Out of control

IssueFebruary 2014
News by Gabriel Carlyle

The British government may have had Tacitus in mind when it launched its latest PR offensive on drones by inviting a select number of journalists — not once, but twice — to view the UK’s new drone control centre at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.

British pilots in Waddington fly the deadly unmanned aircraft currently in operation over Afghanistan (see PN 2558). ‘This is [about] defence correspondents talking about defence and the military ... If you start touching [on foreign nations or legal issues] I will cut you off’, a ministry of defence (MoD) official warned during the first visit, in December.

Meanwhile, the official in charge of developing the Waddington programme, air vice-marshal Phil Osborn, told journalists that he preferred the term ‘remotely piloted air systems’, as ‘a “drone” portrays an image of something that is out of control.’

According to Osborn, the British military ‘have every intention of continuing to utilise Reaper [drones] beyond Afghanistan’ and are looking forward to being ‘capable of doing far more, on a worldwide basis’ in the next few years.

In December, the UN rapporteur on counter terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson QC, told the UK all party parliamentary group on drones: ‘When [British Reaper drones] are no longer needed or no longer part of a conflict in Afghanistan they are liable to be relocated to Africa in order to be available for us in counter insurgency.’

Writing in the Guardian, defence secretary Philip Hammond (who ‘hosted’ the journalists’ visit to Waddington) claimed that military drones had been the subject of ‘wild misrepresentations’, including the ‘uninformed mantra’ that drones kill ‘indiscriminately’ and that ‘favourite of the “drone” activists... the suggestion that the government’s use of unmanned and remotely piloted aircraft is shrouded in secrecy.’

Needless to say, no serious critic has claimed that drones are ‘indiscriminate’, while the secrecy surrounding the programme is all too real.

Five secrets

Indeed, as Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK has noted, five-and-a-half years since the first British drone strike we are still not allowed to know:

  • where UK drone strikes take place;
  • how many people have been killed in these strikes or who they were;
  • what the balance is between pre-planned strikes and those conducted on-the-fly;
  • how accurate British drone strikes are (requests for information about their accuracy and blast radius — and whether the thermobaric variant of Hellfire missiles have been launched from British Reapers — have all been denied); and
  • whether UK drones have been used for targeted killings in Afghanistan.

Noting that she had ‘watched dozens of military-aged males die in Afghanistan, in empty fields, along riversides, and some right outside the compound where their family was waiting for them to return home from the mosque’, former drone operative Heather Linebaugh pointed out in the Guardian in December: ‘Few of these politicians who so brazenly proclaim the benefits of drones have a real clue of what actually goes on’.

For one thing, ‘the video provided by a drone is not usually clear enough to detect someone carrying a weapon, even on a crystal-clear day with limited cloud and perfect light’: ‘We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle.’

In December, British legal firm Deighton Pierce Glynn started legal action on behalf of the relatives of two such civilians, Afghan farmers Haji Abdullah (56) and his son Habibullah (18). Both were killed by a drone strike while driving a tractor in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in October 2011.