Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 6 November 2012.

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Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham 11:00, 6 November 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. May I welcome the Minister to his post? I have great admiration and respect for him in his current role, and the same was true when he was in his previous role. I hope that he has had a chance to read my speech, which I sent over yesterday, and particularly the 10 specific questions I will be asking him to address.

In recent years, we have witnessed the proliferation of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones. These remotely piloted aircraft are predominately used by states to conduct intelligence and surveillance, and, increasingly, to carry out armed strikes. This debate looks at the military use of armed drones by the United Kingdom and the United States.

It appears that the Government see drones as having an ever greater role in our armed forces. According to the vice-chief of the defence staff, General Nicholas Houghton, we may see a tipping point by the mid-2020s, when the UK will

“move away from manned fast jets to Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles and missiles”.

The Government recently announced that the number of Reaper drones the UK operates in Afghanistan was to double to 10 and that operations were, for the first time, to be conducted from RAF Waddington, in Lincolnshire. Currently, the UK’s five Reaper drones are operated by British personnel from Creech air base in Nevada, and the latest figures show that those drones have flown 40,000 hours and fired 345 missiles in Afghanistan.

Although drones offer the potential to target insurgents without having to put our armed forces in harm’s way, we need to ensure that all steps are taken to prevent civilian casualties. Despite the growing significance of drones, there has been little debate about this issue, and the time is right for a review into how they are used and how they may be developed and deployed in future.

The first question I would like the Minister to address is, what is the Government’s policy on the use of drones, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan? My second question is, how many civilians have been killed by UK drone strikes in Afghanistan? My third question, which is linked to that, is, does he agree that the death of civilians in Afghanistan undermines the aim of winning hearts and minds, and feeds anti-west feeling? If civilians cannot be protected, does he agree that we should consider suspending the use of drones?

Earlier this year, I visited Pakistan, having been a former adviser to Benazir Bhutto, and I met President Zardari, senior Ministers and many local people. Everywhere I went, concerns were raised about the use of drone strikes in Pakistan by foreign countries. There were real concerns that such strikes would feed into the anti-west attitude played on by radical elements.

Although the UK has operated drones only in Afghanistan, the United States has used them as part of its counter-terrorism strategy in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. According to reports, that has resulted in hundreds of civilian causalities. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism believes that more than 350 strikes have taken place in Pakistan since 2004, and 3,378 people may have been killed, including 885 civilians. That has fed into anti-west feeling, with 74% of Pakistanis now seeing the US as an enemy, and only 17% supporting its use of unmanned strikes.

One victim was Daud Khan, a local tribal elder from Datta Khel, who was killed in March 2011, along with 40 other people, while attending a jirga, which is a peaceful council of elders. His son, Noor Khan, has launched legal proceedings in the United Kingdom, alleging that the British Government provided locational intelligence to the CIA about individuals of interest to the United States and that this intelligence is then used to direct drone attacks in Pakistan. The legal statement for the case asserts that if Government officials assisted the CIA to direct armed attacks in Pakistan, they are, in principle, liable under domestic criminal law. Such allegations damage our relationship with Pakistan, which will draw its own inferences from the Government’s refusal to confirm or deny whether intelligence has been shared with the United States.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the House. Does he agree that, while we regret the loss of civilian lives, the drones’ military objective of taking on terrorism is vastly important? Is it not better to use them to save British Army lives?

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

I thank the hon. Gentleman. That is an important point. I am not against the use of drones, but it has been asserted that the United States operates drone strikes not simply against known targets, but against suspects, and that is completely unacceptable when somebody may or may not be an insurgent. Drones have their place; if they can be deployed, and the intelligence is good, of course we have to look at using them. However, in Pakistan, there have been 885 fatalities in 3,330 strikes, which is completely unacceptable. I am therefore asking the Minister for assurances that we will ensure that drones are linked to proper intelligence. If steps can be taken to avoid civilian casualties, drones can, of course, be used to target known militants, as they have been.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

As a former RAF officer, may I say that a poorly targeted air strike is a poorly targeted air strike, whether it is carried out by a Tornado, a Mirage, an F-15 or a remotely piloted vehicle? I praise my hon. Friend for bringing in the phrase “remotely piloted vehicles”, because drones are not unmanned—they have a pilot, and they are remotely piloted. We must get away from the idea that this technology is flying around, as in “The Terminator”, just destroying targets. Last week, I saw the Reaper squadron combating Somali piracy, and they are really helping to reduce attacks. Does my hon. Friend agree that drones have good uses when used well by allied forces?

