Remote Control: Remotely Piloted Air Systems - current and future UK use - Defence Committee Contents

3  Forward Programme

Integration post-Afghanistan

84. Military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were the genesis of many of the remotely piloted air systems currently used by UK Armed Forces with the majority procured as Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs). With operations in Afghanistan due to conclude at the end of 2014, we were interested to establish what lessons had been identified for future operations. We were also keen to understand whether the MoD had decided to integrate remotely piloted air systems into post-Afghanistan Armed Forces' structures.


85. The MoD told us that there were a range of lessons identified from operating remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan. The importance of their contribution lay in the better intelligence, precision and situational awareness they could provide and it was "difficult to imagine a future campaign where such technology will not have a role to play".[48]

86. The MoD stated that the key remotely piloted air system strength demonstrated in Afghanistan was the persistent ISR presence it provided, far in excess of manned air platforms whose endurance was often considerably less. It argued that "persistence also maximises precision", resulting in fewer civilian deaths arising from air strikes.[49]

87. However, the MoD also acknowledged that the lessons from Afghanistan might not be universally applicable because conditions there (adequate basing and lines of communication, operating in permissive and relatively uncongested air space, against a technologically unsophisticated adversary) would not necessarily exist in other theatres of war. [50]

88. The Royal Aeronautical Society highlighted some additional lessons:

    It has also brought challenges associated with dislocated operations. No. 39 Sqn., the first to operate the Reaper, is based in the USA and UK, and flies near constantly over Afghanistan. As a result the command and control chain is long and complex, with the challenge of balancing the many conflicting demands on this capable platform. Delivering an enduring 24/7 capability has proved to be a strain on Sqn. personnel, who are on operations for 3-year tours, rather than the 6 months for those deployed forward in theatre.[51]


89. How the MoD will keep remotely piloted air system capability meaningfully alive post 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan is dependent on funding decisions to be taken as part of SDSR 2015. Until now, all UK unmanned air systems and remotely piloted air systems have been funded from UORs. If such equipment is returned to the UK and becomes part of the Armed Forces' core equipment, the MoD would be responsible for the cost of regenerating it. However, as part of our inquiry into Securing the Future of Afghanistan, the Secretary of State for Defence told us that the MoD would not be liable to reimburse the capital costs of procurement for these systems.[52]

90. In its written submission, the MoD told us that it was considering whether its various systems (Reaper, Desert Hawk III, Black Hornet, Tarantula Hawk) acquired as UORs for Operation Herrick in Afghanistan should be retained as core programmes or not, when UK forces redeploy in 2014.[53] If they are not retained as core programmes it is unclear what will happen to the systems and the personnel who operate them. One option would be to retain some systems in a reduced formation. However, competition for funding for other capabilities such as maritime surveillance will have a significant bearing on available resources.

91. Interviewed in January 2014, Air Vice-Marshal Philip Osborn, Director of Capability, Joint Forces Command stated that the UK had "every intention of continuing to utilise Reaper beyond Afghanistan". He continued:

    You will see us plan to bring Reaper more into an expeditionary, rather than deployed mode, and over the next few years we will shift from Reaper into the Scavenger programme, [which] should be capable of doing far more, on a worldwide basis.[54]

92. We call upon the MoD to set out which of the existing remotely piloted and unmanned air systems it intends to retain beyond the end of operations in Afghanistan and to confirm that continuing operating costs can be funded from within its core programme budget from financial year 2014-15 onwards.


93. The ability to train remotely piloted air system pilots, sensor operators and other aircrew is fundamental to maintaining a deployable future capability. The Royal Aeronautical Society told us:

    Recent operations have underlined the requirement for training specialised crews to operate unmanned aircraft. The RAF has recently graduated its first class of RPAS pilots and a number of RPAS operators are currently examining the training requirements to operate various classes of unmanned aircraft in future.[55]

94. In respect of Reaper operations, training for pilots and sensor operators is conducted jointly with the USAF in the USA. Given the current constraints on flying remotely piloted aircraft in UK airspace there is likely to be a continuing dependency on the USAF for flight training in the short to medium term.

ISTAR force composition

95. In the last Parliament, our predecessor committee published two reports into intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) and the contribution of unmanned systems to that capability.[56] We have maintained a close interest in the subject, particularly in relation to capability gaps in our maritime surveillance following the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 programme.

96. In July 2013, the MoD provided us with an update on the initial findings of its Air ISTAR Optimisation Study (AIOS), which is looking at the requirements and capabilities of air-based ISTAR to inform resource decisions as part of the next SDSR. This confirmed that unmanned air systems had been considered as options for delivering the range of desired air ISTAR capabilities. In addition, Air Command had assessed the utility of Reaper in a Maritime Surface Surveillance role for the period 2015-18.[57]

97. In its response to this report the MoD should set out how remotely piloted air systems, including Reaper, fit within its overall ISTAR strategy.

