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Drones in Conflict

Volume 600: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Julian Smith.)

After this debate there will be a small ceremony to mark the three crests in memory of three Members of this House who died during the great war and who, until this point, have not been recognised.

In the immediate aftermath of that war, the strategist J.F.C. Fuller predicted the demilitarisation of warfare as machines replaced men on the battlefield. General Fuller was well ahead of his time, but the recent use of unmanned machines to eliminate people in a country where we are not actively engaged in war fighting was described by the Prime Minister on 7 September as a “new departure”. Perhaps in time, drones will rank alongside the longbow in the hundred years war, and submarines a century ago. Both in their time were castigated as disreputable and even cowardly, on the grounds that they appeared—initially at least—to be capable of killing with little risk to the operator.

This debate takes place as we contemplate a further vote on military action in Syria, and in the meantime drones have been used to kill two British citizens in Raqqa on 21 August under article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. Last week the Prime Minister announced that the number of RAF drones would be doubled, and yesterday the Defence Secretary issued a written ministerial statement about the Protector replacement for Reaper.

I support the development of unmanned air systems as part of the UK’s defence and security. Their endurance, the removal of personal risk from our troops, and the potential for reducing civilian casualties, together with the cost implications of simulator-based training, are all impressive. However, like any “new departure” they must be appraised critically.

Ministers have said that drones operate under existing generic rules of engagement and that nothing more is required. I would like to unpack that a bit, particularly since that assertion appears to conflict with the Ministry of Defence development, concepts and doctrine organisation’s joint doctrine note of March 2011. That JDN notes what we now know to be a “new departure”, and calls explicitly for an unmanned aerial vehicle governance road map. Will the Minister say what progress has been made in advancing the JDN’s recommendations? Will the road map be published? If so, when?

The availability of low-risk, low-cost means of delivering military effect risks lowering the bar for military intervention. It could be that the killings in Raqqa, which I volubly supported in September, illustrate the point. Would the Government have ordered this new departure without the risk-free means of delivery made possible by drones? Indeed, the absence of any obvious criminal or disruptive proceedings against collaborators of the individuals killed in Raqqa suggests that the unmanned aerial vehicle action was not as pressing as we initially understood it to be. Were it otherwise, one would have expected a highly sophisticated delivery and support system in the UK where the offence or offences were to be committed. As yet, we have seen no evidence of that.

In its response to the Defence Committee’s report, the Government denied that the availability of drones lowers the bar for military intervention. I expect the Minister to reiterate that today. However, unless Ministers are prepared to say that risk to our own troops is immaterial in determining whether to embark on military action, which I do not think she will, that line will have to be finessed in due course.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this important debate. He has clearly outlined the issue for military use, but there is an opportunity to use drones for surveillance. In Northern Ireland, we have very active dissident republicans and the threat level is severe. Does he feel that drones could be used, for example by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to enable better surveillance and to catch terrorists involved in illegal activity?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point in his normal fashion. He will understand that Northern Ireland falls outwith the scope of today’s debate, but those responsible for security in Northern Ireland will no doubt examine all the options open to them to safeguard the people living in Northern Ireland.

I hope the newly repopulated Intelligence and Security Committee will be assisted by Ministers in applying its forensic skills to investigate the Raqqa killings. I am confident that the action was only taken, as the Prime Minister said on 7 September, as there was “no alternative”, so it should be able to reassure the public fairly easily. However, it or others must substantiate or refute the hypothesis that, in the Raqqa case, the availability of drones lowered the bar for intervention under article 51 on 21 August. If the former is the case, UAVs will indeed be a new departure in the tradition of J.F.C. Fuller, and the argument for tailored doctrine and rules of engagement will be overwhelming.

This is especially important as what may seem like surgical, low-risk interventions have an unnerving history of altogether bigger consequences that are difficult to predict and control. What is more, the use of particular systems by the UK legitimises their use by other states. The quality of our doctrine and our rules of engagement have a direct bearing on those of others. If we are seen to be relaxed about this new departure, we cannot be surprised if others take a similar line.

