HC 772 Defence CommitteeWritten evidence from Professor Nicholas Wheeler, Institute for Conflict, Co-operation and Security, University of Birmingham

1. NomenclatureDefining the Terms RPAS, UAV and “Drone”

A nomenclature has grown up between the UK military, the US designations, and the press. Drone is a general term from when, from 1917 to the 1950’s, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) were used as target practice for fighter pilots. They were black and were painted with yellow stripes for better visibility. The name “drone” has stuck ever since. UAV as a term has also stuck, due to its US origins and NATO usage, and is the second most common term in use after “drone”. UAV’s close relative, Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), avoids the gendered connotation of UAVs and also reflects the reality that many drone pilots are female.

The preferred nomenclature of HMG remains that articulated in MOD/DCDC Joint Doctrine Notes 3/10 and 2/11, namely that the following terms should be used:

“An Unmanned Aircraft (UA) is defined as an aircraft that does not carry a human operator, is operated remotely using varying levels of automated functions, is normally recoverable, and can carry a lethal or non-lethal payload.” Moreover, “An Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) is defined as a system, whose components include the unmanned aircraft and all equipment, network and personnel necessary to control the unmanned aircraft.”

It should be stressed here that the thing which differentiates a UAV/UAS from cruise and ballistic missiles is that they are platforms from which missiles could be launched, rather than missiles themselves. In consequence, it should be noted that: “In the UK, cruise and ballistic missiles are not considered to be unmanned Aircraft.”

Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) is no different in meaning to UA and the term which is also used, Remotely Piloted Air(craft) System, is also virtually the same, although phrased differently, as: “the sum of the components required to deliver the overall capability and includes the Pilot, Sensor Operators (if applicable), RPA, Ground Control Station, associated manpower and support systems, Satellite Communication links and Data Links.”

It should be noted that it was also intended that, while discussing phrases like Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), it was intended that RPA be used instead, and this to be phased in over time. However, as the next section will show, the term UCAV is helpful in defining a rather useful difference, which RPA is not versatile enough to provide.

2. Current Utility and DispersalFor what Purposes are RPAS used Currently?

Broadly, there are three ways to look at purpose. The first way is to look at what UAVs do in military contexts and the way that they are discussed. This is a more productive way of doing this than talking about whether a UAV is, say, a Class II or a MALE type and cuts across these quite effectively. The first grouping is to think of them as surveilling, flagging targets and striking, so Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), then having Target Acquisition (ISTAR), then Predator and Reaper UCAVs.

ISR has been useful in Helmand, for instance in the North a year into the insurgency, when groups of insurgents were followed home and then could be arrested separately later, in preference to fighting in block houses.

On ISTAR, members of the committee will no doubt recall The contribution of ISTAR to operations (Eighth Report of Session 2009–10) and The contribution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to ISTAR Capability (Thirteenth Report of Session 2007–08). We would not seek to comment further on these at the current time but would like to re-iterate, as per paragraph 48 of the former: “There is the possibility that plans for the development of ISTAR capability might be put to one side or slowed during the process of the Strategic Defence Review, not just on account of financial constraints but because of the cross-Service nature of the capability. This should not be allowed to happen.”

In terms of strategic functions, the second category, UAVs broadly operate in the following roles: Counter-Terrorism (CT), for example against Al Qaida and its offshoots like AQAP; Counter-Insurgency (COIN), for instance against the Taliban in Afghanistan; and Operations, such as Libya. UAVs have been effective in all three. The role of ISTAR in Strike Warfare in Operations is also important to consider with regard to any deployments which may take place as per the NSS.

With regard to the third and final category, tactical uses have been areas where they have worked generally quite well, except for the odd crash or accident. Across all three strategic areas, UAVs have been highly successful in the decapitation and decimation of networks by targeted or signature strikes, aerial interdiction, area denial and the role of the UAV as a force multiplier has become the sort of function against which other militaries, insurgents and terrorists have yet to find an effective counter measure. However, in making this point, we recognise that there is a wider question to be answered as to the political consequences of such military uses on the wider battle for “hearts and minds” in the conflict, as well as the impact of these operations on the possibilities for achieving a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The latter question, and the relationship between the use of armed drones and any future peace processes, is currently the subject of a major research project being conducted by Professor Nicholas Wheeler, Professor David H. Dunn, and Professor Stefan Wolff in the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/conflict-cooperation-security/Projects/ICCS-Projects.aspx