Emerging technologies

98. In the introduction to its Joint Doctrine Note The UK Approach To Unmanned Aircraft Systems (JDN 2/11) the MoD stated that its purpose was to:

    identify and discuss policy, conceptual, doctrinal and technology issues that will need to be addressed if such systems are to be successfully developed and integrated into future operations. Although broad agreement has been achieved amongst contributors, the JDN does not describe a position of consensus. It does, however, seek to energise debate within the UK and move UAS-related thinking forward.[58]

In that context, we invited the MoD to tell us about the systems it would be developing from now to 2020.
Unmanned Air System Number of UAS Comments

54Watchkeeper is not yet in service and is planned to replace Hermes 450. Watchkeeper is the core Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System which will provide enduring ISR support to UK ground forces. It is equipped with a radar surveillance capability in addition to video. The original design and manufacturing contract was placed with Thales UK in 2005. The first UK flight took place in Parc Aberporth, West Wales in April 2010. In March 2014, Watchkeeper was cleared to begin military flight training with the Royal Artillery in a restricted airspace over the Salisbury Plain Training Area.

Scan Eagle is a UAS being delivered to meet a UOR for additional maritime surveillance. The capability is expected to start becoming available to the Royal Navy from late 2013 onwards. The capability will be provided as a service provision by the contractor (Boeing UK) and will initially consist of 300 hrs surveillance per month.

Concept - no photograph

Scavenger is the MoD's core requirement for a Deep and Persistent Armed ISR capability, from 2018. Analysis has indicated a medium altitude, long endurance RPAS-class system is the most cost-effective solution. The MoD is considering acquisition options from around the globe. At this stage the UK has not ruled out any possibilities and potential opportunities remain for international co-operation.

Concept - no photograph

The Royal Navy has awarded a contract to Agusta Westland to provide a Capability Investigation and Concept demonstrator of an unmanned rotary wing air system. The air vehicle used for the demonstration will be a 1.8 ton helicopter which will demonstrate radar, electro-optics, mine counter measures and hydrographic survey capabilities.

Project Taranis is a UCAS technology demonstrator programme focusing on the next generation of Low Observable intelligence and attack aircraft. It will provide the MoD with experimental evidence on the potential capabilities, helping to inform decisions on the future mix of manned and remotely piloted systems. UCAS will not replace any of the RAF's front-line aircraft in the short term, but in the longer term a mix of manned fast-jets and UCAS could be used on operations. Taranis ground tests commenced in 2010 and flight trials took place in 2013. Taranis investment will be exploited in Future Combat Aircraft Systems which will offer more advanced capabilities compared to the current generation of aircraft. Given the nature of combat operations there will always be a role for highly skilled operators and pilots to ensure that remotely piloted combat missions are conducted appropriately, proportionately and legally.
Future Combat Aircraft Systems (FCAS)

Concept - no photograph

The UK and France have a requirement to examine the options for the next generation of combat aircraft systems after Rafale and Typhoon are due to come out of service in the 2030 timeframe. One option being considered is Unmanned Combat Aircraft Systems and work has commenced scoping a cooperative Demonstration Programme.

Table 2: Ministry of Defence, Future MoD Systems. Images: Crown Copyright 2013


99. In 2005, the MoD awarded Thales UK a contract to develop an all-weather tactical ISTAR unmanned air system for the British Army. Watchkeeper is the UK MoD's largest current unmanned air system procurement programme (valued at approximately £1bn). It is designed to provide operational commanders with unmanned day and night all weather capability to detect and track targets without the need to deploy troops into potentially sensitive areas.

100. In response to a report by our predecessor committee in 2008, the MoD stated that the Watchkeeper programme was "on track" to reach full operating capability in 2013. However, since that time there have been significant delays to the programme and Watchkeeper achieved neither its initial forecast in-service date in 2010 nor the revised date of April 2012. In order to address the need for ISTAR in Afghanistan, the MoD procured Hermes 450 system as an urgent operational requirement in 2007. The MoD told us:

    The delay to the introduction of Watchkeeper into service is being mitigated by the continuation of the Hermes 450 service provision to ensure there is no capability impact on current operations.[59]

101. The system finally received a Statement of Type Design Assurance (STDA) from the Military Aviation Authority in October 2013.[60] On 5 March 2014, the MoD announced that Watchkeeper had been cleared to begin military flight training with the Royal Artillery in a restricted airspace over the Salisbury Plain Training Area.[61]

102. Due to significant delays to the programme, it is now unlikely that Watchkeeper will be utilised on operations in Afghanistan, the theatre for which it was originally procured. The MoD should set out in detail in its response to this report the reasons for the delays experienced in bringing Watchkeeper to full operating capability and the lessons identified for future remotely piloted air system programmes.


103. Taranis is an unmanned combat aircraft system (UCAS) advanced technology demonstrator programme, designed and built by BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, the Systems division of GE Aviation (formerly Smiths Aerospace) and QinetiQ, working alongside UK MoD military staff and scientists.[62]

104. The MoD explained that the project would provide "experimental evidence on the potential capabilities, helping to inform decisions on the future mix of manned and remotely piloted systems". Although unmanned combat aircraft systems would not replace any of the RAF's front-line aircraft in the short term, in the longer term a mix of manned fast-jets and UCAS could be used on operations. Ground tests commenced in 2010 and flight trials took place in 2013.[63]

