Drones – ethics, morality and myths

Only but the most determined ostriches will have failed to note the recent ground-breaking story of British nationals killed by the UK in a ‘drone strike’ – moreover in a country within which we are not currently prosecuting a war.

The cynics amongst us may consider whether the timing of this announcement to the House and the public at large was intended to detract from the PM’s revelation on how many refugees this country will accept – but I’ll leave that debate to one side for now.

It will come as no surprise that local television news ‘confirmed’ that the Reaper which unleashed its deadly force was flown from RAF Waddington – as this is where all UK-owned Reapers are controlled from. And this is perhaps the first myth that needs to be debunked before we examine ethical or moral considerations. There are no Reapers flying from the UK.


RAF Reapers are launched and recovered in theatre by local operators – and are handed over to the RAF crew as they leave a pre-designated point in air space; with control handed back by the RAF for recovery as they re-enter said airspace for replenishment and re-arming as required.

The most prevalent confusion surrounding these platforms stems from the media’s use of terminology – ‘drones’. Such lexicographical use conjures up images of autonomous entities patrolling the skies and executing life/death decisions at will. Reality could not be further from the truth, however.

There are always at least two people charged with their safe flight and for taking kinetic-release decisions (with further recourse to authority from regional command centres as required) – and in many multi-national operations the second person is a lawyer.

For this reason, it is more apt that we refer to them as RPAS – Remotely Piloted Air Systems. They are controlled by pilots – drawn primarily from the RAFs swathe of hugely experienced airmen and women.

Another confusion lies in their size. These things are not small! With a length of almost 11m, it has a wing span of 20m – that’s 2m longer than that of the A-10 Tankbuster (Warthog).

As important as the size, terminology, and kinetic effect that these machines can affect, their biggest successes come from minimising collateral damage.

This is not just because of the ordnance they use, but due to the ability of their pilots to ‘follow’ the missiles towards targets in real time – with an enhanced capacity to concentrate on surrounding areas; often aborting a kinetic strike at the last minute should civilians enter the impact area.

Additionally, their hover time is not bounded by crew rest or fatigue – facilitating outstanding over-watch and intelligence gathering.

Now we have hopefully disavowed some of the popular misconceptions – how ethical is it to use RPASs in theatres of operation – and was their recent use to kill legal?

We have been told that the killings were within the bounds of International Law and in accordance with UN mandates; yet concern has been raised as to why (if the legality was as clear cut as asserted) the Attorney-General ‘authorised’ such a strike; and questions have been rightly raised over whether we are drifting to more of an autonomous approach employed by the USA.

But would we – as a nation or as opposition MPs – be raising such a question if the killing was executed by a manned Tornado for example? Would we still be considering moral issues if this was a land-based attack from embedded Special Forces?

I don’t believe we would be. Somehow we cannot see Reaper attacks as valiant or ‘fair’ – they appear to many to be almost dehumanised. Similar was said by Royal Navy when considering the use of submarines – that they were somehow ‘ungentlemanly’.

Our Reapers are steeped in human contact and we would do well to consider more the effect on their pilots. One of the RAF’s biggest concerns is of the emotional well-being of it’s Reaper pilots, and how pastoral care is provided for them.

As all current and former Service personnel know only too well, a period in theatre is always followed by ‘decompression’ in a half-way stage on the journey home following deployment. Indeed, the Royal Navy used Gibraltar for such decompression for centuries – letting sailors get the fighting out of their system before they got home.

RAF Reaper pilots are not afforded this luxury; and the pilot who executed this (and other similar missions) will have returned home that very day – perhaps sitting down to dinner that evening with family. All in a day’s work?

In terms of the intended target – their nationality matters not a jot. When you leave this great country of ours to take up arms against it, I believe you revoke all claims to your British citizenship; and the security and protection that this affords you.

These terrorists were planning for an immediate attack on UK soil, and this attack appears legitimate as a means of self defence – and therefore wholly compliant with International Law.

Whether we adopt a more autonomous approach to target acquisition does not concern me. If the target is legitimate and due process has been carried out by our armed services, then subjecting these decisions to political consideration ahead of a strike can only detract from their efficacy, and undermine the responsibility for taking the difficult decisions we charge our military with making on our behalf.

Whilst the use of Reapers is controlled, managed and authorised by military personnel (and they WILL be) then we need only consider the legality and legitimacy of targets. Once we re-humanise the use of RPAS in conflict, we can concentrate solely on staying within the boundaries of Just War – as we would for any other ‘manned’ system.

What are your thoughts on the use of RPAS in warfare? Why not let everyone else know in the comments section below?