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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Volume 555: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2012

[Mr Edward Leigh in the Chair]

It is a pleasure, Mr Leigh, to take part in this debate, not least because Westminster Hall is not quite as cold as elsewhere. I thank The Times for pointing out what the two Front Benchers will say in the debate: apparently, the Labour spokesman will ask for new rules of engagement, and the Minister will not entirely agree with the notion that our pilots are not sufficiently trained. I leave it to them to say their piece, but there are some areas I will not touch on because nothing is to be gained from repetition.

I want to start by defining the parameters of this debate. The Library helpfully says that unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs—are used by the UK armed forces and are

“more commonly known as drones. These are remotely piloted aircraft that range from simple, hand-operated systems to high altitude, long endurance systems similar in operation to small aircraft.

UAVs are primarily used to gather intelligence and provide a surveillance and reconnaissance function for the armed forces. Only a handful of systems are capable of carrying weapons. The only armed UAV used by the UK Armed Forces is the Reaper and it is only used in Afghanistan.”

It is important to remind ourselves of those distinctions and limited use. The Library continues:

“Remotely piloted aircraft operate on the same rules of engagement as manned aircraft. However the growth in the use of armed UAVs, particularly by the United States, raises a number of moral, ethical and legal issues.”

It is the moral, ethical and legal issues that I want to examine more closely.

We can see in Hansard some of the questions that are being asked, and that the debate is about collateral damage and loss of life, which some people find difficult to explain. A wider argument is that if a country has armed forces, it uses lethal force, and it does so for a benevolent purpose: defence. We have not had much chance to talk about that, and I thought that such a debate would be suitable in Westminster Hall.

To put the matter into context, I understand that, depending on who is counting, between 76 and 80 countries have UAVs, but only three—the United Kingdom, the USA and Israel—use armed drones in military operations. The Minister will be more aware than I am that this country is investing extensively in that area, whether it is in the provision of specially designed headquarters for the Reaper station here or the Anglo-French initiative for Scavenger long-endurance UAVs, so there will be even further development.

That is combined with the strange situation that almost no one in this country under the age of 30 has a defined sense of who or what the enemy is. During the cold war, it was easy to define the enemy, which was another nation state. We now face warfare in which the enemy is no longer a nation state, but a group of individuals who are far away. The process is geographically remote, and some of the warfare engagement is physically remote. That creates problems.

Lethal force is a process by which we license to kill. Curiously, in this country that phrase is associated with James Bond more than with what our armed forces are doing. Politicians should spend more time thinking about the use of lethal force, and when it is appropriate. We need to take the public with us, and it has been clear, particularly when reading newspaper reports on the use of drones in Afghanistan, that in many ways we have not taken the public with us. In areas such as Pakistan, there is an argument that the fallout is greater than the benefits.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. On the use of drones in Afghanistan, does she agree that we need clarity from the Government on whether they are sharing location intelligence with the United States on drone strikes in Pakistan? If we want to win the hearts and minds of the public, we must carry them with us, but when they see hundreds of lives lost in drone strikes, they turn against the west and pose a danger to our national security.

That is an argument, but I do not want to go down that road. The hon. Gentleman has had an Adjournment debate on that matter, which I read with great interest, but I want to take in new territory. Parliament must explain why it does certain things, and take the public with it. The 1868 St Petersburg declaration refers to the requirement

“to conciliate the necessities of war with the laws of humanity.”

How to get that right is an ever-enduring struggle, and I am not sure whether we have debated that sufficiently here. That is why I am pleased to have this debate. We have become casualty-averse, and there is a debate to be had about moral equivalence, and whether it is morally superior to deal with threats remotely instead of in hand-to-hand battle. I want so spend some time discussing targeted killing, which is the area of the drone debate that causes greatest concern about whether it is right.

A defence research paper on the ethics of targeted killing defines it as

“a pre-mediated state sanctioned killing of a named individual beyond the territorial and jurisdictional control of that state, in an international or non-international armed conflict or hostilities against terrorist or non-state groups.”

In other words, we are not talking about assassination or illegal killing for purely political purposes, and that is what people find most difficult to get their head round.

Some people argue that military historians may view 19 January 2010 as being as significant as August 1945, when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, because technology suddenly allowed a move to something that was not sufficiently explained or spelled out in the ethical framework under which we operate. Two things happened: one was the killing in Dubai; the other, much more importantly, was in Pakistan where a US unmanned aerial vehicle killed six alleged militants in North Waziristan. That takes us to the legal and ethical dilemma that we must examine more closely.

On the history of lethal force, it may be worth reading “My Early Life” by Winston Churchill in which he describes a moment during a cavalry charge:

“Suddenly in the midst of the troop up sprung a Dervish. How he got there I do not know. He must have leaped out of some scrub or hole. All the troopers turned upon him thrusting with their lances: but he darted to and fro causing for the moment a frantic commotion. Wounded several times, he staggered towards me raising his spear. I shot him at less than a yard. He fell on the sand, and lay there dead. How easy to kill a man! But I did not worry about it. I found that I had fired the whole magazine of my Mauser pistol, so I put in a new clip of ten cartridges before thinking of anything else.”

The question these days is about the moral position of asking a man, or giving him the legal authority, to kill another within a framework that we find acceptable, because some people seem to think that if it is hand-to-hand combat, it has a greater moral force or value than if it is remote. I would argue that technology takes us to an ethical area where the framework might have to be configured slightly differently, but what the state is asking of the individual has, in many ways, not changed much. People are worried about remoteness, and it is worth remembering some experiments that were done in the 1960s in America, in the wake of the Adolf Eichmann trial, about the perils of obedience. Individuals were tested on how much pain they were willing to inflict on someone just because they were ordered to do so. In a military context, it is very important that we continue to keep that in mind.

The United Kingdom has always been clear that the chain of command, when it comes to killing or the use of lethal force, has always been retained within the military, whereas the United States and the CIA, as I understand it, are much more prepared to use civilian intelligence as part of that chain of command. That causes its own legal and ethical problems, because there is an argument about whether the civilians in that chain relinquish their right not to be targeted under international humanitarian law.