105. Announcing details of the first flight of the Taranis demonstrator, BAE Systems stated:

    The aircraft was designed to demonstrate the UK's ability to create an unmanned air system which, under the control of a human operator, is capable of undertaking sustained surveillance, marking targets, gathering intelligence, deterring adversaries and carrying out strikes in hostile territory.[64]

106. The MoD told us:

    Any future in-service systems based on such a concept design will at all times be under the command of highly skilled ground-based crews controlling a platform able to operate in contested airspace behind enemy lines unlike current unmanned systems.[65]


107. Scavenger is an MoD programme which is intended to deliver future UK capability for "deep and persistent armed ISR collection from 2018 to 2030", as a replacement for Reaper. The programme is "pre-Initial Gate", which means that the concept is still in development and options are being assessed. It is currently planned to be met by a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) remotely piloted air system capable of conducting ISR across a very wide area and with the potential to be armed. The MoD told us:

    The Scavenger Assessment Phase is focused on maturing and de-risking the sole-source acquisition of a future variant of Reaper, as a Military-Off-The-Shelf solution. The UK is still considering acquisition options to satisfy its Scavenger capability requirement, including retaining its Reaper as a Core Capability. Nothing has been ruled out and UK remains open to considering cooperative options.[66]

108. It is of vital importance that the lessons identified from the much delayed Watchkeeper system inform the development and trials of all future remotely piloted aircraft and any associated weapons systems by the MoD. In its response to this report we call on the MoD to provide us with a more detailed update on the Scavenger and Taranis programmes and explain how they will contribute to future UK air combat and ISTAR capabilities.


109. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (General Atomics), a leading manufacturer of remotely piloted air systems (including the RAF's Reaper), tactical reconnaissance radars, and electro-optic surveillance systems, told us that the UK had the potential to expand further its remotely piloted air system capability and utility:

    By introducing various enhancements, including podded systems and extended endurance, the range of missions for both military and civilian applications could be expanded significantly. This would provide opportunities for the UK's world-class aerospace industry to collaborate more closely with GA-ASI and potentially access wider markets, e.g. through the provision of a flexible maritime surveillance capability and possibly the integration of self-protection measures which could enable operations in less benign environments than hitherto. Operations in more demanding environments might also be facilitated by adoption, in time, of a possible Avenger[67]/Reaper fleet mix.[68]

110. Thales UK, another major defence contractor, told us that "to maintain and strengthen the UK's relative position in UAS, development of key sensor and information exploitation elements is of primary importance". It explained that the key determinant of reconnaissance effectiveness was the range and capabilities of the sensors an aircraft carried.[69]

111. The European Defence Agency (EDA) has stated that over half the cost of building a complex intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance remotely piloted air system is related to sensing technologies and data exploitation capabilities.[70]

112. We recognise the importance of sensor technology for ISTAR capability whether deployed on manned or unmanned platforms. We consider it vital that UK ISTAR assets are equipped with up to date sensor suites which maximise their effectiveness. We call upon the MoD to provide us with details of its planned investment in future sensor technology and exploitation for remotely piloted air systems and other ISTAR assets.


113. Looking towards the development of weapons systems which might be deployed on the Reaper or other armed remotely piloted air systems in the future, MBDA, manufacturer of the Brimstone missile, told us:

    An RPAS equipped with reliable and accurate missile systems are able to deliver the desired operational effect with a much smaller warhead charge than those equipped with less accurate weapons. Furthermore, the use of reliable and accurate missile systems increases the number of opportunities available to engage legitimate targets, including some that would ordinarily be considered too difficult to attack, with confidence that the risk of causing unintended collateral damage had been significantly reduced. Accuracy also means that the cost per successful engagement is minimised.[71]

114. We note the potential for deployment of new and increasingly accurate weapons systems, including the Brimstone missile, on UK armed remotely piloted aircraft. We call on the MoD to provide us, in its response to our report, with a progress report on current trials and future plans.

Partnering - strategic choices

115. As part of our call for written evidence for this inquiry we invited comments on the UK's future requirements for remotely piloted air systems out to 2020. We were keen to explore the potential for new systems to be researched and developed with allies should the UK decide to a develop a strategic partnership.


116. A strong partnership exists between the RAF and USAF built upon extensive shared experience of operating Reaper remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan. The RAF's 39 Squadron still operates from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, USA, alongside USAF counterparts.

117. The Royal Aeronautical Society argued that co-operation with the USAF Reaper programme had allowed the UK to benefit from economies of scale and shared facilities that it would not otherwise have enjoyed.[72] However, the consequence of this strategic partnership is a significant continuing UK dependence on the USAF for support infrastructure and future upgrades to Reaper systems, and access to the USAF training programme for Reaper pilots and sensor operators.