The use of drones by the US to eliminate operatives in Pakistan and Yemen is highly controversial. I am one of the greatest admirers of the United States, but its post-war history of what has become known as blowback —provoking sometimes game-changing retaliation through the generation of civilian collateral—is alarming. America’s allies are at risk of being seen as colluding to the point that the Defence Committee has called for a clear demarcation in the operation of drones where, of course, interchangeability of US and UK personnel and airframes is very advanced. The Birmingham Policy Commission was assured that UK personnel releasing a weapon from a United States air force vehicle remain subject to UK rules of engagement. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case, since manned air operations in Syria—despite the express will of this House two years ago, however right or wrong—suggest otherwise?

We cannot directly influence our allies’ ROEs, but we can ensure that joint operations are conducted appropriately, that NATO doctrine is acceptable and that UK personnel are not compromised. Will the Minister say how many UK servicemen are involved in the operational use of drones with US or other forces and what arrangements she has made to ensure that the ROEs they are required to use do not fall short of the standards applicable in the UK? What will be done to ensure that data acquired using drones are not then used by allies to act against targets in a way that the UK public might find objectionable? The Defence Committee has suggested that the Intelligence and Security Committee look at this. Without wishing to overburden the ISC, would she agree that that suggestion is sound and do what she can to facilitate it?

Drones are all controlled by human beings, but concern remains over the development of autonomous airframes and so-called killer robots. Some level of independence already applies to a few of our existing weapon systems, such as Phalanx, but it would be useful if the Minister delineated the bounds of acceptability. Can she confirm that the UK is bound by the missile technology control regime, the Wassenaar arrangement and not least the consolidated criteria? What is her view of the future for unmanned technology exploitation in the UK aerospace and defence sector? Will she confirm that the UK Government would be unlikely to license the export of autonomous weapon systems?

Can I tempt the Minister to indicate how UAVs will feature in the upcoming strategic defence and security review? It sometimes seems that the only defence policy the Scottish National party has is the restoration of maritime patrol aircraft. Manned airframes for that purpose seem increasingly last century, so will she say whether UAVs—perhaps the US systems Poseidon or Triton, or NATO’s high altitude long endurance proposition —are being actively considered to restore capability taken at risk on withdrawal of Nimrod? Will the MOD now undertake to publish the study we understand is being conducted by the MOD into that matter?

Will the Minister say where we are with the future combat air system? A joint BAE Systems and Dassault post-Typhoon and Rafael unmanned combat air system concept trailed in the Lancaster House treaties and launched in 2012 appears to have stalled. Will she say what has happened to it and the extent to which the challenges of evolving technology designed for permissive airspace and data feeds to deal with hostile environments and semi-autonomy are delaying progress?

Will the Minister confirm that the UK has no interest in the European Defence Agency’s medium altitude long endurance remotely piloted aircraft systems project? I remember being distinctly lukewarm about that, as I am with “more Europe” in defence generally, at the Foreign Affairs Council when I was at the MOD. When will the Navy’s maritime UAV strategy paper be finished and published? If drones are relatively cheap, easy to control, low risk and readily deployable, they may well become a weapon of choice for non-state actors. What assessment has been made of this and, while spending on UAVs is bucking the defence spending trend in this country, what investment is being made in countermeasures?

I would like to consider the implications of emerging technology on military software—on uniformed men and women who serve this country. With the SDSR pending, it is important for Ministers to understand where technological advances are taking not only defence hardware but its software—the human beings who populate the military today and will do so over the next two decades. Air marshals gamely tried to convince us that a drone pilot playing with his joystick in the Nevada desert or Lincolnshire is the lineal descendent of “the few” and of airmen in conflicts since—that is, people who engage directly with or are engaged by the enemy in the air.

Although the mental challenge to a person who logs off and goes home after a shift in Lincolnshire should not be equated with an infanteer in Basra or Helmand, the psychological implications of killing the enemy at a distance rather than at close quarters merit close examination, particularly since operators lack the unit cohesion and support systems of those physically on the frontline.