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that key point about drones being used well. I have seen drone strikes in Pakistan, where Baitullah Mehsud, a known terrorist, was taken out, and drones of course have their uses. The other key element, however, is the huge number of civilians who are losing their lives. That undermines the work being done in Afghanistan, because the hearts and minds that we want to win are lost when we lose so many civilians. Of course drones should be used—absolutely—but there is also the issue of proportionality and of ensuring that drones are used with proper intelligence. I thank my hon. Friend for his expertise. The point I was making—I have touched on it previously—is that the use of drones fosters anti-west sentiments, which could be a danger to our security in this country.

My fourth question is, can the Government make clear whether the UK has shared locational intelligence with the United States, leading to drone strikes in Pakistan? Question No. 5 is, what is the Government’s policy on the circumstances in which intelligence may be lawfully transferred? Question No. 6 is, do the Government believe that there is an armed conflict in Pakistan? If not—this is question No. 7—do they accept that a UK national who carried out a targeted killing in Pakistan could, in principle, be liable under domestic criminal law? My question No. 8 is whether, in that case, the Government accept that if UK officials were to share intelligence with the CIA that they knew or believed would be used to assist in drone strikes they could, in principle, be liable under UK law.

I recently asked the Secretary of State in the House a question about locational intelligence and his reply raised more questions than it answered. He said:

The United States operates in Afghanistan under a different basis of law from the one under which we operate.”—[Hansard, 22 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 696.]

As I understand matters, there is only one basis for international law, so my next and ninth question to the Minister is, under what legal basis do the Government believe the United States to operate, and why is that so different from international law?

Drone use by the United States raises several legal questions. It has been argued that drone strikes in Pakistan have been carried out in violation of international humanitarian law. The high number of civilians killed in such attacks who were not participants in armed conflict raises questions about whether their use is proportionate. Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, has even suggested that some of the drone attacks may constitute war crimes. A recent report by Stanford university and New York university called “Living Under Drones” describes the strikes’ effect on cultural, religious and community life in Pakistan, where some families even refuse to send their children to school, in case they are attacked. The authors also detail the use of double tap strikes where the same area is attacked multiple times, deterring humanitarian assistance.

At a time when Pakistan faces severe poverty and one in four live on £1 a day or less, drone strikes threaten to undermine the work achieved through international aid. By 2015, Pakistan will become the UK’s largest recipient of aid. Yet that good will is threatened by such military activity. We need to ensure that Afghanistan and Pakistan are safe, secure countries but drone strikes can undermine the important battle to win hearts and minds. My tenth question to the Minister is whether drones are being used proportionately and whether enough is being done to protect civilians.

The issues that I have raised deserve serious consideration. If drones are to be more widely used, we must ensure that they are deployed so as not to create a risk of civilian deaths and collateral damage, or pose a risk to international relations or a danger to our national security. I urge the Minister to ensure that the United Kingdom’s policy on drones and sharing intelligence that may be used in drone strikes is fully compliant with the relevant national and international law. In answer to the interventions of Jim Shannon and my hon. Friend Jason McCartney, I would say that if drones are used in accordance with our national law, and international law, I do not have a problem with that. However, there are concerns at the moment, linked to the issue of sharing intelligence with the United States, which may lead to attacks in Pakistan, about whether they are being used properly under national and international law.

Those are serious questions that need to be answered, and they damage the excellent work that this country does around the world, in rightly giving international aid and winning hearts and minds. The tragic London bombings of 2005 were linked to the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We need a secure and prosperous Afghanistan and Pakistan, which may be linked to international security.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Full Member)

Order. In half-hour Adjournment debates only the sponsoring Member may speak, unless others have the consent of that Member and the Minister. My understanding is that both Yasmin Qureshi and Nick Harvey have sought consent to do that, but the Chair deprecates the fact that a Minister is sometimes left without sufficient time to respond; so I should be grateful if hon. Members kept their contributions very brief.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East 11:14, 6 November 2012

I congratulate Rehman Chishti on securing the debate. This issue is incredibly important, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I have constituents of Pakistani Kashmiri and Afghan heritage, and they have several times come to see me, and written many e-mails and letters to me, about drone attacks, especially as some of them have family members living in the relevant parts of Pakistan—Waziristan and other areas. They have told me in person about the effects of drone attacks. They ask, “How would you feel if you were asleep at night and suddenly you heard drone attacks—buildings being destroyed and people being killed: you would not know from day to day what would happen. One minute you are peacefully asleep in bed, and the next an attack is happening.” How would we like that—if people were asleep in Bolton, for example, and that were to happen, with the deaths of young children as well as adults, including old people. Much has been made of the shooting of young Malala, but there are many other young Malalas in that part of the world—and young boys, too, and families being destroyed.