Future Combat Aircraft Systems

118. In its memorandum, the MoD told us that as part of the requirement to examine the options for the next generation of combat aircraft systems, the UK and France were considering unmanned combat air systems and work had commenced scoping a co-operative demonstration programme. It also explained that the investment in Taranis would be exploited in a "Future Combat Air System" (FCAS) "which will offer more advanced capabilities compared to the current generation of aircraft".[73]

119. The MoD explained that as the UK must make a strategic capability decision on FCAS as part of the next SDSR, the next phase of the programme was important to "de-risk critical technologies", and would underpin SDSR 2015 decision making.[74]

120. Following the UK-France Summit held on 31 January 2014, it was announced that the two governments had agreed to launch a two year £120m Feasibility Phase to develop the concepts and technologies to provide their respective Armed Forces with an unmanned combat air vehicle. This would build on preparatory studies conducted since the last Summit by six industry partners - Dassault Aviation, BAE Systems, Thales France, Selex, Rolls Royce and Safran. A decision would be taken in 2016 whether to collaborate on demonstration and manufacturing phases. A formal Memorandum of Understanding is expected to be signed at the 2014 Farnborough Airshow.[75] We understand that this will also build on the French led multinational "nEUROn" UCAS demonstrator project with Dassault Aviation as prime contractor.[76]

Medium Altitude Long Endurance

121. The Declaration on Defence and Security issued following the 2014 UK-France Summit also provided an update on co-operation on MALE remotely piloted air system capabilities, including a proposed "joint user group" for Reaper, "to exchange lessons learnt and work together on air certification, training, through life support and interoperability". This group would be set up in consultation with the United States, and would be open to the European nations operating Reaper.[77]

122. In respect of Watchkeeper, the Declaration anticipated France taking a decision on procurement by the end of 2014. In addition to joint acquisition, the two countries were "looking at the potential benefits of a joint force in terms of training, support, equipment, operations and development".[78]


123. The European Council of 19-20 December 2013 held a thematic debate on defence and identified priority actions for stronger cooperation.[79] In its conclusions, the Council stated that it remained committed to "delivering key capabilities and addressing critical shortfalls through concrete projects by Member States, supported by the European Defence Agency". As part of this the Council committed to:

    the development of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in the 2020-2025 timeframe: preparations for a programme of a next-generation European Medium Altitude Long Endurance RPAS; the establishment of an RPAS user community among the participating Member States owning and operating these RPAS; close synergies with the European Commission on regulation (for an initial RPAS integration into the European Aviation System by 2016); appropriate funding from 2014 for R&D activities.[80]


124. As part of SDSR 2015, the MoD has a strategic choice to make about the future direction for UK remotely piloted air systems. Post-Afghanistan, a commitment to the existing partnership arrangements with the USAF, including a continuing presence at Creech Airforce Base, would provide the RAF with access to future upgrades to the Reaper platform and training opportunities for UK Reaper aircrew which would be likely to prove problematic in the UK given the airspace restrictions which exist presently. However, with other European NATO nations, including France, Italy and the Netherlands now operating Reaper it may be advantageous to form more collaborative arrangements at a European level in order to share experience and seek economies of scale for the delivery of training and maintenance. In the medium to long term, projects such as Scavenger and the Future Combat Aircraft System demonstration programme being developed with France may require a shift in focus. We recommend that the MoD clarifies its intentions and explains how European level co-operation can be co-ordinated with existing bi-lateral partnership projects.

Non-military uses

125. ADS, the trade organisation representing the UK aerospace, defence, security and space industries suggested that if current regulations on remotely piloted aircraft in UK airspace could be reformed, increased domestic uses might include:

·  Security - through the increased use of airborne surveillance systems at events and dangerous situations

·  Search and Rescue - to eventually replace manned services where more efficient

·  Agriculture - the monitoring of crops

·  Telecommunications - creating temporary communications links in emergency situations or at every day events

·  Conservation - to track endangered species and changes to wildlife habitats

·  Energy - the monitoring of overhead power-lines and Nuclear PowerStation construction

·  Construction - to inform architects and project managers of progress and for the lifting of materials

·  Logistics - for movement and delivery

Other submissions we received suggest that to the list might be added:

·  Oil and gas - exploration, installation and pipeline monitoring

·  Airport security

·  Border security

·  Humanitarian and disaster relief

126. Research Councils UK told us that within the science community remotely piloted air systems are used for a number of applications including species surveys, terrain mapping and geophysics surveys. In addition, research is being conducted on applications in areas such as remote inspection in hostile environments, autonomous driving, defence, logistics, security, and environmental research (e.g. atmospheric and climate studies). Funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), delivered via the Research Councils, has supported a wide range of research projects in these areas.[81]


127. ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment) is a UK industry-led consortium focusing on the technologies, systems, facilities, procedures and regulations that will allow autonomous vehicles to operate safely and routinely in civil airspace over the United Kingdom. The consortium comprises seven companies: AOS, BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales. Its aim is to:

    enable the routine use of UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) in all classes of airspace without the need for restrictive or specialised conditions of operation. This will be achieved through the coordinated development and demonstration of key technologies and operating procedures required to open up the airspace to UAS.[82]

The project was co-funded by the Technology Strategy Board (the UK's innovation agency), the Welsh Assembly Government and Scottish Enterprise.[83]

128. In April 2013, ASTRAEA conducted a first remotely piloted flight from Preston, Lancashire, to Inverness using an adapted Jetstream research aircraft. The flight through shared UK airspace was staged in conjunction with NATS (the UK's En-Route Air Traffic Control Service provider) and used advanced sensors and on-board robotic systems to control the aircraft once in the air, with the pilot based at Warton, Lancashire.[84]