On targeted killing and drones, the United Nations rapporteur, Christof Heyns, is now looking into extra-judicial killing in relation to the use of drones by the United States. Does the hon. Lady also think that that needs to be extended to see whether it can be applied to where the United Kingdom uses its drones?

I do not yet know, because I do not know what the outcome is, but to my mind, it is very significant that in the United Kingdom it is within the military chain, whereas in the United States it is not.

I am not trying to get us to ask today, “Is that particular application right or wrong?”. In the context of defence and us as parliamentarians, who are asking an Army and a public to order the use of lethal force, I want us to debate what the framework should be, rather than concluding whether it is right or wrong. I am also worried that the further away in the globe something happens, the easier it is—and the happier we seem to be—to jump to conclusions one way or another.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. My final point is with regard to the policy and the criteria. Drones were operated by the United Kingdom on 7 October 2007 in Afghanistan, so it is for many years that we have not had the criteria, policy, rules and restrictions, whether under a different Government or this Government. I absolutely agree, therefore, that it is vital for us to get it right.

Until we get that right, perhaps we all ought to become a little more articulate and explicit about where and when we are prepared to say that something is right or wrong. One point that I was trying to make at the beginning of my speech is that for those over the age of 30 who grew up during the cold war, the enemy was very visible—it was another nation state, very close to home—and the space of theoretical ethical argument tended to be much narrower than it is now, when the war is happening on the other side of the globe. We should face up to that, and given that the Government are intending to spend extraordinary amounts of money on future investment, and that we have international co-operation, this place needs to be aware of what the rules are.

I want, therefore, to draw the Minister further on a number of parliamentary questions that have been asked. First, am I right in assuming that the United Kingdom has no plan to change the operational kill chain, as it is called, to be anything other than within the military? If that is so, does he agree that that ethical dimension must play an enormously important part, as an institution of the military, in their continued training, and will he give a commitment on that? Secondly, the Minister was asked when Watchkeeper will see active service, and the answer was that it will be at some stage or another, but we cannot yet tell. He said:

“The Ministry of Defence remains committed to deploying it to Afghanistan at the earliest opportunity.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 461W.]

It would be helpful to hear how early the earliest opportunity is.

Thirdly, there was a question about unmanned aerial vehicles from the new aircraft carrier for surveillance purposes. I know that there has been a string of questions about whether that is within the remit, and the latest I heard from the Minister was:

“Although not all would be suitable for carrier operations, the UK has previously conducted trials with a Scan Eagle UAV flown from a frigate and is currently considering another such concept demonstration.” —[Official Report, 26 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 30W.]

Has there been any progress on that?

Above all, I would like to hear whether the Minister is contemplating any changes to the ethical rules, and if he does so, at what level will that happen? Will it just be within the military, and does he have any concept of a time scale? Will it go in tandem with the greater investment? As unpopular a view as this may be, I think this is a technological development in warfare that—if used within the right constraints and controls—is with us, and we had better make the best of it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this important debate. As a member of the Select Committee on Defence, she has considerable knowledge of such matters and it is interesting to hear her views on the issue.

Unmanned aerial vehicles can play a crucial role in keeping our servicemen and women on the front line safe. We know that the military operate in a hostile environment on the front line in Afghanistan, and convoys provide a target for rebels and improvised explosive devices. However, with the ability to scout their route with surveillance drones, commanders on the ground can avoid potential hazards quickly. Drones can also take the place of human pilots when carrying out dull, dangerous or dirty jobs, such as repetitive reconnaissance work, surveillance in hostile territory, or flying through areas where chemical or biological weapons have been used.

We can acknowledge that drones save the lives of many in our armed forces, but we must accept, as others have said, that there are civilian casualties and deaths from drones. That is principally an issue in Pakistan, and as “Panorama” reported yesterday, it affects real people, young and old, and has an indelible and devastating effect on their families and local communities. Therefore, drones must be used in accordance with international law, with every effort made to minimise civilian casualties.

I point to the Medact report that was launched a few months ago in the House of Commons—I was involved in that—which says that the weapon is not damage-free for users. We now have significant medical evidence from monitoring the psychological effects of drones on those who are engaged in their use. Although it initially appears to have no effect, it undermines psychological well-being.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. More research must be done in this field. It could be very important.

Like regular manned aircraft, drones come in many shapes and sizes. I understand that the Global Hawk has a wingspan of 116 feet, while the technology is developing so quickly that we may soon see drones the size of insects. What is going on is incredible. Things are moving very quickly. The US air force now has more flight hours with drones than with manned aircraft. This innovation will see all branches of the armed forces benefiting from the technology. It has been reported that the Royal Navy is investigating the development of marine drones to detect mines in important shipping routes.

Developments in the military sphere can also lead to changes in routine or unpleasant jobs in civilian life. We read that old silos in Sellafield that were sealed off and left undisturbed since the 1950s are finally being examined by scientists using drone technology. Who knows what we could learn from those important investigations? Difficult or repetitive tasks, such as patrolling borders or monitoring weather patterns, could also be made easier.

With important work being done on the front line and potentially life-saving developments in the pipeline, this technology offers significant capability and may soon offer a range of important domestic applications, so it is essential that we have an open debate about both the ethics of drones and their practical deployment. This is an important debate, and I am glad that we are starting to have it.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) for having missed the first few moments of her very interesting remarks. I was held up elsewhere. I apologise for that to her and to the House. I also apologise to Mr Speaker because I did not intend to speak in the debate and therefore did not write to him on the subject. However, having heard the very interesting contributions from the hon. Lady and from the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), I hope that the House will forgive me for expressing a few ill formed thoughts. That may not take up much time, and we have plenty of time available.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising the issue. She is right to say that discussion about the ethics and morals surrounding the use of unmanned air vehicles is as great as or greater than discussion about the ethics and morals associated with armaments or any warfare that exists. It is a huge ethical problem and one that needs to be addressed. She is right to say that so far we have addressed it too little in this place, so I congratulate her on raising it. I listened carefully to her and I commend the extremely subtle and intelligent way in which she approached the issue. I agree very much with every aspect of what she said.

