A Joint Enterprise: How the UK and the US co-operate on drone warfare

6 June 2020 — Drone Warfare

Peter Burt

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A new report published today by Drone Wars UK investigates the co-operation between the UK and the US in relation to armed drone operations. While the UK insist its armed drone programme is separate and independent to that of the US, our report, ‘Joint Enterprise: An overview of US-UK co-operation on armed drone operations’, argues that close historic ties, shared use of infrastructure and tightly integrated operations show that that the two programmes amount to a joint enterprise, with arguably joint liability.

The report lays out how co-operation between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and US Air Force (USAF) takes place in a wide range of areas and maps out the bases, companies, and operational units behind this joint enterprise. It shows how the harmonisation of equipment and concepts of operation, interoperability, and a single centre of command and control help to tie the UK into overseas ‘coalition’ wars led by the US.

As Drone Wars has revealed, there are currently a number of RAF Reapers deployed on a mission which the MoD will not discuss. It is more vital than ever that there is proper public transparency over UK drone operations and clearer understanding of the links with US drone operations.

Britain’s current armed Reaper drone programme has evolved directly from the USAF Predator drone programme over the past two decades, so it is perhaps no surprise that the RAF works closely with the USAF on drone operations. RAF Reaper drones have flown alongside US drones in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and have participated alongside the US in the targeted killing of British-born ISIS fighters. The controversial nature of some of these operations and the need to preserve relationships with the US are important factors behind the secrecy underpinning the UK’s Reaper programme. Over the course of the 18 months we spent investigating US-UK joint working in this area, we repeatedly hit a brick wall in terms of those willing to discuss and share information.

Nevertheless, ‘Joint Enterprise’ details how RAF and USAF drone operations are closely intertwined in a number of respects.

RAF 39 Squadron patch ‘Day and Night’

♦ Embedded aircrew from the RAF undertake tours of duty with the air forces of allied nations to share skills and tactics. A number of RAF Reaper personnel have been embedded with the US Air Force’s 432nd Wing, which flies Reaper drones. Embedded RAF pilots follow the host air force’s chain of command but are meant to follow UK rules of engagement and UK law. As well as participating in embedding and exchange arrangements, British and American Reaper aircrews cooperate closely with each other in combat situations, for example by highlighting targets to each other through what is known as ‘buddy lasing’.

♦ Although US pilots do not routinely fly RAF Reaper drones (or vice versa) on operational missions, this is not the case for launch and recovery operations. RAF Reaper launch and recovery operations in the Middle East rely heavily on US personnel, as does ground maintenance work, which depends on support from US contractors.

♦ Coalition air operations in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have been directed by the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) run by the US Air Force Central Command at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The Centre is responsible for commanding all coalition air assets in the region – both crewed aircraft and drones. RAF Reaper crews are not bound to follow targeting instructions from US commanders at CAOC if they fall outside the UK’s rules of engagement, but in such cases the target will be reassigned to an aircraft from another air force.

♦ Information from UK sources, including RAF Reaper surveillance operations, is shared with US forces at CAOC and can be used to prepare air tasking orders for a range of targets, regardless of the UK’s rules of engagement. Information from other UK sources, including electronic intelligence intercepts from Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), is also shared with the US.

Menwith Hill: US bases within the UK support US and UK drone operations. Image: Matt Crypto.

♦ Although Ministers have regularly stated that the US does not operate drones from the UK, evidence indicates that certain US military bases in the UK are involved in activities which support US drone operations, notably intelligence analysis and sharing.

♦ The UK Ministry of Defence uses satellite systems owned by the US to control and communicate with RAF Reaper drones and also buys ‘airtime’ from commercial satellite service providers such as Inmarsat.

♦ Reaper aircraft are built by the American company General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc, which ultimately means that the RAF is dependent upon General Atomics for the supply and, to large extent, maintenance of the system. Much of the training for RAF Reaper crews also takes place within the US as part of the Foreign Military Sales package through which the Ministry of Defence has purchased Reaper from the US government.

The RAF is currently working closely with General Atomics to shape the development of the new Protector drone, which in future will further shape the nature of the relationship between the US and the UK over drone operations.

‘Joint Enterprise’ shows that the MoD needs to address concerns about issues arising from collaboration with the US over drone operations. It must demonstrate its commitment to being a responsible drone operator by increasing the transparency of its drone operations, logistics, and procurement processes. If, as Ministers claim, the UK is operating an independent military drone programme which complies with international law, MoD must provide the evidence to demonstrate this.

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