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The future of war: inside UK drone command

UK military leaders say robots are here to stay, but say claims they are automaton killing machines is wide of the mark.
Last modified: 16 Jan 2014 09:12

Sergeant Scott Weaver likes drones. He has good reason to. Fighting in Afghanistan, he's used the Black Hornet to give him eyes where previously he had none. Round the corners of mud walls... across the roofs of breezeblock compounds. He can see a threat before the threat sees him, and that gives his men an advantage.

Once the Black Hornet has done its job, it goes back into its case, and the case goes in Weaver's backpack.

The Hornet is tiny. Just 12cm long, and weighing 16 grams. The kit comes equipped with two units and a very portable base station. One unit can be charging its batteries while the other is in the air, meaning they can be alternated to keep the video stream coming in.

Air Vice Marshal Phil Osborn doesn't like the word "drone". Every time I use it, he corrects me. 'We talk about Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems' he says. Or 'Unmanned Aircraft Systems'. He's trying get rid of the word because "drone" has connotations of the mindless automaton, the killer robot, technology that's out of control.

Nothing could be further from the truth, he says. 

Bad reputation

My feeling that his mission is doomed to failure stays inside my head. The armed forces have a habit of trying to rename things when they get a bad reputation. And why would anyone use a clunky military moniker like RPAS or UAV when drone works fine for most people? 

But I do take the Air Vice Marshal's overall point. Most drones, particularly the bigger, armed ones, are no more automated than a warplane. The chief difference is that the pilot is sitting thousands of kilometres away, rather than in the aircraft itself. 

Still, it feels like there's a difference. At RAF Waddington I'm shown the UK’s drone arsenal, including the command centre which operates the Reaper, the only type of armed drone used by British forces. They fly pretty much constantly in the skies over Afghanistan. I look at the computer screens showing the shifting, arid, undulating terrain of a very distant land, and I think that the two operators, if they wanted, could rain down death with the push of a button. 

Of course, the military stresses that drone operators are subject to exactly the same rules of engagement as normal pilots. It also makes the point that operators can pay more attention to the situation on the ground because their emotions are never clouded by feeling under threat themselves.

I’m shown Reaper footage of an Afghan gunman being targeted with a Hellfire missile, only for the operator to divert the strike to an empty field when the gunman runs into a compound that might be populated by civilians.  

Civilians have been killed by British Reapers. In 2011 four died when two trucks carrying gunmen were blown up. But this is the only instance of civilian deaths that the British military is aware of (although there is the possibility of more deaths of which they’re not aware). 

Limited operations

The UK’s use of drones is currently much more limited than in the United States. All of the UK’s drones are operated by the armed forces, and there is at the moment no British equivalent of the CIA’s drone programme which, according to the rights group Reprieve, has killed more than 4,700 people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. These deaths, says Reprieve, amount to summary execution without trial.

Still, Reprieve says the UK shouldn’t be let off the hook. It’s a key ally of the US, and until recently the UK’s Reaper drone operations were controlled from Creech Airforce Base in Nevada. Roughly half of them still are. The close symbiosis between the two countries’ drone know-how sets off alarm bells for those who want more transparency and accountability on the technology’s use. 

What the UK’s armed forces were putting on display at RAF Waddington could be interpreted as an attempt by the British government to lift the veil on its drone usage - though it’s unlikely this will calm the critics. 

What is likely - in fact, what’s pretty much certain - is that the UK will buy more military drones, and use them in an increasing number of ways. They’re too cost-effective, and too useful, for a cash strapped country trying to maintain its military standing in the world to ignore.