None the less, there is a series of misunderstandings in the world about the use of UAVs. The word “drones” itself often brings into people’s minds an image of something that is almost by definition worse than any other kind of warfare. If we asked people out in the street, “What do you think of the use of drones—unmanned vehicles firing weapons at civilians in Pakistan, for example?”, they would say, “That is absolutely disgraceful. It is scandalous. We must stop it. It is wicked. It is wrong.” There is a significant degree of misunderstanding in the public domain about the use of these vehicles. Therefore, it is right that we in this place should try as best we can to correct it.

There are two aspects to the ethical considerations. First, there are those who say that the use of any weapon of this kind at all is illegal and wicked and should not be allowed. That was said by perfectly good pacifists in this building for many hundreds of years. They would say that any weapon that potentially kills people is a bad thing and should not be allowed, and we should disarm and turn our weapons into ploughshares, or words to that general effect. That is a perfectly legitimate, although in my view incorrect, stance.

The motto of my regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, is “Arma pacis fulcra”, which is of course the Latin for arms are the balance of peace. I have always held very strongly to that. We won the cold war not because we disarmed, but because Margaret Thatcher took a tough line by arming the United Kingdom and supporting the United States in our nuclear deterrence. That is why the Soviet Union fell. Arms were very much the balance of peace in that context.

Therefore, to those who say that in any conditions UAVs are by definition a bad thing, I simply say that the same could apply to almost any weapon or piece of warfare that they care to mention. Of course, the tragedy is that people are killed in wars. An even greater tragedy is that civilians are killed in wars. That is an unacceptable and unforgivable thing, but unfortunately it does happen. Therefore, one of the important things that we must do in considering warfare is to work out ways in which civilian casualties—collateral damage, as it is rather heartlessly called—can be minimised. We must find ways of minimising the damage to civilians and those who are not involved in the conflict.

In addition to the belief that all weapons are a bad thing, there is a strange piece of psychology that people seem to have in their minds. The hon. Lady touched on it in her interesting tale about Winston Churchill in a cavalry charge at, I think, Mafeking. Is shooting a man from a foot or two feet away more or less ethical than firing a weapon in Nevada that kills people in Afghanistan? Most people would say that Churchill was courageous: he galloped into the teeth of the enemy and fired. He fought a person: he looked him in the eye and shot him. That is courageous. However, a technician fiddling with a computer in Nevada, who will potentially kill hundreds of people, is somehow being cowardly. He is hiding behind technology and saying, “We want no part of that; I’m doing it remotely.”

It was interesting to hear the intervention from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on the psychological effect that there may be on people who are firing these weapons at remote distances. Of course they are aware of what they are doing and of course they will be affected by it for the rest of their lives. The notion that because they are in a bunker in Nevada, they are somehow less affected by it than the chap on the front line is incorrect. The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point on that subject.

I am very grateful that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that point, because that is where the institutional ethics of the training of our military come in to ensure that there is awareness that on the other end of every piece of machinery there is a human being and that therefore the relationship and the ethical considerations must remain the same. It is a constant battle of vigilance to ensure that that is never lost.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is terribly important that we train all our people in the military and working in foreign affairs and elsewhere that there are human beings at the end of the weapon, whether that weapon is a knife used on the front line or a UAV from which a missile is fired remotely.

On a recent visit to Afghanistan, I was chilled by the conversation I had with a 19-year-old sniper in The Rifles. I said to him, “How many kills have you had?”, and he said, “Thirty-seven confirmed kills, sir, and about 40 or 50 others unconfirmed.” There was a young man of 19 who knew that he had killed 37 people—I think it was 37—and had probably killed 70 or 80. Is the psychological effect on him any greater or any less than the psychological effect on the man sitting in the bunker in Nevada or wherever it may be who is called on to press the switch that finally fires the weapon from the UAV?

There are two elements of concern. One is about the use of weapons themselves, which I think is a perfectly reasonable concern, although not one to which I would subscribe. The second is the question whether a remote killing is somehow less brave or less ethically supportable than an immediate killing. Again, I would not support that particular angle.

That leads me away from the negatives that people might raise on the subject of UAVs to the positives. As I said, it is terribly important that in all our warfare, whatever we are doing, whether it involves planes, bombs or UAVs, we seek to minimise civilian casualties. The use of UAVs and this extremely complex high technology is precisely the thing that will reduce collateral damage. We can, by using these things, spot a particular person from a very great height and track his movements. We know precisely who he is and can kill him very precisely, very technically, and minimise damage to civilians who may be nearby. That contrasts sharply with the use of artillery, for example. One round takes out a good square—1,000 metres by 1,000 metres—and who knows what is in that good square? It contrasts sharply with the use of bombs of all kinds, which also involves very substantial collateral damage. The use of these weapons is very particular and very precise and for that reason must be supported.

There is a problem with mythologising drones by saying that they are precision weapons that can target individuals and not have an impact on innocent civilians. We now know, from more detailed research, that in Pakistan, for example, at least 3,225 civilians have been killed as a result of the use of drones. Therefore, it is also important not to exaggerate the clinical effect of these weapons.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct; every single civilian death that has occurred as a result of the use of drones, or through any other act of warfare, is to be regretted. He mentioned that 3,000 civilians have been killed through the use of drones in Pakistan, but many times that number of civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other theatres of war across the world—collateral damage—by bombs and conventional warfare of one kind or another. The deaths are questionable, and I will come on to how UAVs are being used in Pakistan, in particular, across the border from the theatre of war.

Every death is regrettable. As the technology develops, it becomes more accurate and more reliable, so the risk of collateral damage lessens, whereas conventional weapons of warfare are no more accurate than they ever were. Indeed, one could argue that because such weapons are covering bigger areas, they are becoming less accurate, so the likelihood of collateral damage is greater.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington brings me to where and how such weapons should be used. Most are used for surveillance, not as weapons. They are not armed. They provide a fantastic resource for our forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere, with their ability to see what is happening on the ground over a large area for an extended period. They can hover for significant periods over an area, which a plane or helicopter could not do. Their value as surveillance machines is incredible, even if they are not armed. We must be extremely proud of the development of such technology and encourage it in every possible way.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that if we were to look at a battlefield 50 years from now, we would be likely to see a significant part of it dominated by UAVs. They will be used extensively in battlefields in future, which I welcome for several allied reasons. The first reason is accuracy, which may not exist at the moment, but I hope such weapons will become increasingly accurate in future. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston mentioned, war is no longer nice and easy, state on state warfare—invade that country and we can sort them out. It was nice and easy to do in the Falklands war and nice and easy to do in Gulf one, but warfare like that no longer exists. Civilians and all kinds of people are now mixed up in it. Wicked people often use civilians as shields. Accuracy is terribly important.

