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Remotely Piloted Aircraft

Volume 600: debated on Monday 19 October 2015

6. What the rules of engagement are for the use of remotely piloted aircraft in tackling terrorism; and if he will make a statement. (901597)

The rules of engagement for remotely piloted aircraft systems are the same as those for manned aircraft, and take into account UK and international law, following the principles of military necessity, humanity, distinction and proportionality. A rules of engagement profile is developed for each operation, including counter-terrorist operations, and these rules are classified to ensure that they cannot be exploited to an opponent’s advantage.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. In response to an earlier question, the Secretary of State rightly explained the advantages of using remotely piloted aircraft, particularly in protecting our own forces. Members on both sides of the House will, however, have some concern about the use of these aircraft by our allies where collateral damage has occurred and innocent people have been hurt. What assurance can she give the House that there will be great protection for those not involved in the conflict?

I agree entirely that we have a moral duty to protect the lives of our servicemen and women in very unpredictable and difficult operational environments, and the use of these systems means we can do that without placing them in harm’s way. I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the crews of these systems, who do a tremendous job in many places around the world. I assure my hon. Friend that although these aircraft are remotely piloted, at every stage of the targeting process and its initiation a human being is making those decisions. We have a record to be very proud of in terms of civilian casualties.

I wish to build on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) just made. Will the Minister confirm that, unlike what we have seen from Russian military intervention in Syria, our rules of engagement are very strict and seek to avoid civilian casualties where they can?

Absolutely; the UK undertakes all possible measures to protect civilians and ensures that UK targeting policy and rules of engagement provide clear direction for commanders. I will leave it to my hon. Friend to consider whether Russia follows similar practices, given the reports from Syrian search and rescue volunteer teams stating that 707 civilians have been injured and 274 killed by Russian strikes and regime bombing since 30 September.

The Defence Committee’s report in March last year on the use of remotely piloted aircraft systems stressed that we follow international humanitarian law and the international law of armed conflict. However, we did not use our RPAS to conduct strikes in Pakistan against those who implied threats to our armed forces. What has changed in the rules of engagement that we now feel that we can use our RPAS in Syria to target British nationals?

As the Prime Minister has clearly stated—he came to the House at the earliest occasion after that event—we reserve the right to use force if it is necessary to protect the UK from a clear and imminent threat. In that very clear statement, the Prime Minister said that if British lives are in danger and we can act to prevent that, then we will.

Some recent reports suggest a higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder in pilots of remotely piloted aircraft compared with that of conventional air crew. Will the Minister advise what steps are being taken to assess relative levels of PTSD and to address the reasons for any differences that are established?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important question. Just because someone is not deployed to a desert and is not in front of the people whom they are confronting directly, it does not mean that they are invulnerable to the things they see or to what we ask them to do. Our support for those people is very similar to that of conventional deployments. They have decompression and a pre-deployment build-up. Embedded in those teams are mental health specialists who can advise, support and assess the individuals.

19. The Department is currently involved in the Taranis unmanned combat aerial vehicle technology demonstrator project, which is a joint Anglo-French operation led by BAE Systems. Will the Minister tell us how many people in the UK are currently employed on that project and what the implications are for the UK workforce and supply chain as this welcome area develops? (901610)

I thank the right hon. Lady for raising that matter. A number of initiatives and reviews are taking place as part of the strategic defence and security review. I can write to her with the numbers of individuals and partners with whom we are involved on those projects, including the ones she mentions.

Does the Minister agree that there is concern about the rules of engagement that terrorists might use? There is no doubt that, increasingly, drones will be used by terrorists. Once the technology exists it will not only be in the hands of people of whom we approve, and what will we do about that?

I am pleased to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we recognise that emerging threat and that there is a clear strand of work in the SDSR that is looking at counter measures for the situations he describes.

22. I voted against air strikes on the Syrian Government and would appreciate clarification from the Minister on whether drone strikes will be authorised on any other country where she believes that there is a similar threat to our security? (901615)

Again, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the Prime Minister’s statement that, if there is a clear threat to Britain, to our people and to our streets and we are able to stop it by taking immediate action against that threat, we will always try to take that action. The action we took in Syria was legal, necessary, proportionate and in response to a clear, credible and specific threat to the UK. I reassure him that that course of action is taken only in the last resort.

Following the drone strike that killed Reyaad Khan, will the Minister tell us whether there is in existence a list of individuals who are considered such a great risk to Britain that they can be targeted for killing by UK drones?

Again, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Prime Minister’s statement. If that set of circumstances exist and we can act to save British lives, then we will do so.