Protestors recently staged a demonstration outside RAF Waddington, angry at the use of remotely piloted aircraft – but why?

Christopher Cole, from the Drone Campaign Network, said the use of these aircraft “made war too easy”, and lowered the threshold for the use of force overseas.

“The idea they are precise and don’t create civilian casualties is nonsense,” he said.

The UK’s primary Remotely Piloted Aircraft is the Reaper. Reaper is operated by crews of professional pilots, sensor operators and Mission Intelligence Co-ordinators from Ground Control Stations. They cannot engage targets without human interaction. RAF personnel have flown more than 44,000 hours providing essential support to NATO ground forces in Afghanistan.

According to the Royal Air Force:

“The Rules Of Engagement (ROE) used for Reaper weapon release are no different to those used for manned combat aircraft; the weapons are all precision guided, and every effort is made to ensure the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties is minimised, this may include deciding not to release a weapon. UK Reaper is not an autonomous system and does not have the capability to employ weapons unless it is commanded to do so by the flight crew.

The majority of the weapons employed from Reaper have been Hellfire missiles. Hellfire has a relatively small warhead which helps minimise any risk of collateral damage. Regardless of the type of weapon system employed, a full collateral damage assessment is conducted before any weapon release; this is irrespective of whether that weapon is released by a manned or remotely piloted aircraft. On current operations, many UK Reaper weapons engagements have been authorised by a Forward Air Controller (FAC) or Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) who will be observing the target on the ground or from Land Forces HQs.”

The campaigners claim the systems put civilians at risk where as the MoD said it does everything possible to minimise the risk to human life from strikes. With remotely piloted aircraft, the pilot can watch the target around the clock. You might miss something but you’re far more likely to make that mistake in a conventional airstrike or a ground assault they say.

According to a piece in ‘The Atlantic’ titled ‘Drones: Actually the Most Humane Form of Warfare Ever’:
Like any other weapons system, drones have caused civilian casualties. But they also have the potential to dramatically reduce civilian casualties in armed conflicts, and particularly in counterinsurgencies. Their ability to follow targets for days or weeks accomplishes two things that contribute to saving the lives of innocents: First, it confirms that the target is engaged in the behavior that put them on the target list, reducing the likelihood of striking someone based on faulty intelligence.
Second, by establishing a “pattern of life” for the intended target, it allows operators to predict when the target will be sufficiently isolated to allow a strike that is unlikely to harm civilians. 

Another, less obvious, feature that reduces civilian casualties is that drones are controlled remotely, so the decision to employ a weapon can be reviewed in real time by lawyers, intelligence analysts, and senior commanders without any concern (in most cases) that a hesitation to act may cost lives.
Even more importantly, the operators themselves are not concerned for their own safety, eliminating the possibility that the combination of tension, an unexpected occurrence, and a concern for personal safety leads to weapons being fired when they shouldn’t be.”

The MoD said:

“Given the ruthless and inhuman behaviour of our adversary, including the deliberate use of human shields, we must accept that the risk of inadvertent civilian casualties is ever present. While we’ve not seen any evidence that we have caused civilian casualties, that isn’t the same as saying we have not or will not do so, especially in close urban fighting against a ruthless terrorist enemy that uses civilians as human shields.”

Unmanned vehicles in warfare aren’t going to go away. This is especially the case when they’re often as precise, if not more so, than their manned counterparts. The fact is, these aircraft are often less dangerous to civilians than their manned counterparts.

19 COMMENTS

  1. They are only as dangerous as the people whom control and design their computer systems, even with self AI it is the human who trains it to think dangerous that will create uncertainty around Drones,

    It is like our work places those who created the working hours are the ones causing the accidents,

  2. Amongst some of the more pointless protesters I’ve heard about. In terms of limiting civilian casualties there is literally no difference between a drone and one operated by a pilot, not when both have to look through cameras to see a target miles away. And them protesting because it ‘makes war too easy’ is like medieval peasants protesting that new gunpowder weapons ‘make fighting less personal’, I.e. total BS.

    Wake me up when they introduce drones that make the decision on who to target and when to fire. Until then these people who seem to make a career out of having no lives and attending pointless protests are honestly not even worth reporting on.

  3. It would be interesting to have a list of sponsors for this organisation but if anyone would like to have a look at their web site it reads rather like ….to the left, to the left, to Jeremy and the left!!

