Unmanned technology is vital, which is why we should be open about it

Speech by Kevan Jones MP, Shadow Armed Forces Minister, in the Westminster Hall Debate on the deployability of UAVs today



Mr Speaker,

I congratulate my Hon Friend, the member for Birmingham Edgbaston, for securing this debate and for the assured and knowledgeable way she set out her position.

This is an important time to begin what should be a wider public and cross-government discussion on unmanned technology, but today’s debate focuses on its deployment and so I will focus my remarks solely on MoD policy.

Any debate over deployability should be determined by military requirement, the ethics of conflict and fact, and I hope this and future discussions are conducted with this in mind.

A number of honourable members have made reference to operations in Afghanistan during this debate. We should always remember the sacrifices made by our troops and their loved ones, we should seek to honour their commitment to our country and ensure that we provide them with the greatest possible assistance, in theatre and at home.


Mr Speaker,

Today’s security context is one of rapid change. Technology is developing rapidly, new and unforeseen threats are emerging alongside conventional dangers, resource is tightened and public attitudes to intervention are wary.

In this context, we believe that the UK must retain six key objectives when making decisions over military equipment and its deployment:

– Maximising strategic advantage over our enemy

– Protecting UK service personnel

– Minimising civilian casualties

– Acting at all times within humanitarian and international law

– Ensuring value for money

– And making sure that deployment is in line with our national security interest and right to self-defence, as well as our commitment to conflict prevention and the protection of universal rights.

It is our judgement that the UK’s current position in relation to the deployment of UAVs meets these criteria, but that we must continually assess that situation to ensure this remains the case.

UK policy

For the record, it is worth outlining clearly current UK policy on unmanned technology.

The UK is one of 76 countries who operate UAVs.

Today we deploy four model of UAV in Afghanistan only. One of these, the Reaper, is armed.

The benefits of unmanned technology are clear.

It can be more cost effective than manned.

UAVs provide a very significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.

They can minimise collateral damage and civilian casualty or injury through precision, and as the technology improves so too will our ability to be more discriminatory in our attacks.

They limit danger to personnel by reducing the manpower footprint in theatre.

By providing greater speed, reach and height than conventional aircraft, UAVs can hugely ameliorate an equipment programme that today must prioritise adaptability and agility.

But there are of course weaknesses. The crew requirement can be greater and costs may rise, while we have no experience of non-UOR procurement.

Mr Speaker, unmanned technology is no silver bullet, but UAVs will be an increasingly predominant feature of UK defence, supporting all three Services.

It is the Opposition’s clear policy that we support unmanned technology as an important element of future military capabilities, complementing manned. This is both desirable and inevitable: desirable because of the clear operational advantages UAVs bring; inevitable because the technology exists and is being rapidly developed – and it is at the cutting edge where our national interest lies.


UK policy in this field, like all aspects of defence policy, does not operate in isolation of our allies.

We support the co-operation with France over the development of tactical and combat systems, and I hope the Minister will be able to provide an update on progress on that agreement. I hope he will say also whether he envisages future such co-operation in this field with any other allies, either on a bilateral or multilateral basis.

We recognise that the use of unmanned technology by our most important ally, the United States, is the source of much public controversy.

While it is essential that we at all times distinguish between the use of UAVs by UK Armed Forces and the US – the UK deploys no unmanned vehicles outside of Afghanistan – it is worth revisiting the reason why the US is undertaking the deployment of unmanned technology around the world.

We all know that there exists an extreme and destructive strand of contorted Islam which seeks to eliminate liberty and tolerance and take innocent lives in doing so. Let’s not forget who our enemy is, and indeed the battle in which the US and others are engaged in.

No-one, however, reads about civilian casualties arising from UAV strikes with anything other than great sadness and deep concern. A true picture with certain figures is almost impossible to find, but we do know that behind each statistic is a life lost and a mourning family, and all must be done at all time to minimise civilian loss of live.

