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

4  Conclusions

163. We acknowledge that a sense of public disquiet has grown in the UK regarding the increasing use of remotely piloted aircraft in military operations, fed in part by misunderstandings and misinformation. The UK use of armed remotely piloted air systems during operations in Afghanistan since 2008 has not been without controversy, in part because of questions about whether such operations comply with international law. This controversy has been further heightened as comparisons have been made with counter-terrorism operations conducted by the USA in other countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. 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.

164. We welcome recent initiatives by the MoD to improve transparency surrounding remotely piloted air system operations, for example by allowing journalists to visit RAF Waddington. We believe that this will help to enhance understanding among the media and general public of this developing capability and help to counter many of the misconceptions about UK Reaper operations in particular. 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.

165. We welcome the interim report of the UN Special Rapporteur on promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. This recognised the accountability of the Royal Air Force for remotely piloted aircraft operations, through the Ministry of Defence, to Parliament, and acknowledged that this allowed for a degree of transparency, including as to civilian casualties. We are satisfied that a robust system is in place to review every remotely piloted aircraft weapons discharge by a UK aircraft. However, we also understand the desire of some interested organisations and the public to see a greater degree of disclosure from the MoD. 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.

  1. 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.

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Prepared 25 March 2014