3. Lessons Learned from Operations in Afghanistan

UAVs in Afghanistan have been used in different circumstances to those in other places. This is primarily due to their use as part of a balanced force mix, for example with infantry, Special Forces and other aircraft. The contingent is also active in conjunction with Afghan National Army (ANA) and NATO allies. They are there at the invitation of the Afghan Government. The role of the UAVs in this case is to gather intelligence and attack Taliban and its allies in conjunction with troops on the ground. This provides a ground presence coupled with area denial, general interdiction and enhances the role of the UAV as a force multiplier. It should be noted that these remarks relate to the US and UK forces, as they have UCAVs. Naturally, ISR UAV practise by other ISAF forces, such as the Bundeswehr, stand.

In many respects, the lessons learned from Afghanistan have been comparatively easier to learn than those in, say, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, due mainly to the fact that the above degree of interoperability does not obtain in these places. It is also inevitable that information and lessons from the other theatres are difficult to obtain. The lack of visibility and transparency is apparent from the current debates in the Pakistani context relating to the number of civilian casualties, which are highly contested, as well as the true state of opinion regarding UAV strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) from the people who live there.

Looking at functionality, operations on the ground have functioned well and co-operation between arms of service has been effective. The lives of allied forces have been saved and insurgent networks have been degraded through UAV activity.

There is some evidence to suggest that this has led to some Track 2 pourparlers with elements of the Taliban. That said, it is unclear how representative some of those on the other side of the table may be as well as whether network degradation has proceeded too quickly, so as to isolate cooler heads while elevating hotter ones. Given that CT strategy is primarily driven by “homeland security” concerns, whereas COIN reflects the more local context of occupation and state-building, it might be of interest to the Committee to consider the question of whether or not a CT strategy had been used against the Taliban when COIN might have been more appropriate under certain circumstances.

In either case, it remains to be seen what the effect of this will be, or indeed whether any gain will be forthcoming after 2014. With this in mind, we consider it unwise for the Committee to consider overly dramatic cuts to this area following withdrawal as it seems clear that there will need to be some capacity left in the field at that point.

With regard to legal questions, there have been a number of civilian deaths which have had nothing to do with the insurgency and for which British forces have behaved honourably in their dealings with bereaved family members in accordance with customary norms. This, then, while compared to other areas of UAV use, like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, presents a much more clear-cut Law of Armed Conflict/International Humanitarian Law (LOAC/IHL) scenario than the others and we intend to return to this under heading 6).

4. Tomorrow’s PotentialWhat Additional Capabilities will the UK Seek to Develop from now to 2020?

Broadly, we see ten interlinked themes coming to the fore under six headings. These are: Speed and Stealth; High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE); Enhanced ISTAR and UCAV functionality; Swarm Technology; Autonomy; and Strong counter intelligence and co-operation with allies and UAV resilience. Brief treatment of these is below:

Speed and Stealth—Will the UK buy Northrop-Grumman’s X47B, assuming it enters service in the US in 2019? The X47B is subsonic (Mach 0.9) but supersonic UAVs will be in the process of being developed by that time. The speed of change will be quite rapid and it will be necessary to adapt quickly.

High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE)—The QinetiQ Zephyr HALE UAV, which can remain in the air for at least three months, will be representative of a pattern for development of craft which by then will remain aloft for longer and will have enhanced ISR capabilities. It will be important to remain a leading nation in the development of this technology.

Enhanced ISTAR and UCAV functionality—The Thales Watchkeeper WK450 may also have a UCAV role by 2020. If not, there will always be a successor to the MQ9. And the UK will have to consider which weapons systems represent value for money as off the shelf purchases and which offer the best opportunities for interoperability with allies.

Swarm Technology—This is a key area for the armed forces as both an ISR mechanism and a dual use one, so the same technology which, say, helps find survivors after earthquakes could also help the armed forces conduct operations in heavily built up areas.

Potential extremely limited autonomy—The Year 2020 will represent the end of Epoch 2, when extremely limited autonomy is supposed to be ready (it is acknowledged that it will be end of Epoch 2 and beginning of Epoch 3). Both to 2020 and over a longer period, up to and including Epoch 6, there will be considerable developments and difficulties in the field of autonomy, especially over developing a system over which the responsible politician could have full confidence that it will do what it is expected to do. There would need to be both true understanding and transparency here. There will be naysayers but the key policy would include human overrides and the centrality of a human operator in or on the loop.