129. The potential expansion of the use of remotely piloted air systems for security and other purposes raises the prospect of privacy infringements. The European RPAS roadmap identified that increased use of remotely piloted air systems "may raise serious and unique privacy and data protection concerns", potentially undermining the overall benefits from this innovative technology. It encouraged action to ensure full compliance of remotely piloted air system operations with existing privacy and data protection legislation or amendment of the existing regulatory framework if required.[85]

130. Professor Nicholas Wheeler, Institute for Conflict, Co-operation and Security, University of Birmingham, told us:

    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 [...] 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.[86]


131. Remotely piloted air systems have extensive potential for non-military uses in the UK and overseas. Projects such as those developed by the ASTRAEA consortium have begun to test the technologies and operating procedures required to make the use of RPAS more commonplace and research into the potential for other uses is continuing. We welcome Government support to strengthen UK research and development programmes which have the potential to expand the nascent civilian market for remotely piloted air systems in the future. We call upon the Government to set out in detail what joint working is currently ongoing across government departments to consider the implications for the utilisation of remotely piloted air systems in the civilian environment. In relation to the issue of privacy, we recognise that existing laws which protect personal privacy, including data protection and surveillance, whether by the police, state intelligence agencies or private companies, will need to be carefully reviewed and updated.

Ethical and legal issues

132. Some human rights groups and humanitarian organisations have questioned the legality of the use of armed remotely piloted air systems for combat operations. This section considers the ethical and legal issues pertaining to UK use of remotely piloted air systems: consideration of remotely piloted air system operations by other States is addressed only to the extent that it serves to highlight differences with the UK approach.

133. In its memorandum, the MoD discussed a number of ethical issues commonly raised in relation to the use of armed remotely piloted air systems, the most significant of which are discussed below.

Removal of a man in the loop

134. The Royal Aeronautical Society expressed the view that significant legal and ethical questions arise over the expanding use of military remotely piloted air systems, especially as technology enables their operation to become more autonomous. The MoD, however, rejected the perception held by some people that the removal of a pilot from the cockpit combined with distance from the "action" led to reduced situational awareness and impaired the judgement of remotely piloted air system aircrew. It argued that "the situational awareness offered by numerous information feeds into a HQ is greater than that of a pilot operating in isolation, potentially facilitating wiser judgement calls to be made" and pointed out that a conscious decision is still required to prosecute a target.[87]

Is the use of armed RPAS moral?

135. The MoD argued that the greater loiter-time of Reaper aircraft enabled crews to "exercise their judgement in a more measured way, free from the stresses of the combat zone or concerns about survivability", thus minimising the risk of civilian casualties and increasing confidence levels in target identification. In response to arguments from some quarters that distance from the battlefield introduced an emotional and possibly moral disengagement by Reaper aircrew, the MoD stated:

    It is true that Reaper crews do not face the same level of direct danger as crews of conventional aircraft. However crews are commonly assigned to Reaper operations for several years and may fly missions in Afghanistan over extended periods, rather than on the short deployments associated with conventional crews. Experience of Reaper shows that aircrew are fully immersed in the reality of combat, possibly to an even greater extent than operators of conventional-aircraft. The persistence offered results in crews observing the aftermath of their attacks: a sobering experience rarely shared by other pilots or artillerymen. Furthermore, viewing the battlefield indirectly through sensors or targeting systems is far from new or unique to Reaper operators.[88]

Will the UK allow autonomous release of weapons?

136. The MoD ruled out autonomous release of weapons from remotely piloted air systems:

    Current UK policy is that the operation of weapon systems will always be under human control and that no planned offensive systems are to have the capability to prosecute targets without involving a human. By retaining highly-trained and qualified aircrew at the heart of the decision making process, the UK ensures that the legal requirements governing the use of force during armed conflicts are observed. There are no plans to replace military pilots with fully autonomous systems.[89]

Threshold for intervention

137. Some commentators have raised the possibility that remote warfare might lower the threshold for Governments to intervene militarily because they are not putting their own troops at risk[90]. As there is limited evidence available at present it is not possible to reach a conclusion on this point in this report. However, the decision to undertake military action is never one that should be taken lightly. It is important in maintaining the public acceptability of remotely piloted air systems that the perception cannot be allowed to develop that their increased use has in some way reduced the threshold for military intervention. We call on the MoD to set out how it intends to address this potential problem in its response to this report.


138. The International Committee of the Red Cross considers that international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law are two distinct but complementary bodies of law. IHL applies in situations of armed conflict while human rights law applies at all times, in peace and in war.[91]

    Both international humanitarian law and human rights law apply in armed conflicts. The main difference in their application is that international human rights law allows a State to suspend a number of human rights if it faces a situation of emergency. IHL cannot be suspended (except as provided in Article 5 to the Fourth Geneva Convention). [...]