Secondly, maximising the effect while minimising the cost is terribly important. Of course, we can pile in tens of thousands of foot soldiers, who will slog around large parts of the theatre of war—often without ever seeing the enemy at all—but it costs an enormous amount of money. Of course, we can use conventional weapons of one sort or another, but they cost an enormous amount of money. By comparison, UAVs cost remarkably little because they can fly for a very long time and never fire anything, or if they do fire, the weapons need not be as expensive as conventional weapons often are.

Thirdly, there is no question about it; they are much safer for our own forces than most conventional warfare. If we send soldiers into the theatre of war to fire a tank or an artillery piece, take part in an infantry attack or, as Churchill did, gallop against the whirling Dervishes at the battle of Mafeking—I think it was the Dervishes—we are putting our own troops in significant danger. The worst that can possibly happen with UAVs is that they will be shot out of the sky. Not a single person will be killed if they are disabled, but that does not apply to any other type of warfare. There are huge benefits to be gained from the standpoint of the security and safety of our troops.

I shall make my final point briefly. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct: such weapons in the wrong hands or used incorrectly could become terrible weapons of war. We should never allow that to occur. It is vital that we know precisely who is allowed to use them and under what conditions. What are the rules of engagement? What is the chain of command? Who has the authority to use them and who does not? Is their use purely military or could other Government agencies use them in future? If so, who will authorise that use? What uses are they authorised for? Are they to be used entirely against military targets? Are there conditions under which they could be used against a civilian target? If we knew that a terrible dictator was driving along in his car, for example, would it be right to use a military UAV to kill him? Possibly. Possibly not. We need to know precisely.

The debate that the hon. Lady has opened is extremely important. UAVs are potentially enormously powerful and important weapons and vehicles. They could be of huge benefit to Britain as a war-going nation, but could be of huge disbenefit if they fell into the wrong hands or were used incorrectly. She is right that now is the time to initiate a widespread, deep and ongoing debate about precisely what these things are, what they should be used for, what the rules of engagement are and who should be allowed to use them. If we do that, this afternoon will have been well spent.

The battle of Omdurman was in Sudan. Mafeking is in South Africa. I am glad the hon. Gentleman is not driving a drone at the moment.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh—for the first time, I think—if only because you have given the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) a history lesson.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this important debate. She has brought to it the same level of expertise and knowledge that we are lucky enough to draw on in the Defence Committee, where she is also a voice of moderation and reason.

The history of warfare is one of innovation and, some would argue, progress, although I am not sure that the latter view is always valid. No one is clear about which of the city states was the first to deploy ballistic weapons, but it is fair to say that those were first used to great effect by the Romans in defeating the Greek hoplite phalanxes between 300 BC and 100 BC; it was the first time that stand-off weapons were used on a large scale. To pick up the point eloquently made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, at that point stand-off weapons were still limited by the kinetic capacity of the thrower or archer.

The first recorded use of gunpowder on the battlefield was in the 13th century. It was used in—I will try to pronounce this correctly, Mr Leigh; I am sure that you will correct me if I get it wrong—Ain Jalut in south-east Galilee by the Egyptian Mamluks against the Mongols; my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was there at the time and will correct me if I am wrong. The Chinese are known to have invented gunpowder, although we do not have an earlier record of their use of it on the battlefield.

The Mamluks in Ain Jalut represent the first recorded use of hand cannons, and they were the first to cause the Mongol horsemen to turn back on their ride westwards. That is significant because it is the first recorded indication that the capacity for ballistic weapon use need not be limited by the human kinetic ability to pull or throw.

We then go forward to the 16th century and the decline in the use of pikes and halberds. Until the middle of the 17th century—probably the end of the civil wars in the British Isles and slightly later in continental Europe—the pike is still the weapon of choice for generals for turning the tide of battle. By the middle of the 17th century, pikes are in decline and there is the rise of the musketmen.

I will not come between blue-on-blue discussions. I think a similar gesture was offered to the Prime Minister at last night’s 1922 committee discussion on gay marriage.

My hon. Friend is right to mention archers; he is thinking particularly of 1415 and the battle of Agincourt. Archery was an extension of the ballistic weapons used in ancient times, but he is right to mention it. The archers were underpinned by the cavalry charge, at the end of the battle, by King Harry’s noble British troops—many were Scots and Welshmen who, as ever, came to his rescue—who defeated the French.

Let me talk a bit more about warfare between the French and the British.

We are, although I hope you will bear with me, Mr Leigh.

If we go forward to 1745, we find the Duke of Cumberland fighting in the battle of Fontenoy, during the war of the Austrian succession. Despite the use of ballistic weapons, he invited his French counterparts to fire first, although it is worth noting—this is the key point—that he had moved some distance back before inviting them to fire on his troops. As ever, the general was not in the firing line.

Moving forward to the 21st century, we see that UAVs are a logical extension of the use of such stand-off ordnance, which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire so eloquently discussed. As he said, if we look at the history of warfare, it is difficult to see a coherent argument pointing to a significant difference between the use of armed UAVs—it is important to note that the debate is about UAVs, not armed UAVs, although it has inevitably turned into a debate about armed UAVs—and the archers of Agincourt, the artillery of Fontenoy, the Mamluk gunners of Ain Jalut or the Roman archers of the 2nd century BC. However, in the modern world, our values mean that our sense of moral repugnance at the death of any civilian or military personnel has come a long way since the Duke of Cumberland so graciously invited the French to fire first on his British forces.

