Few defence issues have excited as much passion over recent years as military “drones”. Much criticism, though, is based on genuine misunderstanding or a wild misrepresentation of reality – even in the pages of prestigious newspapers. We in the Ministry of Defence have not done enough to correct these misapprehensions. I, for one, wish to put the myths to bed.
The most basic falsehood, invariably, is the use of the term “drone” – a name that conjures up images of computer-controlled machines, free from human oversight. It is a legitimate term in the right context but mostly it is used erroneously.
A drone is a pilotless vehicle, but the Royal Air Force’s Reaper – the system to which the word is commonly applied in the British press – is anything but. In the MoD we call it a remotely piloted air system, because that’s exactly what it is. Though physically unmanned, the aircraft is guided and controlled by a team of highly trained people. Pilots, sensor operators and analysts all make decisions in real time, just like the crew of a traditional aircraft.
Our RAF Reaper pilots follow the law of armed conflict and rules of engagement in exactly the same way as pilots of manned aircraft. The decision-making process leading to the identification and engagement of targets is identical to that for conventionally manned aircraft. But more than this, the greater access to information our pilots have, through a combination of the aircraft’s onboard sensors and the ability to access off-board information, means that they are the best-informed and least pressured of all our aircrew who have to make critical decisions about when to strike.
The arming of our unmanned aircraft is another area of misunderstanding. Most of our unmanned air systems do not carry weapons but are used by our armed forces for surveillance and reconnaissance, providing vital intelligence in support of forces on the ground. This includes the new Watchkeeper system, which will soon deploy to Afghanistan. The surveillance equipment this carries is similar to that on a conventional aircraft, but the game-changer is the ability of unmanned aircraft to loiter for longer overhead, building an uninterrupted intelligence picture that enhances decision-making of commanders and forces on the ground.
“Drones kill indiscriminately” is the uninformed mantra we so often hear. In the real world, though, this capability saves the lives of our personnel, our Afghan allies and Afghan civilians on a daily basis. The vast majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by insurgents, and it is our remotely piloted aircraft that they fear most. Insurgents know, as we do, that these systems contribute massively to identifying them and their weapons.
This battle-winning technology supplies better intelligence, delivers greater precision and ensures better situational awareness, all things that are vital to mission success in Afghanistan and essential to our efforts to safeguard the local population.
But what highlights the value and dispels the myths about these systems most effectively are the fundamental facts. Over the past few years, Reaper has flown more than 54,000 hours over Afghanistan; in that time, it has fired just 459 precision weapons. The sophistication of these weapons provides the ability to change their course after release if innocent civilians stray into a strike area – one example of the many safeguards in place.
We know of one highly regrettable incident where civilians were killed by a weapon deployed from a UK Reaper – one too many, of course, but hardly the picture of devastation so often painted by activists who so vociferously oppose their use. In that particular case, a strike on two trucks carrying insurgent explosives resulted in four civilian casualties, in addition to the death of the insurgents who had been the intended target.
One other favourite of the “drone” activists is the suggestion that the government’s use of unmanned and remotely piloted aircraft is shrouded in secrecy. Of course we have to safeguard information relating to our targeting and intelligence capabilities, but that applies across the board. The MoD is just as open about its use of unmanned aircraft as it is of its many other air assets; indeed, I have been very pleased this week to be able to host a number of journalists at RAF Waddington to show them the work of the Reaper operators of the RAF’s XIII squadron.
The mystique is not of our making, but of those who seek to misrepresent the value of an exceptionally useful tool that protects and defends UK forces and civilian populations. I hope, over time, that we can provide the public with a more realistic picture of unmanned air systems; these important and life-saving assets will undoubtedly become more common in both the military and civilian arenas over the coming years.
Philip Hammond is a British Conservative party politician who has been secretary of state for defence since October 2011. He is MP for Runnymede and Weybridge.