    States have a legal duty to respect and implement both IHL and human rights law. Compliance with IHL requires a state to introduce national legislation to implement its obligations, to train its military and to bring to trial those in grave breach of such law. Human rights law also contains provisions requiring a State to take legislative and other appropriate measures to implement its rules and punish violations. [92]

139. Often referred to as the 'law of armed conflict', or the 'law of war', IHL is defined by the ICRC as:

    […] a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare.[93]

140. The ICRC considered that human rights, being tailored primarily for peacetime, apply to everyone:

    Their principal goal is to protect individuals from arbitrary behaviour by their own governments. Human rights law does not deal with the conduct of hostilities.[94]


141. The ICRC, in a submission to our inquiry into UK Armed Forces Personnel and the Legal Framework for Future Operations, stated that there was currently a lot of controversy about the legality of the extraterritorial use of force using remotely piloted air systems. It stated that "extraterritorial use of force by drones can be governed either by IHL or by international human rights law and the relevant domestic law, depending on whether the situation in which they are used amounts to an armed conflict or not". It concluded:

    It is important that this issue continue to be discussed and clarified among States. In the view of the ICRC there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach. The ICRC takes a case-by-case approach in determining which body of law is applicable to which situation of violence and, consequently, which rules have to be followed.[95]

142. Professor Steven Haines, Professor of Public International Law, University of Greenwich, in a submission to our inquiry into UK Armed Forces Personnel and the Legal Framework for Future Operations, explained why remotely piloted aircraft were not in and of themselves unlawful:

    UAVs are, quite simply, aeroplanes. The fact that they are un-manned and remotely operated does not alter that basic fact in any way. Aeroplanes are not unlawful; UAVs are not, therefore, in and of themselves unlawful. UAVs operating exclusively for reconnaissance, data gathering and intelligence purposes are not weapons. It is only when a UAV is weaponised that it becomes a weapon and is required to be compliant with LOAC weapons law. Even then, as long as the weapon it is carrying is itself lawful (not subject to a ban under the Certain Conventional Weapons Convention, for example), the UAV will be compliant with the law. That is not to say that it cannot be operated in an unlawful manner or for unlawful purpose. All weapons can be put to unlawful purpose; UAVs are no different from other weapons in that respect.[96]

143. Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) submitted a legal opinion which concluded that "armed drones themselves are unlikely to be illegal per se, but that fully automated drones would breach international law". In respect of the question of the legality of the UK Government's use of armed remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan, PIL concluded it was "highly likely" that the UK's use was unlawful:

    There is a strong probability that the UK has misdirected itself as to the requirements of the IHL principles of proportionality, distinction and humanity and as to its human rights obligation to protect human life and to investigate all deaths (civilians and combatants alike) arguably caused in breach of that obligation. We conclude that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is capable of application to the UK's use of drones and that human rights accountability and the rule of law require its application. We call for urgent accountability for the UK's drones programme.[97]

144. The MoD insisted that the UK complied fully with all of its obligations under international humanitarian law irrespective of the weapons systems used:

    This includes those set out in Article 36 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions to review all new weapons, means and methods of warfare to determine whether the employment would in some or all circumstances be prohibited by the Protocol or any other rule of international law. That process applies to UAS just as to manned capabilities. The UK is also a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime, which controls the proliferation of unmanned delivery systems. The weaponisation of Reaper was reviewed under this basis in accordance with all relevant domestic and international law before its introduction into service.[98]

145. The MoD memorandum stated that UK Rules of Engagement reflect international humanitarian law "following the principles of distinction, humanity, proportionality and military necessity" and are the same for Reaper as for manned aircraft.[99] It continued:

    The RAF has well-established command, control, supervisory, training and qualification frameworks for conducting air operations and makes full use of these structures to ensure Reaper are used in a legal and ethical manner.[100]

Transparency and accountability

146. The All Party Parliamentary Group on drones raised concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability about the use of remotely piloted air systems by the UK Government particularly in relation to:

·  the poor recording of the status and numbers of those killed and injured in drone strikes;

·  the limited consideration of the psychological impact of drones on operators and those living in affected areas; and

·  the broader relationship between the achievement of the UK's military and diplomatic objectives and drone use.

147. The Association of Military Court Advocates submitted:

    The problem is not that UAVs are unlawful in themselves, but that their numbers, sophistication, relative cheapness and adaptability offer unparalleled opportunities for secrecy. If there are no independent arrangements for the scrutiny of deployment and targeting decisions, then there can be no means of ensuring compliance with the basic principles of proportionality and discrimination. Just as importantly for the major democracies, public support for hostilities is unlikely to be sustained unless there is a perception of jus in bello (law in war).[101]

Governance and oversight

148. The MoD provided us with details of UK governance and oversight arrangements for unmanned and remotely piloted air systems deployed on operations. It explained that all UK operations are authorised by Ministers and directed by the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in accordance with agreed plans. The chains of command for the tasking of UAS and RPAS in Afghanistan are summarised below:
Army Operated UAS (Hermes 450, Desert Hawk III, T Hawk, Black Hornet)

Full Command - Chief of the General Staff

Operational Command - Chief of Joint Operations

Operational Control - Commander Task Force Helmand

Full Command - Chief of the Air Staff

Operational Command - Chief of Joint Operations

Operational Control - Commander ISAF

Tactical Command - UK Air Component Commander

Source: Ministry of Defence[102]

149. Where operational control of UK remotely piloted air systems is assigned to a Coalition Commander, such as the Commander of ISAF, the MoD explained that that commander can only direct UK operations within the constraints of UK Rules of Engagement (ROE) and policy:

