The UK Section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) continues to be concerned at the use of and lack of accountability of armed drones by the military. WILPF UK is also concerned about possible extension of UK operations in the Middle East and of the future development of drone weapons systems.

Lack of scrutiny and accountability means we do not have a true picture of the numbers of civilians killed or maimed by drones. Various studies have been examined in an informative article, ‘Drone Strikes Kill Innocent People. Why Is It So Hard to Know How Many?’ by Ritika Singh who concludes “the best methodology only serves to demonstrate how little we actually know about the civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes.”[i] UK drone operations are also shrouded in secrecy.

Civilians, including children, have been killed or wounded in drone strikes and people have also suffered property and/or economic damage. Importantly, many civilians live their lives under threat from drones monitoring their every move. Lives lived under such a threat are blighted by fear and result in deep-seated psychological trauma.[ii]

In 2015, the week of action against drones runs from 4-11 October.

In 2013 Public Interest Lawyers published a document challenging the UK’s use of armed drones under International Humanitarian Law and stated “we conclude that in the absence of international agreements, armed drones themselves are unlikely to be illegal per se, but that fully automated drones would breach international law”.[iii] The government position is that ‘The UK Government does not possess fully autonomous weapons systems. Nor does it have any intention at present of developing them’.[iv] The UK Government stated that ‘it believes the CCW (Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) is the right place to discuss this issue’.[v]

However, the UAS CDC website (Unmanned Air Systems Capability Development Centre, Boscombe Down, Wiltshire) states that the ‘Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology (MinDEST) confirmed the UK Government commitment to Unmanned Systems’.[vi] At the 2015 CCW Meeting of Experts on LAWS the UK Government recognised concerns that had been expressed, that it would give ‘serious attention’ to the matter but that ‘that is not to prejudge what the outcome of these discussions might be’.[vii]

In addition to surveillance drones, the UK currently operates ten MQ-9 Reaper armed drones flown by the Royal Air Force (RAF) from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, USA and from RAF Waddington, UK.[viii] Reaper drones carry 4 Hellfire missiles and 2 Paveway IV 500lb laser guided bombs each costing, conservatively, £71,300 and £30,000 respectively.[ix]

On 13 July 2015 it was announced that UK Prime Minister David Cameron wants ‘special forces, drones and stronger, readily deployable counter-terrorist facilities to be the big winners in the strategic defence review undertaken this autumn’.[x] There are also indications that the UK Parliament will be asked to vote on extending current UK surveillance operations in Syria to include attack options, thus extending the UK drone programme in that country.

The US drone programme has been reported to be at ‘breaking point’ as pilots cannot be trained fast enough to replace those leaving the programme. Drone pilots make a constant daily mental shift, moving from family life to operational drone pilot. Some found the fear of causing civilian casualties very stressful. A 2013 US Defense Department study found mental health problems occurred at a similar rate to those of pilots deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.[xi]

Professor Nancy Cooke of Arizona State University writes “Drone operators actually see the results of what they’ve done… when people say this is just a video game, nothing could be further from the truth for them. They see the body parts.”’[xii] Former drone pilot Bruce Black described the mundane reality of drone operations as, “hours and days of boredom punctuated by a few moments of stark terror”[xiii]

Drone pilots are supported by [weapons] systems operators and intelligence analysts, any of whom could suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). RAF drone pilots are reported to be at less risk than US pilots of PTSD because they are all volunteers, however, the UK Ministry of Defence ‘has been unable to identify any primary research that supports its claim of lower stressors for UK crews’.[xiv]

 

Sources and further reading:

[i] http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115353/civilian-casualties-drone-strikes-why-we-know-so-little (accessed 8 July 2015) Case studies for Pakistan are published by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism; for Yemen, by the Open Society Foundation.

[ii] http://www.channel4.com/news/drone-attacks-traumatising-a-generation-of-children (accessed 8 July 2015)

International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, Living Under Drones, Sept 2012. http://livingunderdrones.org/ (accessed 6 July 2015)

[iii] http://dronewars.net/2013/06/08/lawyers-challenge-legal-basis-of-uk-drone-strikes/

https://dronewarsuk.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/pil-peacerights-legal-opinion-re-uk-drones-3-june-2013b.pdf (accessed 6 July 2015)

[iv] House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper, number 06493, 11 June 2015; Overview of drones used by the armed forces. p47. www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06493.pdf (accessed 19 July 2015)

[v] House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper, number 06493, 11 June 2015; Overview of drones used by the armed forces. p49. www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06493.pdf (accessed 19 July 2015)

[vi] http://www.uascdc.com/about/Pages/background-overview.aspx (accessed 8 July 2015)

[vii] http://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/1CBF996AF7AD10E2C1257E260060318A/$file/2015_LAWS_MX_United+Kingdom.pdf (accessed 20 July 2015)

[viii] House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper, number 06493, 11 June 2015; Overview of drones used by the armed forces. p9-12. www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06493.pdf (accessed 19 July 2015)

[ix] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/11/uk-attacks-islamic-state-iraq-revealed-drones (accessed 6 July 2015).

House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper, number 06493, 11 June 2015; Overview of drones used by the armed forces. p9-12. www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06493.pdf (accessed 19 July 2015). This source also gives information on the different surveillance drones used by the UK military.

[x] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/13/david-cameron-drones-special-forces-top-defence-shopping-list (accessed 13 July 2015)

[xi] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/17/us/as-stress-drives-off-drone-operators-air-force-must-cut-flights.html?smid=tw-nytimes&_r=1 (accessed 12 July 2015)

[xii] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/sep/28/emotional-toll-taxes-military-drone-operators-too/?page=all (accessed 12 July 2015)

[xiii] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/24/drone-warfare-life-on-the-new-frontline (accessed 12 July 2015)

[xiv] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/24/drone-warfare-life-on-the-new-frontline (accessed 12 July 2015)