If Fuller is right, military practitioners will increasingly be technicians, not tough men at the end of a bayonet. “Professional spirit” will replace “fighting spirit”: it will be as if the Royal Army Dental Corps has taken over from the Black Watch. If so, in the sanitised operations of the future, “fighting spirit” may become a positive disadvantage. The military covenant exists because of the extraordinary risks run by fighting forces. If there are few risks beyond the expectation of routine civilian employment, there is no need for a covenant.

General Fuller’s prediction of the end of the infantry was premature, but it may yet have its day as we shift from hand-to-hand to hands-off combat in an environment where societal tolerance for taking and inflicting casualties is low. If so, there are profound implications for how we structure our armed forces, the sort of people we recruit to them and the implicit deal struck between servicemen and the nation, reflected in the military covenant.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on securing this debate on a topic that I know is of great interest to hon. Members. I also thank him for giving a plug to what will follow this debate.

My hon. Friend asked a large number of questions; I shall try to get through them all in the time available. Let me first answer the last point about how this issue is changing both the shape and the look of our armed forces and the types of scenarios in which our armed forces might find themselves. It must be recognised that RPAS crews are fully immersed in the realities of combat. The persistence offered by these systems can result in crews observing the aftermath of their attacks, which is a sobering experience, rarely shared by other pilots or artillery men. As with any squadron that deploys in theatre, RPAS squadrons undergo pre-operational mental health briefings and post-tour briefs. They have trauma management practitioners embedded throughout to monitor the health and wellbeing of all those involved in operations. I know that my hon. Friend takes a great deal of interest in these matters, and I would be happy to discuss the issue further with him on another date.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s acknowledgment of these systems in that they play a key part in our capability and help to save lives. If he will forgive me, I will briefly provide a bit of clarity and on the record bust some of the myths that surround the term “drone”, which conjures up images of machines free from human oversight and able to operate with complete autonomy. That is the stuff of science fiction movies, not the reality. Although drones do not operate with an individual in the cockpit, the fact is that a trained professional human being is in control of the system at all times. The difference is that they operate remotely from the vehicle. The term “drone” also overlooks the fact that the aircraft itself is part of a much larger system composed of other vital components such as the ground stations, networks and, most importantly, the personnel.

My hon. Friend asked what progress has been made on the joint doctrine note’s recommendations of March 2011 in developing a governance road map. We shall be developing that at the same time as bringing the Protector into service. I shall be happy to provide more details, but the rough date of completion for the programme will be the end of the current decade.

My hon. Friend asked some pertinent questions about the Raqqa strike. He asked, for instance, whether it would have happened if this capability had not been at our disposal. That raises hypothetical questions about whether having the capability changes our behaviour and whether we become more trigger-happy, and also about the nature of individual targeting, which, as he will understand, is an incredibly complex process. Many questions about collateral damage and the likelihood of success will also need to be taken into account. I think that the best way in which I can answer those hypothetical questions is to direct him to the Prime Minister’s statement that if there were a direct threat to the British people and we were able to stop it by taking immediate action, we would be prepared to take that action.

The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) suggested that the Intelligence and Security Committee would review the decisions about Raqqa. Will the Minister give the House a commitment that the Ministry of Defence will engage in the best possible collaboration with any inquiry that the Committee might mount?

I shall say more about that later, but, yes, it would be very welcome.

Let me say a little about the rules of engagement. United Kingdom policy relating to RPAS is exactly the same as that which relates to manned aircraft. There is no requirement for separate rules of engagement. UK crews always operate within UK and international law, regardless of what other rules of engagement apply to the operation concerned. If the United States were using one of our systems, it would use its rules of engagement, but it would be restricted by our UK red card holder, who is fully empowered to veto the use of a UK asset for action without UK permissions.

