I shudder to use the expression ‘Drone Wars’ when talking about what are more correctly termed unmanned air systems or remotely piloted air systems, but the phrase seems to have entered the public psyche too far now to ban entirely on The DEW Line, and is admittedly attention-grabbing for headline purposes.
My interest was caught the other day, when I saw the response to this 24 July question in the House of Lords: “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy on the use of unmanned armed drones outside Afghanistan against terrorist suspects”.
“Her Majesty’s Government do not use armed remotely piloted air systems against terrorist suspects outside Afghanistan. However, UK personnel flew armed remotely piloted air systems missions against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya in 2011, in support of the NATO humanitarian mission authorised under UNSCR resolution 1973,” said Lord Astor of Hever, the Ministry of Defence’s parliamentary under secretary of state.
That was news to me, so I put a call in to the MoD – personnel from the Royal Air Force’s 39 Sqn fly armed General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reapers over Afghanistan from Kandahar air base (Crown Copyright image below), controlled by personnel at the US Air Force’s Creech AFB in Nevada.
“There were no and are no UK remotely piloted air systems (Reaper) operating outside of Afghanistan,” was the MoD’s reply. “The UK armed forces routinely embed UK personnel within allied nation units (and vice versa) via exchange programmes. UK personnel embedded within a US unit flew armed remotely piloted air systems missions against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya in 2011, in support of the NATO humanitarian mission.” It didn’t say whether any strikes were conducted during this time.
To some people, the growing use of “drones” is a target to be pursued, much as during past campaigns to outlaw landmines and cluster bombs. But they are for the large part missing the point: the RAF Reapers which are dropping weapons in Afghanistan (and not as often as they might like to think) follow exactly the same rules of engagement as strike aircraft with pilots sitting in the cockpit. Arguably, they are even used in a more conservative manner, as the crews controlling their actions might spend hours tracking a potential target before any decision is taken to attack, or return to base with all weapons still under the wing. To my mind, the word “drone” doesn’t go any way towards explaining that.