Drone Wars at Ten #2: A decade of challenging drone secrecy

3 June 2020 — Drone Wars

Chris Cole

We were excluded from our 2017 Information Tribunal when it went into closed session

A key aspect of our work over the past decade has been to challenge the secrecy that surround the use of armed drones. The Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) insist that many aspects of these operations must remain secret in order to protect lives and national security.  And in some cases, that is no doubt true. However, it is also without question that some of the secrecy that surrounds the use of drones is to enable these systems to be used without awkward and difficult questions being asked by parliamentarians, press and the public.

A narrative has been created around the use of armed drones to try to negate criticism – that they protect troops lives, that they are, in effect, no different from traditional aircraft, that they enable careful and precise airstrikes that ‘take out’ bad guys and leave the innocent untouched. Information and data that could challenge this framing, or enable us to have a better understanding, is often amongst the information refused.  Here are some examples from our work over the past decade:

Case study: Reapers watching over British troops in Helmand?

In the early days of UK drone operations in Afghanistan, ministers and officials sought to distance the British use of Reaper from US use across the border in Pakistan where there was mounting evidence that US were using drones to undertake a campaign of targeted killing. British drones, we were told, were not being used in that way.  Rather they were providing overwatch to troops operating on the ground in Helmand province, where UK forces were based. The narrative was that the UK Reaper drones watched over troops and UK bases in Helmand allowing them to sleep easy – who could object to that?

In January 2012, we asked MoD to tell us in which provinces UK Reapers had launched strikes and when.  We wanted to check whether the assertion that British drones were being used for force protection in Helmand was accurate.  The information request, however,was refused, with the MoD telling us that release of the information would put UK service personnel at risk and could harm relations with other states.  We appealed this refusal, first to the Information Commissioner and then at an Information Tribunal, but the MoD’s strong insistence that to reveal this information would threaten lives won the day.

Three years later, after UK forces had left Afghanistan and were operating in Iraq and Syria, and questions about where UK drones were operating in Afghanistan had faded, we resubmitted the question and got the answer. Far from just supporting troops in Helmand, UK Reaper drones had in fact launched strikes in more than half-of Afghanistan’s provinces.

What’s more, statistics released by the MoD in 2015 showed that in the five years between 2010 and UK forces leaving Afghanistan at the end of 2014, RAF Reapers launched 437 strikes as opposed to 187 from the UK’s manned aircraft operating there at the same time.

Top Secret: targeted killing operations

Details of the UK’s use of Reaper drones in UK and US targeted killing operations have been extremely closely guarded.  There are serious political, legal and ethical questions around both the idea of targeted killing, and how, when and why the UK chooses to engage in the practice.

We have consistently argued that the advent of armed drones has enabled a widening adoption of the use of targeted killing. Being able to launch strikes at great distance with virtual impunity can temp those persuaded that such action is a quick and easy solution. When the UK acquired the technology, it insisted it would not follow the US down the path of such operations. That changed, however, and in 2015 the UK both directly supported US targeted killing operations against UK citizens and then itself undertook the drone targeted killing of Reyaad Khan in Syria.

Both the Joint Human Rights Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee undertook inquiries into the killings and both were frustrated by the secrecy and lack of cooperation from the government on the matter (see here and here). While it is perhaps understandable that certain operational details may need to be kept secret, as both committees argued some details about the process, and how and why the decision was made to undertake these operations could be made public. There is a great deal of public interest in ensuring that such operations are not only conducted lawfully and within the bounds of public consent, but are seen to be so.

While the killing of Reyaad Khan received great deal of coverage after David Cameron’s dramatic announcement in the House of Commons, other such operations, albeit in different circumstances, have received much less attention. Our report into UK media coverage of UK drone targeted killing, In the Frame, argued the government’s refusal to discuss key details or policy issues around these operations has helped to curtail media coverage and discussion, creating a climate where targeted killing has become virtually normalised and accepted. Attempts, for example, to gain information about operations which appear to have been leaked to the press for PR purposes, such as the targeted killing of Naweed Hussain, have met a brick wall.

We can neither confirm nor deny… Response to our Feb 2018 FoI request

The danger here is that long held international norms against such pre-emptive, extra-judicial killings are being eroded.  As other nations begin to use drones for such operations, including Turkey and the UAE, and the US has expanded its targeted killing programme to include state officials – it is surely in the public interest that such operations are scrutinised.

Drones are just (not) the same

Another aspect of the secrecy surrounding the British use of armed drones can be seen in the way that the UK treats information about the deployment of these systems far differently from the way it details deployment of its traditional fighter and bomber aircraft. It is now unwilling to discuss basic deployment details of the deployment of UK Reaper drones.

During operations in Afghanistan, the UK MoD regularly detailed the number of armed Reaper drones deployed, as well as their location at Kandahar airport.  However, it appears when they became part of the RAF’s core-capability in 2014 (they were initially procured on a temporary basis), a decision was seemingly made to refuse to give such details in the future. In operations against ISIS for example, the MoD had regularly given deployments details about its other armed aircraft, but insisted’ that such information cannot be released about its armed drones.  This appears to be because the MoD wants to use them, or at the very least have the option to use them, on secret operations.

A number of RAF Reapers are currently deployed on a secret mission and MoD is refusing to say where or for what purpose

National media, as well as specialist defence press, regularly name the Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait as the base for UK Reaper operations in Iraq and Syria, although the MoD has never confirmed this officially. In May 2016, the MoD arranged visits to the location of the UK’s armed drones for a small, select group of media organisations: The SunSky News, and Conservative US news site, The Daily Signal. While the location was not directly mentioned, there was enough information contained in the reports to confirm the previous reporting.

At the same time, since the end of their deployment to Afghanistan, the MoD has refused to state how many of its fleet of Reaper drones are actually deployed on operations, even though it is happy to do so about other aircraft involved in combat operations.

Yet until recently we knew that the Reapers were either deployed on Operation Shader, the UK’s air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or were being kept in reserve.  However, since the beginning of 2020, the MoD has told us that some of the UK’s Reaper drones are now undertaking missions outside of Operations Shader but will not say where or why these operations are taking place.

The refusal of the MoD to disclose where its Reaper drones are operating and for what purpose is extremely worrying. Without proper oversight and accountability, secret deployments such as this potentially draw us down the rabbit hole of unaccountable military action which could quickly spiral out of control. The government must reveal where British Reaper drone sorties are taking place, the purpose of those operations, and whether any strikes have occurred.  Due to their special capabilities, particularly how they enable targeted killing operations and appear to be lowering the threshold for the use of force, there is a strong argument now that all deployments of the UK’s armed drones should be subject to parliamentary approval.

In praise of whistle-blowers

We can’t end this post reflecting on challenging drone secrecy over the past decade without mentioning – and thanking – those individuals who have released details that have given us a better understanding of drone operations including, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks crew, Reality Winner, Daniel Hale, Brandon Bryant, Cian Westmoreland, Lisa Ling, and other, unknown individuals who have decided that public oversight and understanding comes before secrecy.  Without their efforts, so much of what we know about drone warfare would still be hidden. Thank you.

To help us continue to challenge the secrecy that surrounds drone warfare, please consider making a donation to our tenth birthday appeal.  Gifts large and small all very welcome.

Coming up: Whatever next? The coming challenges of drone warfare

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