Drone Wars continues to pursue details of secret UK drone operations

5 March 2021 — Drone Wars

Chris Cole

Drone Wars is undertaking legal action in an attempt to gain details of secret British Reaper drone operations that has been taking place since at least 2019.  Appealing against the MoD’s refusal to answer both FoI requests and parliamentary questions about these missions, Drone Wars is seeking answers before an Information Tribunal.

Drone Wars discovered in early 2020 that the UK was flying Reaper missions outside of ‘Operation Shader’, the name of the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Although the MoD acknowledged that such missions were taking place, it flatly refused to detail their location or the number of sorties that had been undertaken.  According to the latest FoI response from the MoD (Jan 2021) it appears these secret sorties are continuing.

After an internal appeal to the MoD was rejected in early 2020, Drone Wars appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in April 2020 with a response received in January 2021. Although the Commissioner accepted that there is “significant and weighty public interest in disclosure of the withheld information,” she ultimately upheld the refusal to release the information following undisclosed submissions made to the ICO by the Ministry of Defence.

“Taking into account the arguments set out in the MOD’s submissions to the Commissioner, she is satisfied there is a real and significant risk of this prejudice [harm to the capability and effectiveness of UK forces] occurring as the information would assist adversaries in making a detailed assessment of the effectiveness of UK tactics and operational capabilities, which in turn would risk the security of UK personnel.”

Drone Wars believe that it is at least right that the undisclosed submissions made by the MoD justifying why the information should not be released should be tested before the courts at an Information Tribunal. While it is very clear that the MoD wants to keep this operation secret, ultimately this is a question of how much weight should be given to the public interest in favour of public and parliamentary oversight of UK military operations which have been undertaken without public consent or parliamentary approval.

Public and parliament being kept in the dark on UK Reaper missions outside Operation Shader

A larger concern is that the UK appears to be backing away from previously accepted levels of transparency over the deployment and use of its Reaper drones.  In British military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the MoD gave basic details including why the operations was being undertaken, sortie numbers, the location of the sorties and – when strikes were undertaken – broad details of the target. Now the UK is insisting in response to parliamentary questions on the matter, that Reaper is “an intelligence platform” and “we do not comment on intelligence matters.”

In her most recent annual report, Agnes Callamard, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, argued that as drones can fall between differing military and intelligence oversight regimes, “there seems to be many loopholes by which to avoid scrutiny.”  Amongst the recommendation made in the report in relation to the use of armed drones, the Special Rapporteur argued that parliaments should  ‘review procedures for parliamentary scrutiny and oversight, to identify and limit specific instances when the deployment of force may not be openly debated.”

Due to their capabilities, armed drones lessen the economic and political cost of undertaking military operations, thereby lowering the threshold for the use of force.  A clear consequences of this has been the dramatic expansion of so-called targeted killing over the past decade or so. Drone Wars believes that oversight and transparency of the deployment of these systems is vitally important – especially at a time when government ministers are now discussing the use of drones and other related emerging military technology being used for so-called ‘Grey Zone’ conflict.

The Information Tribunal is likely to take place in late 2021.

Seeking information on the UK’s Secret Drone Operations:

2 Jan 2020 DWUK FoI:  Please can you tell me the number of sorties flown by RAF Reaper aircraft outside of Operation Shader during 2019 and where?

Ministry of Defence (17 Feb 2020): The location and number sorties flown outside of Operation SHADER is withheld under FOI Exemptions Section 26 (Defence) and Section 27 (International Relations).

6 Jan 2020 Q: Annelise Dodds MP:To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, whether he has had discussions with his Kuwaiti counterpart on the potential for deploying RAF Reaper drones for operations over the Strait of Hormuz.

A: MoD Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan (9 Jan 2020): We are in regular communication with all our regional allies. However, I am withholding information on the location of Reaper aircraft as its release would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the Armed Forces.

9 Jun 2020 Q: Baroness Stern:To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether RAF Reaper drones have been used for operations outside of Operation Shader over the past 12 months; and if so, for what purpose they were used and where.

A: MoD Minister Baroness Goldie (18 June 2020):  REAPER is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. We do not comment on intelligence matters and I am therefore withholding the information as its disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the Armed Forces.

9 Jun 2020 Q: Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle:To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether RAF Reaper drones have been operated outside Operation Shader; if so, why; and whether such operations took place under independent UK control.

A: MoD Minister Baroness Goldie (18 June 2020):  REAPER is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. We do not comment on intelligence matters and I am therefore withholding the information as its disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the Armed Forces.

9 Jun 2020 Q: Baroness Stern: To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether RAF Reaper drones have (1) conducted strikes, or (2) provided reconnaissance support, as part of Operation Kipion.

A: MoD Minister Baroness Goldie (18 June 2020):  I cannot comment on whether or not RAF Reaper remotely piloted aircraft have been or will be employed as part of Operation Kipion. I am withholding information on the location of Reaper aircraft as its release would, or would be likely, to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the Armed Forces.

11 Jun 2020 Q:  Ed Davey MP:  To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, if he will list the countries that RAF Reaper drones are being deployed in outside of those of Operation Shader; and if he will make a statement.

A: MoD Minister James Heappey (17 June 2020):  REAPER is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. We do not comment on intelligence matters and I am therefore withholding the information as its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the Armed Forces.

22 Jul 2020 Q: Baroness Stern:To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Goldie on 18 June (HL5486), whether it is their policy not to answer questions about the deployment of RAF Reaper drones; and if so, when this policy was agreed.

A: MoD Minister Baroness Goldie (30 July 2020):  There is no policy to not answer questions about the deployment of RAF REAPER drones. However, there is a long-standing policy not to comment on operational matters where the disclosure of information would increase the risk to intelligence and operational security.

9 Nov 2020 Q: Baroness Stern:  To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Goldie on 30 July (HL7182), whether RAF drones used on operations outside of Operation Shader are being used in support of NATO operations or missions.

A: MoD Minister Baroness Goldie (18 November 2020):  REAPER is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. We do not comment on intelligence matters and I am therefore withholding the information as its disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the Armed Forces.

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