    A UK officer 'Red Card holder' is assigned to each ISAF HQ, with responsibility for coalition operations including the use of UK UAS, so that UK ROE and policy are strictly adhered to. Crews operating UAS receive training on a regular basis on domestic and international law concerning the use of force by UK forces in Afghanistan. Training includes the understanding of, and compliance with, UK ROE. In addition, UAS crews have access to legal advice and support during operations 24 hours a day, every day of the year (this includes the ability to talk with legal advisors and commanders by phone if required, an option not available to crews of manned aircraft).[103]


150. UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, published in September 2013 an interim report to the UN General Assembly on the use of remotely piloted aircraft in counter-terrorism operations. The central objective of the Special Rapporteur's inquiry was to "evaluate allegations that the increasing use of remotely piloted aircraft has caused disproportionate civilian casualties, and to make recommendations concerning the duty of States to conduct independent and impartial investigations".[104]

151. Commenting on the accountability and transparency of strikes by remotely piloted aircraft, the UN Special Rapporteur's report stated:

    The single greatest obstacle to an evaluation of the civilian impact of drone strikes is lack of transparency, which makes it extremely difficult to assess claims of precision targeting objectively.[105]

152. In respect of operations conducted by the UK, the Special Rapporteur acknowledged that the RAF was accountable, through the MoD, to Parliament, which "allowed for a degree of transparency, including as to civilian casualties" although he noted that the MoD did not comment publicly on use of remotely piloted air systems for special operations. The report continued:

    The Ministry has informed the Special Rapporteur that, under operating procedures followed by the United Kingdom in Afghanistan, every remotely piloted aircraft weapons discharge is the subject of internal review involving the senior qualified weapons instructor. A mission report is prepared and is then reviewed by the most senior British officer at the Combined Air Operations Centre in Afghanistan and his or her legal adviser. This includes a review of video footage and communications reports. If there is any indication of civilian casualties, the incident is referred to the Joint Incident Assessment Team at ISAF, whose personnel are independent of the chain of command involved in any strike. Individuals are presumed to be civilian for this purpose unless it can be established that they were directly involved in immediate attempts or plans to threaten the lives of ISAF personnel.[106]

Targeting intelligence

153. The UN Special Rapporteur commented that "the accuracy of targeting intelligence is critical to the proper application of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution". He reported that the UK had informed him that during its operations in Afghanistan targeting intelligence was "thoroughly scrubbed" to ensure accuracy before authorisation to proceed was given.[107]

154. Acknowledging that responsibility for drawing up a targeting directive and rules of engagement in any armed conflict rests with the MoD, the UN Special Rapporteur explained that the targeting directive set out legitimate targets (which may be individuals, groups or locations) and included a list of restricted and prohibited targets. The report concluded:

    the United Kingdom has specifically informed the Special Rapporteur that in making targeting decisions involving the use of remotely piloted aircraft in Afghanistan it does not authorize strikes on the basis that the infliction of civilian casualties would be proportionate to a high-value military target. It is the policy of the Ministry of Defence that weapons should not be discharged from any aerial platform unless there is a zero expectation of civilian casualties, and that any individual or location should be presumed to be civilian in nature unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.[108]

Special Rapporteur's conclusions

155. The Special Rapporteur concluded that if used in strict compliance with the principles of international humanitarian law, remotely piloted aircraft were capable of reducing the risk of civilian casualties in armed conflict by significantly improving the situational awareness of military commanders.[109]

156. In relation to the duty of States to protect civilians in armed conflict, the Special Rapporteur concluded:

    in any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been, killed, the State responsible is under an obligation to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation. This obligation is triggered whenever there is a plausible indication from any source that civilian casualties may have been sustained, including where the facts are unclear or the information is partial or circumstantial. The obligation arises whether the attack was initiated by remotely piloted aircraft or other means, and whether it occurred within or outside an area of active hostilities.[110]

157. We welcome the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. We note that he has identified a number of legal questions on which there is no clear international consensus. We recommend that the UK Government engage actively in the debate on these matters and report on progress in its response to our report.

Targeted killings

158. The greatest controversy and debate about the use of armed remotely piloted air systems has arisen not from ISAF military operations in Afghanistan, but rather due to counter-terrorism operations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) and the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in other countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. These so called "targeted killings" were only acknowledged publicly by President Obama and other US Administration officials in 2010.

159. In its submission to our inquiry, Reprieve, a legal charity, argued that the remotely piloted air system programmes of the UK and the US were closely intertwined. It alleged that the UK shared intelligence with the US "in order to support its programme of covert drone strikes, carried out by the CIA and Special Operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia". Reprieve also alleged UK complicity in these operations because:

·  The UK Government and UK companies provide communications networks without which the US would not be able to operate this programme;

·  The US is able to make use of RPAS airframes belonging to the RAF;

·  UK companies manufacture key drone components, and are allowed to export them to the US by the UK Department for Business.[111]

160. UN Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson QC, considered the principal areas of legal controversy surrounding the use of armed remotely piloted air systems. He expressly avoided use of the expression "targeted killing" because "its meaning and significance differ according to the legal regime applicable in specific factual circumstances", principally whether such a killing takes place within or outside a situation of armed conflict. In the conclusion to his interim report, the Special Rapporteur urged the United States to clarify its position on the legal and factual issues raised, including its publicly asserted right under international law to use lethal force in counter-terrorism operations outside areas of active hostilities. He also sought declassification of information relevant to its lethal extraterritorial counter-terrorism operations and the release by the US Government of its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted air systems, together with evaluation methodology.[112]