Our argument for using drone attacks in the countries in question has always been that we are trying to get rid of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. According to some statistics—and these were in a recent American study—only 2% of people killed in all drone strikes could possibly have been called al-Qaeda or Taliban; 98% of the people were civilians and not involved in armed conflict. It is fine to protect our country. I live here, and I want to be protected as well; but is it really fair that we should engage in actions that lead to that proportion of deaths of ordinary innocent civilians? I am sorry to say that is not right, and the reason is the way the drones are used. I entirely accept the fact that if they are used properly and targeted at people who are known to be involved in illegal or criminal activities, there could be a justification. Under article 2.4 of the United Nations charter, force can be used if the host nation agrees, and the action is in self-defence. From everything that we have heard from the Pakistan Government, they do not agree to the use of drones in their country. Recently at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said that they object. There is therefore a question of the legality of the weapons.

That issue is coupled with the fact that drones are not targeted properly. It is not the case that there are particular houses or positions, with people known to have committed criminal or terrorist offences. It might just be right to target such positions if it accorded with international law; but the evidence increasingly shows that drones are being targeted not at specific people but randomly, that they are being controlled, in America, not by the army but the CIA, and that there are successive strikes with more than one hit in the same place. That cannot be right. I am sorry if I sound very passionate about this, but thousands of innocent lives have been taken in Pakistan and Afghanistan—and in Yemen and elsewhere, although I do not have many constituents from there. I can talk more about Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the most intensive drone use has been.

There are ways to fight a battle, but we must abide by international law. I am grateful that an investigation is being carried out by the UN rapporteur on counter-terrorism, the British lawyer Ben Emmerson QC, on whether the use of drones is legal, and I wonder whether the Minister will also welcome that. If it is found that they are illegal, will we desist from using them in our campaign?

My final question for the Minister is: if drones are being used legally, are they being used strategically? At this moment in time, the evidence tells us that they are not being used properly, and that they are wrecking the lives of thousands and thousands of innocent people. We would not like it if, when going to a wedding, funeral or procession, we did know whether we might suddenly be attacked. We should put ourselves in the position of the people living in that country.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Liberal Democrat, North Devon 11:19, 6 November 2012

There is nothing inherently wicked or virtuous about a remotely piloted aircraft. The moral questions that have been raised hinge entirely on what is done with them. In that sense, there is little, if any, valid comparison to make between what the United States does with remotely piloted aircraft in Pakistan, and what we do with them in Afghanistan. It is up to the United States, not to a British Minister, to justify what the US does with them in Pakistan, and we will all have our own view on that.

On our use of remotely piloted aircraft in Afghanistan, we should be very proud of and pleased with the part they are playing in our campaign. I have visited Creech in Nevada, and I have also watched the RAF pilots who remotely pilot aircraft in Afghanistan. They do tours of duty of about a couple of years, so they very often have a more intimate knowledge of the situation on the ground than those sent to patrol on foot, who do a six-month tour of duty.

From what I have seen, I believe that in many instances remotely piloted aircraft have a restraining impact on what actually takes place on the ground. Their ability to hover, loiter and build up an intelligence picture over as much as 24 hours—to use that information and share it with those on the ground—has a civilising effect on the nature of the combat that takes place. To suggest that remotely piloted aircraft are inherently evil and should be discarded from our inventory would be to make a bad mistake. I hope that the vice-chief’s prophecy that they will become increasingly common in years to come will prove true.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 11:21, 6 November 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Roger.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti on securing this important debate on the Floor of the House. This subject clearly arouses considerable passions, some of which are better informed than others, but all of which are important. This is a good opportunity to place the Ministry of Defence’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs—on the record, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall endeavour to answer as many of his detailed questions as I can in the time available.

I will take a few minutes to explain the context in which UK armed forces operate our fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles. They are often referred to as drones, but that term is misleading, as it implies that there is no human input into the operation of UAVs. As was said by my hon. Friend Jason McCartney, who has direct experience, military personnel are intimately involved in the operation of UAVs flown by UK forces, with professional pilots being in control and military and civilian personnel analysing the collected intelligence.

I know that the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, prefers “remotely piloted aircraft”, a term which was mentioned by my hon. Friend. That better reflects the fact that trained personnel are always engaged in the decision-making process. For the sake of clarity, I will use the more widely recognised UAV terminology, although I entirely agree with the Air Chief Marshal’s sentiment.

The UK has a number of UAV systems currently deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan, and they are vital to the success of the mission. I recognise that their use is often emotive, but we can use this debate to dispel some of the misapprehensions that surround their deployment. UAVs are saving the lives of both British and coalition service personnel and Afghan civilians on a daily basis. Their use is predominantly as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—ISR—assets and, when weapons are deployed, the decision-making process leading to the identification and engagement of a target is identical to that for manned aircraft.