The US has, however, in our view, little choice but to take action to counter terrorist threats in a part of the world where attacks on US soil are planned. As part of a comprehensive, multifaceted international strategy of counter insurgency and radicalism, UAVs can help to prevent Taleban, Al Qaeda or Jihadi groupings from getting a foothold in local societies or ungoverned territories.

Some question the legal legitimacy of US action, but domestic legal underpinning is found in the post-September 11th 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, and internationally the Obama administration asserts the United States remains in a state of armed conflict with al-Qaeda and associated forces and the right of self-defense is outlined in Article 51 of the UN charter.

Drone use is permissible only provided any such use is undertaken in accordance with international law, the law of armed conflict and restricted by respect for nation states’ sovereignty, where consent must be gained prior to an operation.


Mr Speaker, we are supportive of recent reports that the US is considering codifying the use of UAVs. This would institutionalise their use, the contexts in which they can be deployed and the chain of command.

We believe that this is something the UK should also examine. A UK code could look at the contexts and limitations of usage; the process for internal government oversight of deployment; command and control structures; and acceptable levels of automation. And code could also outline, where possible and appropriate, the process followed in the targeting of individuals.

It is currently the case that the rules of engagement for UAVs are the same as those for manned aircraft; military lawyers advise on all aspects of operations, including targeting, which is compliant with international humanitarian law. That is the way it must stay and we will not tolerate any compromising of these procedures.

Further, current procedures rightly mandate that there is always a human being in the chain of command. We have no appetite for full autonomy of unmanned platforms.

I hope the Minister will be able to outline for us today, without equivocation, the Government’s position on these matters, including attitudes towards the US’s plans for codification and how that could work in the UK.

A new code is not a suggestion that there is not a rulebook already, but rather than we must clarify the rules given the significance and spread of the technology.

This would be based on the MoD’s Joint Doctrine Note 2/11, the UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Whether valid or not there is a public perception that unmanned technology is shrouded in secrecy, which increases the potential for its demonization. Being open about usage and codifying our policy would help confront this, and would increase accountability and transparency in the system.

There is an argument which says that the remoteness of the command and control of unmanned vehicles dehumanises their action – that ‘killing becomes easy’. This is never an argument I have felt comfortable with. Anyone engaged in remote warfare would tell you a decision involving taking the life of another, even that of a known terrorist, remains hugely difficult and one of the gravest responsibilities of any government. Given the threats we face this is at times necessary as a final resort, but we must do so in a way that gives confidence to the country we are acting in accordance with international law, national interest and our moral values.

This is more important given that the large-scale shift to drones could become a 21st century arms race. Countries such as the US and UK should take the lead in the debate over the ethics and practical deployment of new technologies.


To conclude, Mr Speaker, unmanned technology has proven its indisputable military worth. The real question is not the merits of the technology but how, when and why it is deployed. For that reason the Opposition would like to suggest the notion of codification to the Government and where possible work with them to make that work.

We must be clear that in the deployment of drones we are taking about the exercise of warfare, not winning the peace. The two are not incompatible but they are distinct, and we must of course ensure that any deployment is complemented by upstream strategies which can ensure lasting stability. Drones can be used to monitor and maintain a peace.

Unmanned technology is a lasting and essential element of our defence equipment programme. It delivers advantage over our enemies, protection of our shores and our personnel and enables us to fulfil responsibilities beyond our borders. We have a duty to set out the contexts in which it will be used.



One thought on “Unmanned technology is vital, which is why we should be open about it

  1. ‘Speech by Kevin Jones MP’.
    ‘Unmanned technology is vital, which is why we should be open about it’.

    I agree with this statement and we should deploy all our technology into combating the terrorist attacks in Afghanistan however, the question of value for money is an inane statement considering our military personnel are having to eat Christmas day dinner provided by charity instead of being issued by the British Government. Our military personnel is a vital part of our security whether in Afghanistan or based in Britain so, I think it’s about time that the this Tory Government adhered to this principle.

    Laurence Mann (Labour Member) London

Comment or ask a question here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s