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New UK MoD Document on Use of Drones Uses Same Old Spin

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New MoD Document on Use of Drones, Same Old Spin

(Source: Drone Wars; issued Sept 13, 2017)


After a long delay, the UK MoD has produced its new doctrine publication on the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (commonly known as drones). Its predecessor, ‘The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems’ (JDN 2/11), caused a stir in 2011 as it acknowledged real ethical and legal issues with the growing use of these systems. The subsequent press coverage so horrified the MoD that they removed the publication from their website only restoring it six months later when things had calmed down. Perhaps that is why the new document is so bland.

In November 2015, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) revealed it was to produce a new version of the document to be published in July 2016. When it hadn’t appeared a year later, Ministers told MPs that it had been delayed as there was an ongoing review into unmanned systems and autonomy which the document needed to take into account. Defence Minister Mike Penny promised MPs that it would be published in early 2017. Nine months later, we now have the document

Pressed by MPs about the use of armed drones, Ministers have regularly referred to the promised publication of this new document. However, as Joint Doctrine Publications are primarily aimed at enabling serving military personnel to understand how these systems are to be used, it is bound to disappoint a wider audience. Even though it does address some of the ethical and legal issues that are raised by the use of armed drones – albeit reluctantly and simplistically – it can hardly be said to address many of the policy questions that have been raised over the past few years. In particular there is a yawning gap in any discussion of the use of armed drones outside of armed conflicts, something that ministers said it would cover.

In essence, there is little if anything new on the UK use of drones in this new document. Overall it tries to put across the argument that the use of Reaper has become “normalised” and “routine” and to suggest that opposition to the growing use of armed drones is “illogical”. It warns its readers not to listen to the “what ifs” and subjective opinions of critics, but rather to pay attention to the ‘facts’ which the MoD alone is privy to.

It starts by setting out very briefly the background of the UK’s use of different types of unmanned drones, and describes the terminology to be used (definitely not ‘drones’).

It then looks at the issue of autonomy and automation. While this is to be welcomed as drones are an important ‘gateway’ to autonomous weapons systems, there is little more than sophistry here. There is a lot on the definition of these systems, but the definitions used by MoD are those which serve its purpose, rather than those proposed by respected international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The document seems to be attempting to ‘define away’ issues relating to the development of autonomous weapons, and aiming to providing reassurance rather than substance. It states that “increasing automation, not autonomy, is required to improve capability”, yet the MoD’s own Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), for example, has listed autonomy as one of its research programme areas.

Next the document tries to, as it puts it, “debunk” some of the legal, moral and ethical “allegations that are commonly levelled against remotely piloted aircraft.” However, the ‘arguments’ that it puts forward to ‘debunk’ are caricatures of the ongoing criticism. (end of excerpt)


Click here for the full story, on the Drone Wars website.

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