Late on 2 December, the UK ministry of defence (MoD) issued a short online statement saying that the UK ‘will conduct surveillance flights over the eastern Mediterranean, including operating in air space over Israel and Gaza.’
The following day, health secretary Victoria Atkins, appearing as a government spokesperson on Sky News, was asked about the flights and said: ‘The ministry of defence has announced that it has sent some unmanned, and unarmed, surveillance drones into the region to help look for hostages.’
Atkins then appeared on the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg television show, and repeated that ‘unarmed and unmanned drones’ were being sent to the region to help look for hostages.
Reporting of the MoD’s original statement by the BBC and others included a line which stated that aircraft undertaking the missions ‘will include Shadow R1s, which the Royal Air Force use for intelligence gathering’ but this then appears to have been removed from the online version. The MoD’s statement did not mention drones.
[The Shadow R1 is not a drone, but an aeroplane with a pilot onboard. Airforce Technology magazine says: ‘The Shadow R1 is an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft developed by Raytheon’ which can carry a ‘signal intelligence package’ – for spying on Hamas communications, in this case. – ed]
While the MoD says that ‘only information relating to hostage rescue will be passed to the relevant authorities’, it is likely that electronic, signal and video intelligence of Gaza gathered by the aircraft will end up in the hands of the Israel defence force.
If so, many would consider the UK a participant in this horrific conflict which has killed thousands of innocent civilians and seen repeated violations of international law.
While some news organisations reported this as the first UK deployment of aircraft in the conflict, in fact, as far back as 13 October, the prime minister announced that UK surveillance aircraft were to be deployed ‘to support Israel’.
Since the beginning of 2023, the MoD has increased the level of secrecy surrounding the use of drones, refusing to provide details of UK Reaper operations arguing that it needs ‘ambiguity’ about such deployments.
This latest episode – where a cabinet minister states on camera that UK drones have been deployed, yet the ministry of defence refuses to acknowledge the deployment – is another ridiculous example of the secrecy surrounding UK drones.
In fact, the ministry of defence then told journalists that the minister had been incorrect – the UK has not deployed drones but has deployed other surveillance aircraft.
Rumour and misinformation about these UK operations are now bound to be rife and could well turn out to be damaging. While the government will argue that it is undertaking these operations to assist with hostage rescue, it is easy to see how UK aircraft undertaking surveillance operations over Gaza could get further drawn into ‘supporting Israel’ in this horrific conflict.
The reality is that rather than ambiguity and confusion, we need proper parliamentary and public oversight to ensure we do not get drawn further into this conflict. Rather than deploying more UK military assets, we should be working flat out for a ceasefire.