It is worth talking about not only armed UAVs but the important role played by unarmed UAVs. In an answer given on 30 October, Lord Astor said that only one of the five types of UAV that we currently deploy in Afghanistan is armed. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that, of the 5,000 sorties that have been carried out in the past 12 months, only a handful have been carried out by the Reaper; the vast majority have been reconnaissance missions, using the ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—UAV, which is there to support our troops.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, who organised the all-party group on the armed forces welcome for our brave men and women returning from Afghanistan and Libya. It is worth placing on the record not only our thanks for the courageous work that our personnel do in Afghanistan, but the fact that we remain committed to giving them the best support we can in their operations. I challenge any Member of the House honestly to tell me that the support our armed forces have when they are under fire would be enhanced if we removed the UAV capability from the field of operations.

The Minister with responsibility for procurement is here, and I welcome him to his post; this is the first chance we have had to debate. I hope he will not mind my saying that his predecessor is sorely missed by the British defence industry and all of us who are interested in it; he had a real passion for, and a real knowledge of, the field. However, I look forward to working with the current Minister in the remaining two and a half years before the general election.

Perhaps the Minister can answer a few questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston raised in her opening remarks and which I will reiterate. As the Queen Elizabeth class carriers—the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales—come into service at the end of this decade and the start of the next one, what provisions will be made to supply them with UAV maritime capabilities? We also have the Type 26, which the Minister is currently developing with the support of BAE Systems and the Chief of Defence Matériel. What capabilities does he envisage it, or indeed the Type 45, having in the next decade or two decades?

How does the Ministry of Defence intend to support British industry on this issue? We have a long and inglorious tradition, as you will recall, Mr Leigh, of developing absolutely first-rate aviation capabilities and then allowing them to wither on the vine. The example I think of most often is the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, which was first developed by Britain in the early 1960s as the successor to the Kestrel programme and which is now flown by the United States Marine Corps and the Spanish Navy. However, it is no longer used by the UK armed forces—that is probably a debate for another day—and the latter versions are not even developed by British companies; I think that Boeing developed the latter Marine Corps version.

How will the Ministry of Defence support British companies that are assisting in the development of the next generation of UAVs, so that we do not repeat the mistakes that we have made far too often in the past? What role does the Minister see for UAVs as a replacement for RAF pilots? Those of us on the Defence Committee regularly discuss the issue with Sir Stephen Dalton and other leading members of the RAF, and so does the all-party group. To what extent does the Ministry of Defence believe that, as we move through this century, the fast-jet pilot will become obsolete, in much the same way as we went from having bombers such as the Vulcan and the Victor, with crews of five or seven, to the modern Typhoon, with just one pilot?

As technology improves, to what extent will the UAV be an all-weather, all-year-round weapon? Current UAVs are severely limited in their ability to operate; when there is a severe gust, quite a lot of them struggle. Their payloads are also severely limited in terms of reconnaissance and ordnance. How does the Minister see the long-term future in that respect?

I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham will be setting out the Opposition’s official position, so I will close by reminding Members that when we talk about drones or UAVs, we are not talking about some sci-fi technology, with the weapons thinking for themselves. These weapons are no different from a Paveway or a Brimstone; it is just that, rather than being dropped off a Typhoon or a Tornado on a stand-off by a fast-jet pilot, they are being flown under the command of a living, breathing, serving member of Her Majesty’s armed forces.

It will help the debate if we avoid wild flights of fancy—Members will pardon the dreadful pun—and remember that we are talking, I hope, about well-trained members of the British armed forces, who have, and will continue to have, overall control of these vehicles.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing the debate.

Any debate on the deployability of UAVs should be determined by military requirements, by the ethics of the conflict and, above all, by facts. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) that some of the supposed facts that are being circulated are getting in the way of the proper debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston initiated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) mentioned Afghanistan, and I would like to put on record our admiration for, and thanks to, the members of our armed forces who are serving there.

Today’s technology and security issues are changing at an ever more rapid pace. The technology that has been developed was unforeseen a matter of years ago, but so too were the threats and dangers that we now face as a nation. Any threat that we face must be put in context, and the context and objectives for deploying force must involve a number of criteria: the maximum strategic advantage over our enemy, protecting UK service personnel and—quite rightly—minimising civilian casualties and acting at all times within humanitarian and international law. Also, we should make sure that deployment is in line with our national interest and our right, as a nation, to self-defence.

My hon. Friend makes a strong case for the use of UAVs, but does he accept that the continuing criticism of and controversy about the misuse, sometimes, of drones, particularly in parts of Pakistan, where there are high levels of civilian casualties, undermine the rightful case for UAVs when they are in our strategic interest?

I shall refer to Pakistan later, but having been there, and having been a Defence Minister, I accept that there is a big gulf between those who are democratically elected in Pakistan, and the military. I do not accept that some of the actions being taken in northern Pakistan are being done without the knowledge of the Pakistan military. I accept that that creates tensions in Pakistan, but not the idea that some of those things are being done without any knowledge on the part of people in authority there. Having spoken to politicians on my last visit to Pakistan I know that they find that situation difficult; however, that is a debate within the context of the democratic accountability of the armed forces in Pakistan. I assure my hon. Friend that some intelligence and other targeting involve co-operation with the Pakistan military.

In the context that I have outlined, our judgment is that the UK’s current position on deployment of UAVs seems to meet the criteria I have specified. However, we should keep that issue under constant review. It has already been said that it is important to distinguish the deployment of the UK’s UAVs from the deployment of those of our allies. I understand that at present some 76 nations operate UAVs and, as has already been described, the UK deploys four types in Afghanistan. However, only one of those, the Reaper, has an armed capacity. The main focus for our UAV technology in Afghanistan is surveillance and support of our operations, and I have seen at first hand the tremendous job it does in protecting convoys and intelligence gathering, which is vital for the security of our and our allies’ armed forces personnel.

As a matter of technology, UAVs can be more cost-effective in carrying out surveillance and other forms of projecting power. If we did not use their surveillance capacity in relation to convoy protection we would have many more casualties in Afghanistan. I do not accept the argument that UAVs are more indiscriminate, when used in a kinetic role, than conventional aircraft. Their ability to loiter for a long period gives more information to those who are deciding the targeting than is available to a manned aircraft. It would be wrong to give the impression that UAVs are a magic solution to all our defence needs; but they are very important in the defence of the country. The Opposition’s policy is clear. We support unmanned technology as an important element of military capability that complements our manned aerial capability, but with a desire to ensure that it is used in the right context.

