Few defence issues have excited as much passion over recent years as military “drones”. Much of the criticism, though, is based on genuine misunderstanding or a wild misrepresentation of reality — even in prestigious newspapers. We in the U.K. Ministry of Defence (MoD) have not done enough to correct these misapprehensions. I, for one, wish to put the myths to bed.
The most basic falsehood 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. 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.
RAF Reaper pilots follow the law of armed conflict and rules of engagement in exactly the same way as do pilots of manned aircraft. The decision-making process leading to the identification and engagement of targets is identical to that undertaken 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 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 the 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.
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 U.K. Reaper — but hardly the picture of devastation so often painted by activists. In that particular case, a strike on two trucks carrying insurgent explosives resulted in four civilian casualties, in addition to the death of the targeted insurgents
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. These life-saving assets will undoubtedly become more common in both the military and civilian arenas over the coming years.
(Philip Hammond is the U.K.’s defence secretary) — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013