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What are they?

Remotely piloted or unmanned aircraft range in size from simple, hand-operated systems to high altitude, long endurance systems similar in operation to manned aircraft. They allow ground troops to look over a hill to assess enemy positions or, by loitering over an area for many hours, provide commanders with persistent surveillance of enemy positions without putting service personnel at risk. Larger systems can be armed with missiles. There are restrictions on where they can fly and only one system currently in service with the military is cleared to fly in UK airspace.

UK military inventory and use

The UK operates five different types of remotely piloted or unmanned aircraft systems. The Royal Air Force operates Reaper; the army operates three: Watchkeeper, Desert Hawk III and Black Hornet; the Royal Navy operates Scan Eagle.

In Afghanistan (2007-2014) they were primarily used to support ground troops to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Only one of the five systems in the UK’s current inventory can be armed: Reaper carried out air strikes in Afghanistan and since 2014 in Iraq. 2014 also saw the first deployment of a remotely piloted aircraft on maritime operations.

Two Britons were killed in an air strike by a UK Reaper in Syria on 21 August 2015. The Prime Minister cited self-defence when he informed the House on 7 September of the action.

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review

The forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review should provide some clarity on how remotely piloted air systems will fit into the Government’s future force plans. The UK is already actively seeking a replacement for Reaper from 2018 and is considering whether a remotely piloted aircraft could fulfil its maritime surveillance needs. Further ahead, the Government is jointly funding with France a study into the feasibility of an unmanned combat aircraft as a possible replacement for Typhoon from 2030.

Why are they contentious?

Their use by the United States to conduct ‘targeted killings’ in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere has raised awareness about this relatively new technology and prompted questions about the legality, utility and morality of these systems. These questions, which are explored in this note, include: do airstrikes from remotely piloted aircraft comply with international law? Does having the capability lower the threshold to use force? Does it turn warfare into a ‘video game’ with operators firing missiles by remote control? How is information gathered by UK aircraft shared and used by our allies? How much of the system is automated and how much is controlled by a human? Could an armed capability be developed that could operate autonomously? The latter question has prompted a global campaign to pre-emptively ban the development of ‘killer robots’.

UK Government position

The UK Government is clear that remotely piloted aircraft operate under the same rules of engagement as manned aircraft. The Government emphasises the primary role of these machines is to provide an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. It states that all air strikes are conducted in accordance with International Humanitarian Law (the Law of Armed Conflict). The Government says it has no plans to develop fully autonomous systems and that all present and future systems will remain under human control.

Parliamentary and external scrutiny

Parliamentary scrutiny of these systems during the 2010-2015 Parliament included an inquiry by the Defence Committee; debates in both Houses and scrutiny by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones. Members of Parliament have called on the Government to provide greater transparency about the operational use of these systems.

Externally, an influential Birmingham Policy Commission report examined this topic in considerable depth while a NATO study explored their vulnerabilities. Both the APPG on drones and an organisation called Drone Wars UK has elicited information about RPAs usage from the Government via Freedom of Information Requests.

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