The UAV systems being operated in Afghanistan form part of a mix of airborne ISR capabilities. They are but one, albeit an increasingly important, component of those systems. They complement the more traditional manned surveillance capabilities provided by aircraft such as Sentinel or the Sea King helicopter. Uniquely, UAVs provide an unblinking and persistent ISR presence that can be exploited with crews being relieved while the aircraft remain airborne, as was made clear by Sir Nick Harvey. That would be too resource-intensive to provide from manned aircraft alone. Persistent surveillance provides a significantly more complete intelligence picture, which decreases the risk of misidentifying targets of interest. The ability of UAVs to loiter over areas to survey for enemy activity, feeding video and imagery intelligence to commanders in real time, makes them an invaluable asset on the ground in Afghanistan and allows coalition forces to stay one step ahead of the enemy.

As with all our deployed capabilities, UAV capability in Afghanistan is constantly under review. Reaper is the UK’s only medium-altitude, long-endurance ISR platform currently in service, and it has provided ISR capabilities to coalition forces in Afghanistan since October 2007.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

On Afghanistan, will the Minister clarify whether he has the facts and figures about how many civilian casualties have occurred as a result of those drones?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I will come on to address my hon. Friend’s specific question.

Reaper has provided more than 40,000 hours of persistent intelligence in support of our front-line troops, giving vital situational awareness and helping to save military and civilian lives in Afghanistan. Its success has been such that, in December 2010, the Prime Minister announced an increase in the number that the Royal Air Force operates. The Army also operates unarmed tactical UAVs for ISR purposes, and it has introduced a range of the latest nano-UAV technology to service operations this year. Together, the UK’s fleet of UAVs have carried out well over 100,000 hours of flying in Afghanistan.

Its primary role is ISR, but Reaper is also the UK’s only armed UAV. In its armed configuration, Reaper has been certified for use only in support of ground forces in Afghanistan. For example, it was not used during Operation Ellamy over Libya. In answer to their questions, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham and Yasmin Qureshi that it has not been operated in Pakistan. Reaper is not used in Somalia either; my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley was perhaps thinking of Predator UAVs operated there by the US.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I have only a short amount of time, and I must still deal with many of my hon. Friend’s questions.

It is important to note that Reaper does not have the capability to deploy its weapon systems unless commanded to do so by the flight crew. They are trained to operate under the Geneva conventions on the law of armed conflict, which is otherwise known as international humanitarian law. On the rare occasions that weapons are used—349 precision-guided weapons have been employed since Reaper went to Afghanistan—the strict rules of engagement for the use of weapons are the same as those that apply to manned combat aircraft, which have been designed to minimise the risk to civilians. The selection and prosecution of all targets is based on a rigorous scrutiny process that is compliant with international law. Reaper is launched and recovered by crews deployed in Afghanistan, but its missions are exclusively controlled by RAF personnel based outside Afghanistan. That means that, rather than being rotated through a six-month deployment to theatre, operators build up an unsurpassed degree of knowledge and experience.

The weapons carried by Reaper are all precision-guided, and the type is carefully selected in every engagement to ensure the most appropriate munition is used to deliver the required effect, so minimising the risk to civilians and their property. I am aware of only one incident of civilians having been killed by weapons deployed from a UK Reaper. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham may know, on 25 March 2011 a strike on two pick-up trucks carrying a significant quantity of explosives resulted in the death of four Afghan civilians, as well as of two insurgents. That incident was highly regrettable, but the subsequent report concluded that the actions of the Reaper crew had been in accordance with extant procedures and UK rules of engagement.

The moral, ethical and legal issues associated with the operation and use of weapons from UAVs are the same as those for manned aircraft. As I said at the beginning, there is always a human in the loop. Although technological advances are likely to increase the level of automation in some systems, just as in other non-military equipment, the Government have no intention of developing systems that operate without human intervention in the weapon command and control chain.

My hon. Friend raised some questions regarding the use of armed UAVs by the United States. I am not going to comment on the operations of our allies and—this is long-standing Government policy—for reasons of operational security, the Ministry of Defence does not comment on its intelligence-sharing arrangements with coalition partners. Countries can, of course, make their own interpretation of what they are permitted to do under international law, and it is a matter for the US Administration, whoever they are after today’s election, to assure themselves that the actions they undertake are lawful.

In Afghanistan, our UAVs are an increasingly important means of providing vital information to our ground forces. They have been proven to provide great military benefit. I can reassure my hon. Friend and the House that I am satisfied that the UK’s policy on UAVs is fully compliant with national and international law.

Sitting suspended.