My hon. Friend asked about the number of individuals involved in US operations. No UK personnel are involved in flying in such operations, although three UK servicemen are currently involved in training. He raised the issue of data that might be gathered by RPAS when our allies could use them to attack targets that the UK public might find objectionable. The right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentioned the ISC’s offer to examine and provide oversight in regard to that whole matter. The acquisition and dissemination of the intelligence that is gathered complies with all UK domestic and international law, and oversight from that body is very welcome. I will undertake to keep my hon. Friend informed, and will do what I can to facilitate it.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of the development of so-called killer robots, in the case of which there is some level of independence. He mentioned Phalanx, but I would guess that Goalkeeper and other such capabilities would fall into the same category. He asked what regimens, agreements and criteria they were bound by; I can confirm that they are bound by all those to which he referred.

We continue to track rapidly advancing RPAS technology development. Over the last decade, it has become a very important part of our military capability. Given the rapidity with which such technology is developing, I cannot envisage any reversal in the trend. Indeed, I expect RPAS to be used in an increasingly wide variety of environments and roles, and to form a key part of our future mix. The Government have no intention of developing systems that operate without this all-important human hand in the weapon command and control chain.

My hon. Friend asked how UAVs might feature in the SDSR. That has still to report its findings, but, as the Prime Minister has already announced, Reaper will be replaced towards the end of the decade through the Protector programme, which will develop a medium altitude long endurance RPAS, providing the UK armed forces with a theatre-wide persistent ISR—intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance—capability that is able to identify, monitor and, if necessary, attack land and maritime targets. The Protector programme is set to double the number of aircraft compared with Reaper, offering yet more capability.

My hon. Friend asked a list of questions, which I can get the Minister for Defence Procurement to respond to, addressing successors to Nimrod, maritime patrol aircraft and so on.

A variety of options, including unmanned systems, are currently being considered as part of the SDSR for future UK capability. The Department is funding research into the potential of this area of future combat air systems, and we are currently undertaking a two-year study with France scoping the feasibility of developing an unmanned combat air system together. This is complemented by a national programme including further work to advance the Taranis technology demonstrator aircraft.

My hon. Friend asked about exports. The Government take our arms exports responsibilities very seriously. I have sat on the Defence Committee as a Back Bencher and we operate one of the most rigorous arms export controls in the world. The transfer of unmanned or remotely piloted air systems and their related technology is controlled through the UK’s strategic export legislation, and any export of strategic goods such as these systems would need to be considered against the EU and the national consolidated export licensing criteria. Export licences are considered on a case-by-case basis against the export licensing criteria, and in the light of prevailing circumstances at the time and depending, critically, on what we think they would be used for. Any licence to export a UAS or RPAS would have to be consistent with the UK’s international obligations under those regimes and agreements that my hon. Friend mentioned. The overall aim of that is to prevent the proliferation of sensitive materials and technology to countries and end-users of concern. We do not export equipment where there is a clear risk that it might be used for internal repression or it would aggravate existing tensions or conflicts, or would be used aggressively against another country.

On that point, my hon. Friend asked about the danger and likelihood of these capabilities being developed by non-state actors and what we are doing about that. Clearly, that is an area of concern and he will know that we constantly assess those threat levels, and we are currently, as part of the work in the SDSR, looking at measures that could be taken to counter such threats.

My hon. Friend also asked when the Navy’s maritime UAV strategy paper will be finished and when it will be published. That, again, is part of the work of the SDSR.

In summary, I welcome this opportunity to put on record again the Government’s clear views on the benefits of remotely piloted aircraft systems. The role of those systems in armed conflicts will only increase over time, whether to gain a more complex level of situational awareness for tactical crews and military commanders or to attack positively identified targets when required. I find it hard to imagine a campaign in which such technology will not have a part to play. Indeed, in the most unpredictable and difficult of operational environments, these systems are vital in providing situational awareness, often avoiding the need to place our personnel in harm’s way, whether on the ground, in the air or at sea.

I know that the various aspects of this issue are of immense concern to Members on both sides of the House, and we are keen to facilitate visits to some of the facilities involved and to ensure that the House is well informed on all the issues. I will be happy to follow up any further questions that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire might have.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.