  4. Ridiculous. Drones and ucavs are the way forward. They allow more consideration of the target, don’t put our pilots at risk and are far far cheaper to operate.
    I just can’t believe the news coming out that Taranis could be set to become a surveillance drone only. There is a huge market coming for multi role ucavs operating alongside 5th gen manned fighters and yet again our government is totally lacking in any industrial investment and strategy to take advantage. So we will now see all that potential in tech, sales and jobs go straight to France while we keep saying there isn’t enough money. Well there never f’ing will be until we start growing some bloody balls and going for it ourselves. But no, let’s hand over all our r&d and fantastic technologies to foreign companies and sit back and watch them make billions. Words fail me, yet nothing ever changes prolonging our slow growth and social issues due to lack of well paid jobs and underfunded services and piss poor infrastructure. When will our government believe in our industries and back them?

    • TS, I agree with you to a point, a fully featured UCAV with the required level of technology, Stealth etc will be an extremely expensive piece of kit.

      We aren’t talking about relatively sedate medium altitude, passive airspace only systems like Reaper, a fully spec’d UCAV needs to be able to pack a punch equivalent to a Typhoon with an absolute minimum of a 1000 mile roa and very good endurance and do all of this in heavily defended airspace by high or low altitude and at high speed.

      One things for sure, we will need such a system and it won’t solely be build by BAE Systems.

      We need reliable partners, (that’s not Europe), the US, Japan and South Korea.

      • My point is John, that we seem to be pulling away from wanting a fully fledged ucav and could be leaving the French to it. We are now only after only a surveillance drone, and the Taranis concept could be dead for us, and for many on here has been the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m totally aware we will have to work with other nations to spread cost, but to not be involved would not take advantage of our research, military power from the potential partnership with the F35 and jobs created in the uk.
        Rather than lead the world and develop cutting edge stuff, we will now watch from the sideline whilst others with the brains and balls do it.

        • I can’t see the French managing to do an all singing and dancing UCAV on their own.

          They are currently talking about a new MPA and Gen 5 fighter.

          Its all unfunded nonsense of course, they just don’t have the money. Good luck getting anything out of the Germans!

          The French will need massive investment from other player’s to push forward their ambitious airspace plans.

          If we developed a cutting edge UCAV with the US, Japan and South Korea, we would have the numbers ordered to drive down unit costs.

  5. There is no question that drones make wars less risky and so more likely. Each evolution of warfare creates the, and so indirectly leads to more civilian deaths, just because people die in wars.

    I would however question is they have had that much a impact, considering piloted planes are pretty safe, when shooting at low tech opposition, which has the been the case in the recent past and likely the case in the future.

    As such I think in balance, they haven’t really made any impact on civilian deaths.

    • As the operational costs and risks are significantly lower than that of manned aircraft, the UK has been able to conduct more strikes than they would have with Tornado’s they can also loiter in riskier airspace for longer due to less perceived risk. As a result I would argue they have been more effective, but that there is a small increase in the number of potential civilian casualties.
      A counter argument is also that because there is no risk to the pilot they actually have more time to analyse the target before making a decision to engage to limit civilian risks. If it was a Tornado the risk to the pilot would necessitate a much quicker decision.

  6. Actually quite nice to see all those good points laid out in a single article. It all goes to show how idiotic and misguided those protesters were. I wonder whether a single one of them had actually considered a single one of the points in this article.

  7. These protesters are probably types that would support the Socialist Workers Party, CPGB, CND, the usual far left types that would have us defenceless but do not even squeak if non western nations have these assets.

    • Exactly quite happy to see Russia do what ever the **** it likes, but when it comes to the UK or the US they’re baby killers.

    • Daniele wrote:
      “but do not even squeak if non western nations have these assets.”>

      Its funny you should mention that, in the West the following operate Unmanned combat aerial vehicles: US/Uk/Israel and soon Italy.

      On the other side of the coin we have:
      Russia,China,Pakistan, Iraq,Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria,Turkey, Indonesia and Egypt. (Plus not state actors such as Hezb-allah,Hamas and ISIS)

      Russia ,China, Iran and Turkey have built their own, the rest use the Chinese CAIG Wing Loong (the Chinese version of Predator/Reaper)

      Whilst the West have to abide to the rule of law, you can bet your bottom dinar that the rest don’t, but when you press the likes of CND regards others owning weapons systems they object to, they always cone out with: “They have a right to own such weapons”
      Funny that

  8. Anything we do is always wrong and bad. Anything the other side does is quietly overlooked or ignored. Yes, sometimes we get it wrong and do bad things. But there is no comparison. These protestors need to be thankful they live in a country where they can protest…

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