The UK does not work on operations in isolation; it works with allies—and not only on operations, but, as has been mentioned, in co-operation on development. It would be interesting to hear what stage of development has been reached after the new Anglo-French agreement on co-operating on the next generation of UAVs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and other hon. Members mentioned, the use of UAVs by our most important strategic partner, the United States, has caused public controversy. It is important to distinguish the UK’s use of UAVs from that of the United States. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife made the important point that most of our UAV deployment in Afghanistan is for surveillance and is not armed, and that deployment of UAVs is only within the borders of Afghanistan. However, we must all recognise the threat that we, the United States and our other allies face from concerted Islamic terrorism and groups who seek to undermine our way of life and destabilise Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

A lot has been written and said about civilian casualties, and all civilian casualties are a matter of great sadness and deep regret. It is difficult to get the true picture and figures. I do not want to talk in statistics, because one life lost means a family is mourning a loved one. Our major aim should be to do anything that can be done to minimise civilian casualties, whether from a strike by a UAV or by any other conventional weaponry. I know from my time in the Ministry of Defence that the military take that very seriously. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) mentioned artillery rounds and other things that are far more indiscriminate than some of the technology.

My hon. Friend is setting out an eloquent and articulate argument. He mentioned minimising casualties, and the families left to mourn. Does he agree that without the use of UAVs in Afghanistan the number of families of British service personnel mourning a loved one would undoubtedly increase?

With respect to the use of UAVs for intelligence gathering and protection of convoys I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. That brings me to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire raised. To people who are against war, we must be honest and say that war is not a pleasant thing; people die in wars. There are individuals and groups active in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan who are bent on undermining not only the way of life of the United States but the one that we take for granted. It is important that any use of force should be a proportionate response.

There has been a lot of talk about the United States and whether the UAV strikes in northern Pakistan are legal. They were authorised post the 11 September authorisation of the use of military forces and have been reinforced by the Obama Administration. When I was at the Ministry of Defence there was a big debate about whether they would continue when President Obama took over, and clearly they have. Article 51 of the United Nations charter, on a nation’s right to self-defence, is also relevant. We must remember that the individuals in question are not sitting around discussing philosophy; they are planning terrorist strikes and atrocities across the world. In the debate about whether we use force to counter those individuals, I am comfortable about recognising the existence of a threat: that has led to disruption of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and it would not have happened without that type of action.

We support the move by the United States to codify the use of UAVs, which relates to the points made about new technology. It is partly because of the controversy that we need to do something. It is important that the UK examine whether we should have a code covering the contexts and limitations of usage, the process for internal Government oversight of deployments, command and control structures, and acceptable levels of automation. I accept that there is now someone at the end of a UAV, but the next generation of UAVs may be completely autonomous, and we must ensure that such a change is within a legal envelope.

One important point is that I am in no way criticising the Government by saying that no laws are in place. I am well aware of the legal constraints on the selection of targets, and that the same rules of engagement are used as for manned flights. We should however explain UAVs to the public. With the new technology, trying to codify their use and explaining to individuals exactly how targets are selected, for example, and how UAVs are used for both surveillance and military purposes would be a great step forward.

UAVs could be used for piracy patrols on the east coast of Africa and for fishing enforcement. Those two examples would clearly show that drones can have acceptable roles. I agree about their acceptability, and I believe that other people can be persuaded to have the same opinion.

The hon. Gentleman is correct. Certainly, if we can have unmanned vehicles in the UK—once agreement is reached with the Civil Aviation Authority—there may be many uses, as he says, including for security.

It would be helpful if we codified the operations. Am I arguing that no laws currently govern the situation? No, I am not. The rules are based on the Ministry of Defence joint doctrine note 2/11 on “The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems”, but the MOD sometimes has a tendency not to answer questions and to think that it has to shroud such things in secrecy. Whether or not what is being said is true—in many cases, I do not think it is—the perception is that the technology is used indiscriminately and without control. Some type of code would go a long way towards reassuring people that there is a chain of command, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, for the individual who takes the decision.

There is also a perception that people sitting in Nevada or Florida are killing indiscriminately with no thought of the consequences of what they are doing. I do not accept that. Anyone who has met members of the armed forces of this country or other countries knows that the decision to fire—whether that is Winston Churchill with his revolver, a UAV operator or a pilot dropping munition—is not taken lightly. It is important that people know the full legal background. Unless someone has been involved in operations, they think it is strange that there is a legal context before targetings happen. If we explained that in a codified system, it would help the debate on the use of a new and developing technology.

The Opposition support the use of UAVs. The technology is important in relation not only to military capability, but to the development of our industry and technology in that area. We are developing technologies that will have applications other than military use. As has already been demonstrated in Afghanistan, the technology helps to protect and support our armed forces.

In conclusion, I accept that some of the information about what has happened in northern Pakistan is alarming. The important thing is to understand the context and how the deaths of some individuals have disrupted terrorist networks that were bringing danger not only to parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan but to the streets of London and the capitals of our allies. In terms of the general debate started by my hon. Friend, the use of weapons will never be something that people take lightly, and nor should they. If we can debate the use of UAVs as no different from the use of any other military weapons and we put that into some kind of code, which we could be open about, not secretive, it would do a lot to ensure not only that we in this country are moral leaders in the use of weapons, but that the public have full confidence, as they should, in the existing military chain of command.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh, in a different capacity from when you chaired the Public Accounts Committee, on which I was privileged to sit.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing the debate. As all speakers have said, it demonstrates the increasing interest among not only Members of the House but the public at large about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, as currently deployed in Afghanistan and as might be deployed in the future. As she said, only last month I responded to a similar debate, which had been secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). He made a brief intervention during the hon. Lady’s speech, and I am sorry that he is not with us to hear mine, because I will try to cover many of the issues raised in this debate and since the previous one in early November.

