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Report: Drones and UK Security Policy

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“Make the Case for Drones As A Key Part of An Integrated UK Security Policy,” Urge Leading Practitioners and Academics

(Source: University of Birmingham; issued Oct 22, 2014)



Drone technology, both civil and military, under proper legal regulation, can continue to deliver 'significant benefits' for the UK's national security policy and economy in the coming decades. That is the conclusion of a new University of Birmingham Policy Commission Report which launches today. But the Government, and especially the Ministry of Defence (MoD), should do more to reach out to the public over what the Commission sees as the globally inevitable use of drones in armed conflict and in domestic surveillance.

The Report, titled “The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK,” finds that over the next 20 years, drones – or what the Commission and the RAF prefer to call Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) – will become an integral part of Britain's aerospace capability, providing both advanced surveillance and precision weapons delivery. They can support UK forces deployed overseas, as in Afghanistan, or help prevent mass atrocities, as with the British Government's decision to deploy the RAF Reaper fleet against the Islamic State (ISIS). This decision was announced after the Report was completed but is entirely consistent with its conclusions.

The Report examines the distinctive and unavoidable choices for the United Kingdom over a crucial emerging technology and sets out the under-appreciated distinction between legally constrained British practice and the US Government's cross-border counter-terrorism strikes which dominate and distort UK public debate.

The Commission considers various moral arguments and concludes that the current and emerging generation of RPA pose no greater ethical challenges than those already involved in decisions to use any other type of UK military asset. The Report shows clearly that the UK has operated its armed Reapers in Afghanistan according to the same exceptionally strict Rules of Engagement (no weapon should be discharged unless there is 'zero expectation of civilian casualties') that it applies to manned aircraft.

But the Commission adds its voice to the wider coalition of international opinion that warns against the development of 'killer robots' – or what the Commission terms Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) in accordance with the emerging international legal terminology. The Commission believes that it will not be possible to develop autonomous weapons that can meet the core legal obligation under international humanitarian law to distinguish between combatants and civilians. As a result, the Commission recommends that the UK Government take a leading role in the arms control negotiations that are due to resume next month in Geneva. But it recognises that some nations may ignore such restraint. The Commission therefore urges the UK to lead efforts to build a new international consensus around an effective ban.

Launched today (22 October) in Whitehall at the Royal United Services Institute, the Report brings together the expertise of leading academics at the University of Birmingham and senior figures with backgrounds in the military, aerospace industries, the UK's intelligence and policing communities, and international law.

Key findings

There are three main obstacles affecting the UK Government's use of drones that must be overcome: gaining public understanding and acceptance of the legal and ethical soundness of the practice; allaying fears over the potential development of LAWS; and safeguarding British airspace and the privacy of British citizens if drones are to be increasingly used for domestic surveillance and security.


Click here for the full report (96 PDF pages ) on the Birmingham University website.

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