Strong counter intelligence and co-operation with allies—There has been a significant attempt by several powers to acquire technology of this kind by espionage. The UK should ensure that every step is taken to ensure that this is not successful. Partnerships with other nations, like the US and Israel, on UAV activities should continue and the UK should ensure counter-espionage measures are in place. Associated with this should be an attempt to understand, and where necessary to control, proliferation via commercial, civilian developments, and dual-use technology.

With regard to UAV resilience, it is important to ensure UAVs are more resilient to counter measures (for instance, being shot down, being jammed or spoofed, or UAVs fighting UAVs). This would naturally link in with questions about espionage and proliferation. This resilience includes developing the UK’s own counter-UAV capabilities to respond to their use against the UK by adversaries in theatre or at home.

5. Constraints on the use of RPAS in the UK and Overseas

Broadly, and in addition to the point on UAV resilience above, we see five main constraints to operating in the UK and overseas. None are insuperable but all are considerations requiring careful thought.

It does not seem, in the current climate, possible to use UCAVS in a CT role in the UK unless the most extreme circumstances prevailed. However, they could be used for that reason overseas.

Sense and avoid technology would need to be shown to work well and be applied to all UAVs operating in British airspace, as well as internationally. One accident would put the use of UAVs, even those being used for benign and potentially life-saving functions, back years so it is important to ensure that the airways are safe.

Privacy is a factor which any UK Government would need to consider in the deployment of any ISR system. Legal measures for their use and any data collected would need to be in force. There will also be advocacy groups which will make their views known and there will be a lively public debate in consequence. Different countries see this differently, so there might be situations where decisions taken by one court would not necessarily travel elsewhere.

The role of public opinion in such a debate could provide one of the strongest impediments to the use of UAVs in the round. It may take time for the public to accept them and many people will not be confident in their utility. This will be so much more the case when a measure of autonomy is added, which takes us to the fifth point.

Autonomy here is distinct from a system which is fully automated. This is a distinction which should be kept, as misunderstandings and loose language on this issue do more harm than good in the general debate. There will, naturally, need to be legal safeguards in place to ensure responsibility is assigned and this may do something to the debate and the role of public opinion in it.

6. Ethical and Legal Issues Arising from the use of RPAS

As mentioned above, at question 3), the LOAC/IHL dimensions have been tolerably clear in Afghanistan as a battlespace, and this is the only place the UK operates UCAVs.

That said, IHL remains a highly indeterminate legal space, and the debate over the legality of the use of armed drones in specific situations will inevitably continue to generate interpretive controversies over the application of IHL, focusing on the question of how to balance civilian protection against the exigencies of military requirements, and what types of activity deny individuals their legal protection as civilians. UN Special Rapporteurs Christof Heyns and Ben Emmerson have highlighted the importance of this question in their two recent UN reports, with both calling for increased transparency on targeting criteria and civilian casualties. We would support the need for greater transparency on civilian casualties, so as to give publics the opportunity to debate and deliberate these questions, and hold political and military decision-makers and officials accountable for their decisions, but appreciate that any disclosure of UK and US targeting criteria has to be balanced against the need to maintain the element of surprise against insurgent and terrorist forces.

Operations in Pakistan and Yemen are considered different to Afghanistan and this is where International Human Rights Law (IHRL) would be the more appropriate legal frame to employ, at least most of the time, though LOAC/IHL could apply there, too, depending on circumstances.

The killing of Anwar al-Awlaqi would have been almost impossible for a European country to carry out, but the US has the dual safeguard of the Authorisation of the use of Military Force (AUMF) and presidential authority, which can and does deny judicial review. These do not apply to the UK.

The UK also has occasionally to face claims that intelligence gathered by its UAVs (though situations applying to HUMINT and SIGINT may also occur) might have been given to an ally like the US, which then killed an individual believing them to be a terrorist or insurgent. Where there have been civilian casualties, there may or may not be a legal case to answer.

The final legal point to consider is the role of UAVs in humanitarian emergencies. To date, their use has been confined to ISR functions. Given the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), it may be the case that UN UCAVs could have to be deployed at some point in the future, for example from ISR, as currently deployed in the DRC, to ISTAR and to UCAVs. Were this to happen, it could create interesting legal precedents.

November 2013

Prepared 24th March 2014