I start by setting out the context of how, where and why the UK armed forces employ remotely piloted aircraft systems, or UAVs as they are regularly referred to. In this debate, I shall use the term RPAS—remotely piloted aircraft systems—as the more accurate description of their capability, not only because that is what they are, but because that is how they are commonly referred to by the armed forces, particularly the RAF. Although the vehicles are unmanned, the system is guided by a whole team of highly trained and skilled people. Pilots, sensor operators and analysts all make decisions in real time, just like the crew of a manned aircraft. Defence remains a human endeavour. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) said, humans have taken stand-off weapons development through the generations and the centuries, but there has always been human involvement.

Does the Minister agree that there are also lawyers in the chain of that decision-making process, who ensure that the targets selected fall within legal parameters?

I will explain how the UK armed forces use rules of engagement that are clearly defined and informed by legal opinion, as the hon. Gentleman indicates.

RPAS technology is principally required and used by our armed forces for surveillance and reconnaissance tasks, as several Members mentioned, providing vital intelligence in support of our forces on the ground. While the utility of sensors is broadly similar to those aboard conventionally manned aircraft, RPAS have the ability to loiter for longer, building an intelligence picture that significantly enhances the situational awareness of commanders, forces on the ground and air crew.

RPAS surveillance and reconnaissance capability and the requirement for ever better intelligence, precision and situational awareness are such that they are now vital to mission success, as has been clearly demonstrated in theatre in Afghanistan. The UK currently only deploys RPAS for support of operations in Afghanistan. With the progress of technology and increasing appreciation of their military utility, the number deployed in Afghanistan has continued to increase, with further task lines of Reaper due to become operational next year.

To deliver operational RPAS capability for our forces in Afghanistan, a number of UK RPAS are being used for development trials and training in the UK and in a number of our partner nations. I confirm again that currently the operational deployment for RPAS is for the purposes of operations in Afghanistan, and that UK RPAS are saving the lives of both British and coalition service personnel and Afghan civilians on a daily basis. In that respect, RPAS are no different from other aircraft. The same rules that govern the use of conventional military aircraft apply to RPAS. As I said, UK RPAS are anything but unmanned.

Just for clarity, can the Minister tell us whether there are plans to use RPAS against pirate actions off the coast of Somalia? At the moment, he seems to be stressing that we are looking at the system in terms of Afghanistan and not further.

I was not intending to get into the wider deployment of RPAS, but it is the case that we are about to embark on a concept-of-use demonstration trial to see whether, for surveillance purposes, a maritime system could be deployed in the future, which relates to a question that was raised by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. It is not at present beyond the demonstration phase.

The Minister shows his skill by guessing what I am going to press him to say. As part of the procurement work for the T-26 and the development of the QE class, is it the intention of the Ministry of Defence that it will in the future be using RPAS?

The hon. Gentleman is seeking to jump some way ahead. The aircraft carrier will not be deployed in its full air strike capability until 2020. The main gate decision on the T-26 is not until the middle of the decade, so he is asking me to foresee military capability several years away. He may not be surprised that we are at least contemplating trialling some capability for future use at some stage. I will not be pressed further on that point, but I will address some of the issues that the hon. Lady mentioned. I want to continue setting the scene for a few more minutes.

The Reaper system, which is the UK’s only armed RPAS, is flown by professional pilots who remain in full control of the aircraft at all times; they follow the law of armed conflict and the UK rules of engagement in exactly the same way as pilots of manned aircraft. Reaper, as with other forms of RPAS, is primarily used for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, but through technological advance it has been enabled to be armed with precision-guided weapons, thereby meeting a secondary military requirement.

The decision-making process leading to the identification and engagement of a target by one of the two weapons systems available to UK Reapers is identical to that of conventionally manned aircraft, but the greater access to information through a combination of the aircraft’s onboard sensors, ability to access off-board information and duration of missions enables them to be deployed before engagement. Reaper pilots are, arguably, the best informed and connected of all air crew in this operating environment. They are well placed to provide battle-winning surveillance and engagement capability to meet UK ground forces’ needs.

The Reaper was fielded in 2007 and as of 1 December, despite more than 42,000 hours flown over Afghanistan, it has fired only 360 weapons—52 laser-guided bombs and 308 laser-guided Hellfire missiles. Of those precision-guided weapons on Reaper, the type employed is carefully selected in every engagement, which ensures that the most appropriate munition is used to deliver the required effect, in a proportional manner, thus minimising the risk to civilians and their property. The sophistication of the weapons also provides the ability remotely to change the course of the weapon post release, which is another example of the many steps taken by RPAS to avoid civilian casualties as collateral damage.

I am aware of only one incident where civilians have been killed by weapons deployed from a UK Reaper. As I mentioned last month, on 25 March 2011, there was a strike on two pick-up trucks in Afghanistan carrying a significant quantity of explosives, which resulted in the death of two insurgents and four Afghan civilians. That incident was highly regrettable. The subsequent report did, however, confirm that the actions of the Reaper crew had been in accordance with extant procedures and UK rules of engagement. Every weapon released by the UK’s RPAS is under the command of a professional pilot bound by the UK rules of engagement.

Touching on a point raised by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the psychological considerations of operating the Reaper, the experience thus far suggests that far from being detached from the reality of the situation, Reaper air crew are just as connected to the situation on the ground as operators of other aircraft types. They have increased information available to them, a longer time to study the information and the ability to abort the mission even after they have fired the weapon. The increasing specialisation of the role of flying RPAS is being considered by the RAF for recognition as a distinct skill within the flying service.

Of course Reaper is not the only RPAS operated in Afghanistan. To correct the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), there are in fact five types—not four—of unmanned aircraft systems in operation. As I have already mentioned, Reaper is the only armed version, but we have also deployed the Hermes 450, which has already flown 65,000 hours for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. It will be replaced by the more modern Watchkeeper, which again is for surveillance purposes and is not armed. In response to the question put by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston about Watchkeeper, training is already under way and we expect the system to replace Hermes during 2013. These and other smaller deployed tactical systems being operated by Army units in Afghanistan form part of a mix of airborne ISR capabilities, of which they are but one, albeit increasingly important, component. They complement the more traditional manned surveillance capabilities provided by our other aircraft types. Looking further ahead, technological advances are likely to increase the level of automation in some systems, just as in other non-military equipment, but I stress the point that the Government have no intention of developing systems that operate without human intervention in the weapon command and control chain.

