goods is a matter for the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC). We will work with our colleagues on CAEC to ensure that this issue is given appropriate scrutiny. (Paragraph 162)


21.   We consider that it is of vital importance that a clear distinction be drawn between the actions of UK Armed Forces operating remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan and those of other States elsewhere. On the basis of the evidence we have received we are satisfied that UK remotely piloted air system operations comply fully with international law. (Paragraph 163)

22.   We recommend that the MoD should continue its public awareness programme surrounding remotely piloted air system operations in order to aid public understanding and acceptance. (Paragraph 164)

23.  We note the conclusion of the UN Special Rapporteur that in any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been, killed, there is an obligation on the State responsible to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation. We recognise that this is not a simple and straightforward request as to do so could seriously jeopardise continuing operations. Nonetheless, we recommend that, to the extent that it is operationally secure to do so, following an event which has resulted in confirmed civilian casualties the MoD should seek to publish details about the incident and any lessons learned from the review process. (Paragraph 165)

24.  The rapid development of remotely piloted air system capabilities by the UK Armed Forces over the past decade has contributed greatly to the effectiveness of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The provision of enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to our troops on the ground has undoubtedly saved lives and prevented casualties. With the final withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan now rapidly approaching, MoD thinking must turn to the future for the UK's existing remotely piloted air systems. We consider it to be a key capability which must continue to be supported. We expect future development, in partnership with allies, to form an important strand of the SDSR 2015 equipment programme. (Paragraph 166)

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Prepared 25 March 2014