161. We acknowledge that over the last few years there has been a growing concern in relation to the sharing of intelligence with allies and the uses to which such data may contribute. While the issues raised by Reprieve stray beyond the terms of reference for our inquiry and indeed the remit of the Defence Committee, we do believe that there should be greater transparency in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK Government has in place for the sharing of intelligence. Matters concerning the activities of the intelligence services are more appropriately addressed by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC). We invite the ISC to consider in future work programmes the issues raised with us during this inquiry which fall within its remit.

162. The licensing of arms exports and other controlled goods is a matter for the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC). We will work with our colleagues on CAEC to ensure that this issue is given appropriate scrutiny.

48   Ev w5, para 4.1 Back

49   Ev w5, para 4.3 Back

50   Ev w5, para 4.5 Back

51   Ev w53, para 14 Back

52   Defence Committee Tenth Report of Session 2012-13, Securing the Future of Afghanistan, HC 413, para 133 Back

53   Ev w5, para 5.1 Back

54   "RAF ready for Reaper fleet boost, confirms expeditionary plan", Flightglobal, 16 January 2014. Available at:  Back

55   Ev w54, para 18 Back

56   Defence Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2007-08, The contribution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to ISTAR capability, HC 535; Eighth Report of Session 2009-10, The Contribution of ISTAR to operations, HC 225 Back

57   Defence Committee, Report on Future Maritime Surveillance: Government update, 10 July 2013. Back

58   Ministry of Defence, The UK Approach To Unmanned Aircraft Systems Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 (JDN 2/11), March 2011. Available at:  Back

59   Ev w5, para 5.2 Back

60   Thales UK "Thales's Watchkeeper receives Statement of Type Design Assurance from the UK Military Aviation Authority"  Back

61   Ministry of Defence "Army cleared to fly next-generation eye-in-the-sky" 5 March 2014 Back

62   BAE Systems "Taranis"  Back

63   Ev w7 Back

64   BAE Systems "Taranis" Back

65   Ev w6, para 5.5 Back

66   Ev w6, para 5.3 Back

67   The jet powered Predator C Avenger is described by General Atomics as a "highly advanced, next generation UAS". Back

68   Ev w100 Back

69   Ev w20 Back

70   European Defence Agency, Factsheet - Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, November 2013. Available at:  Back

71   Ev w117 Back

72   Ev w53, para 14 Back

73   Ev w7 Back

74   Ev w6, para 5.6 Back

75   Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street, "UK-France Summit 2014: agreements: Declaration on Defence and Security",  Back

76   Dassault Aviation, "nEUROn". Available at: Back

77   Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street, "UK-France Summit 2014: agreements: Declaration on Defence and Security", Back

78   Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street, "UK-France Summit 2014: agreements: Declaration on Defence and Security", Back

79   European Council Conclusions, Nr: EUCO 217/13, 20 December 2013. Available at: Back

80   European Council Conclusions, Nr: EUCO 217/13, 20 December 2013. Available at: Back

81   Ev w60, para 7 Back

82   ASTRAEA, Back

83   ASTRAEA, Back

84   ASTRAEA, Back

85   European RPAS Steering Group, Roadmap for the integration of civil Remotely-Piloted Aircraft Systems into the European Aviation System, June 2013. Available at: Back

86   Ev w126 Back

87   Ev w10, para 7.5 Back

88   Ev w10, para 7.5 Back

89   Ev w2 Back

90   See for example: RUSI, Hitting the target: How New Capabilities are Shaping International Intervention. Whitehall Report 2-13. March 2013. Back

91   International Committee of the Red Cross, "IHL and human rights law", 29 October 2010 Back

92   International Committee of the Red Cross, "IHL and human rights law", 29 October 2010 Back

93   International Committee of the Red Cross, "War and International Humanitarian Law" Back

94   International Committee of the Red Cross, "IHL and human rights law", 29 October 2010 Back

95   ICRC, memorandum received in response to inquiry into UK Armed Forces Personnel and the Legal Framework for Future Operations. Back

96   Professor Steven Haines, memorandum received in response to inquiry into UK Armed Forces Personnel and the Legal Framework for Future Operations. Back

97   Ev w80, para 1.5 Back

98   Ev w9, para 7.2 Back

99   Ev w9, para 7.3 Back

100   Ev w9, para 7.4 Back

101   Ev w31, para 44 Back

102   Definition of the command terms above can be found in Ministry of Defence, Allied Joint Publication (AJP)-01(D): Allied Joint Doctrine. Available at: Back

103   Ev w4, para 3.12 Back

104  United Nations, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, A/68/389, 18 September 2013. Available at: Back

105   As above Back

106   As above Back

107   As above Back

108   United Nations, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, A/68/389, 18 September 2013. Available at: Back

109   As above Back

110   As above Back

111   Ev w117 Back

112   United Nations, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, A/68/389, 18 September 2013. Available at: Back

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Prepared 25 March 2014