Let me turn to the other specific points mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. On the main thrust of her remarks on the moral and ethical considerations, it would be instructive for her to look at the joint doctrine note 2/11, if she has not done so already, to which the hon. Member for North Durham referred. It was published in March 2011 by the Government, and was the first Government sponsored document to go into the UK’s approach to unmanned aircraft systems. It has a specific section on moral and ethical considerations, which inform the rules of engagement and the operations in which we are engaged at present.

The Minister has quite rightly outlined the moral and ethical use of drones by the UK Government. What discussions have we had with our allies to ensure that they are applying the same principles?

As is standard procedure, I am here to answer for the UK Government use of unmanned air vehicles. Other countries that use such systems have their own rules of engagement, as is the case for the UK. We do not publish rules of engagement for the sensible reason that to do so would risk prejudicing the capability, effectiveness or operational security of our armed forces, and that is also the doctrine applied by other countries.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston asked about the military chain of command and whether it would be retained. We have no plans in the Ministry of Defence to operate any of our facilities outside the military chain of command. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife referred to potential civil uses in the future for airborne surveillance equipment; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to offshore fishing. It is conceivable that in due course other Departments might find other uses for the technology, but I am not aware that it is something that the MOD is engaged in at present.

On Government thinking and working across Departments, can I press the Minister to say a bit more about what role he sees for UK companies in developing RPAS, and how the UK Government, through their various Departments, are supporting that procurement process?

Indeed, a number of Opposition Members asked about that issue. The extent to which the Government are supporting UK industrial investment in this technology is demonstrated by the commitments that we have made, in particular for Watchkeeper, where a very substantial investment has been made for a British-designed, British-built capability.

We have also undertaken some collaborative work with other nations. The issue of our collaboration with the French was raised earlier. We have committed, through a memorandum of understanding signed in July, to two specific strands of that work. One is investing in the concept phase for a future combat air system; that is at the very early stages of the work stream, but work is beginning. The second was in relation to potential French interest in procuring the Watchkeeper system. If British industry is able to export that system to the French in due course, that would be a further success for it. We recognise that British aerospace industry will take an increasing interest in this capability, and through our procurement we are seeking to support that interest.

The Minister, in an earlier response, said that there might not be a role for drones in the MOD in its entirety, but there is a role through the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy’s responsibility is for fishing enforcement, through European regulation. There are three ships set aside for that; I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to be on one, HMS Severn. Is there any intention of introducing drones in the Royal Navy for enforcement of fishing regulation?

As I mentioned earlier, the Royal Navy is undertaking a short-duration capability concept demonstrator, to inform the future concept of use for tactical maritime unmanned air systems. We are not intending to test a specific system, but a system will go through concept demonstration next year. The uses will be for the Royal Navy to decide, if it decides to procure a system in due course.

I think I have addressed the specific questions that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston put to me.

Clearly we intend to keep the chain of command within a purely military concept, but some of our very close allies do not. Do we have difficulties working with other Governments whose chain of command is not purely military?

As I have explained a couple of times, we are at present using RPAS on operations in Afghanistan, and at present we have no other operational use in mind for UK assets beyond Afghanistan. I think that is as far as I can go on that matter at the moment.

I will pick up on some of the comments made by the hon. Member for North Durham. I am grateful for his support for the continued use of unmanned aircraft systems. I am glad that he referred to the joint doctrine document, because it begins to set out some of the issues that are of concern. However, I do not accept the need to undertake a codification of separate rules for RPAS. As I have already mentioned, and as the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, all aircraft operators must follow national and international laws, together with the rules of engagement. Those rules are the same whether an air, sea or land-based platform is being used. Similarly, we have well-established command, control and supervisory frameworks for all our operational assets, so we do not believe at this point that additional measures are needed for RPAS. I will just pick up on the thrust of why I think he was suggesting that we need to take the public with us in our use of RPAS, which is something that I agree with. There is a greater role to be played by politicians and the military in explaining to the public the utility of unmanned systems from a military perspective, from the safety perspective of our own personnel, which is obviously vital, and in minimising the risk of collateral damage when weaponised systems are used. As a Government, we need to do more, and I welcome the help of the hon. Gentleman in advocating the use of such systems to the public at large.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said that we have to bring the public with us. The Americans are already looking at codification. Would it not be a help to the MOD in getting the arguments across? I accept that an anorak like me reads those documents, but the average person in the street does not. If we had a clearly laid out code, it would give reassurance to individuals who are rightly worried that this new technology is not under any type of control; that is not the case, so it will at least give them some reassurance.

The difficulty with a code is how it is differentiated from rules of engagement. For the reasons I have explained, we do not wish to publish specific rules of engagement, so having a code would head us down a direction of potentially having to publish more about our operational use than would be safe for us to do.

We already have procedures in place for the oversight of all the military capabilities that we have deployed, and the National Security Council will consider whether forces should be deployed in the future. It operates with the benefit of the NSDR and NSDA, to use military acronyms—

I am in danger of falling into a trap that I should not have set myself.

Finally, RPAS is not shielded in secrecy, which was the expression used in the article in The Times that was referred to earlier in the debate. During the last few weeks, months and years, we have released significant details about our use of RPAS, but our use of RPAS should not be confused with general MOD policy on safeguarding information relevant to targeting and intelligence. I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that that is an overriding requirement and puts to rest the need for any potential confusion with a system of codification, rules of engagement or secrecy over the matter.

Let me finish by restating that the UK complies fully with its obligations under international law, as set out in article 36 of additional protocol 1 to the Geneva conventions, to review all new weapons, and means and methods of warfare. That process applies to unmanned capabilities as well as to other manned weapons systems.

I welcome the opportunity presented by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston to put on the record once again the Government’s clear view of the benefits of RPAS in minimising the risk to civilians, as well as to our own service personnel and other coalition forces. RPAS provide vital intelligence to our forces on the ground and I can only see their importance increasing, as part of our overall service capability.