The royal reepers and the new MoD air show

This is the second post in a short series on British drones: for the first, see here.

RAF Drone Pilots
Newly graduated RAF drone pilots, the first to be trained solely for remote flight
Source: SWNS

Late last year the MoD launched a PR defensive to try to change the negative perception toward drones, much of which was done in the name of transparency and public accountability. In December RAF Waddington took the unprecedented step of allowing the media into the base. The ‘opening up’ of Waddington didn’t tell us much more than we already knew, however. Journalists were taken into a hanger where they could see many different kinds of drones, from the small ‘Black Hornet’ to the Watchkeeper. They were allowed inside the ‘cockpit’ to see and talk to pilots flying simulation missions. The BBC’s defence correspondent Jonathan Beale asked a pilot whether he fired a Hellfire missile and he responded yes, adding “It’s not something I like to talk about very often”. The MoD also released a series of images and videos, all of which portray the technological brilliance of drones without any of the bloodshed. The following video gives a good impression of what the MoD wanted the journalists (and  by extension, the public) to see (see also the BBC coverage here and C4 News here):

And this footage, released by the RAF and re-named on Youtube, has been carefully selected from thousands of hours to show us what the Reapers can see. It’s carefully choreographed, and we witness the RAF diverting a missile after it has been  fired to avoid ‘collateral damage’: the message is clear enough.

If you watched the first video you’ll have seen that the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond was present to host the media at Waddington. That same day, the Guardian published a comment by Hammond in which he defended the use of drones. Wishing to put the “myths” about drones “to bed” Hammond began by insisting that we should not call these things drones, but rather “RPAS” or “UAVS”  (I won’t bother spelling those out seen as they’re much more difficult to remember and say than using the term that we’re all familiar with). Why? Because the word drones has a negative connotation, and while this is indeed true, I suspect that changing the name won’t help the MoD’s cause much. What gave drones a bad name was not the name they were given and, in any case, “Reaper” and “Predator” hardly conjure images of bunny rabbits. Hammond went on to argue:

“what highlights the value and dispels the myths about these systems most effectively are the fundamental facts. Over the past few years, Reaper has flown more than 54,000 hours over Afghanistan; in that time, it has fired just 459 precision weapons [and] We know of one highly regrettable incident where civilians were killed by a weapon deployed from a UK Reaper”

Clive Stafford Smith wrote a sharp point-by-point refutation of Hammond’s main claims, and pointed out that the controversy with drones is not so much over British drones in Afghanistan as it is UK complicity in US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere (see here). Stafford Smith has a point but so, perhaps, does Hammond. There has been lots of protest against the British use of drones, and not all of it is coherent about precisely what it is about drones that is so troubling. Again, weapons releases in Afghanistan from conventional aircraft are much higher than those from drones, and I wonder if the same groups that are against drones are in favour strikes from manned jets or helicopters? If so, shouldn’t the debate be about targeting more broadly speaking, or even about the war in Afghanistan more generally? Indeed, as Frédéric Mégret argues in a forthcoming paper on the humanitarian problem with drones:

Drones are, often problematically, the emblematic weapon for a range of other phenomena and so, unsurprisingly, attract much polemic. The challenge, thus, is to find what is problematic specifically with drones as a technology in armed conflict that could not be dealt with better by invoking a larger genus of problems.”

Mégret is no champion of drones. Rather, he takes the history and practice of war and the laws that govern it seriously into account when considering the salience of the contemporary critique against drones, and his observations are every bit as perceptive as they are worrying for those who are against drones:

“As we know from the history of the laws of war, it has often proved particularly problematic to think of any weapon (as opposed to methods of combat) having anything inherent about it. After all, the ICJ [International Court of Justice] could not tell us that there was something inherently incompatible with international humanitarian law about even the use of nuclear weapons.”

If the claim that British drones have killed four civilians is true, while one death is surely too many, it does beg the question as to whether our problem – the British problem – really is about drones. Furthermore, from a legal and operational perspective there is absolutely no sense in banning drones. Any legal restrictions will attend only to how and where these weapons are used, in which case what we need is an articulation of what and where is wrong with their use. In the U.S. case it is strikes outside of the warzone that have proven the most controversial and the U.N. and several states agree that deploying drones in non warzone areas is illegal. However, this critique leaves untouched those drones deployed inside the warzone and the question then becomes: are drone strikes within the warzone acceptable merely because they are in the warzone?

But I want to end on a different note, and to consider exactly what we have learnt about the Royal Air Force Reapers and their use.Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 3.43.27 PM

In his work on Royal Air Force air shows Matthew Rech has argued that:

“As spectacular evocations of military power, nation and sovereignty, air-shows rely on specific modes of seeing, and specific arrangements of the means of sight (crowd-lines, viewing platforms, cameras), which coalesce to afford particular imaginations of global drama, of warfare, alliance and difference.”

He’s quite right, of course, and his work has prompted me to think about recent MoD and RAF disclosures and the public displays of ‘transparency’ and ‘openness’ at Waddington as a kind of late-modern air show that stands in for a public debate on the broader issues of targeting and drone warfare.  This is a show that we haven’t had to travel to because it has come to us, and not like the televised air-show, because this time it’s on the evening news. “Here’s our smallest drone, and there our biggest. Oh look, there’s Philip Hammond!” The MoD showed us the latest technologies, and let us talk to the personnel, inviting us – through the cameras – into the show rooms and into the control rooms. We even got real footage and to talk to the pilots (they were all men, but women were there showing off the latest procurements) who actually fly the missions over Afghanistan. No Red Arrows or B-52’s flew above, against a blue sky, and members of the public weren’t admitted, but then again modern warfare has changed and if drones are the future, why are containers any less sexy than, er… cockpits? Why should militaries and air forces be reticent to show us drones when for years they have enjoyed showing off the latest in (declassified) aviation and weaponry? Unlike conventional air-shows there’s nothing spectacular about the media air-show tours around Waddington, and where once stood the mighty and powerful now sits the miniature and understated. Just as the RAF are careful to point out that there is very little difference between conventional aircraft and drones – manned and remotely piloted – the late modern air show tells us that there’s nothing out of the ordinary to see here. By all means, we are invited to look around, but we might not be as impressed as we once were. As a way of seeing, it is no less constructed than the conventional air show, and like the air show, the latest PR offensive by the MoD glosses over what these weapons systems do when they’re not being shown off to aviation enthusiasts and children alike.

Containers at RAF Waddington where pilots fly missions over Afghanistan

Incidentally, the one thing we did learn from going into Waddington is that the pilots who fly the missions in Afghanistan have access to a legal adviser 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I have made several attempts to talk to the RAF Legal Service Branch (also sometimes referred to as the Directorate of Legal Services) about the role that legal advisers play in the RAF but they have declined my requests for interviews and will provide no information on the matter. After first telling me that the problem was a shortage of staff, I later received clarification that they could not meet with me because they could not tell me anything that was not already on the public record, and that if it was on the public record I had no need to speak with them.

In short, I was told to go to the Royal Reaper air show – and that is where I remain – unable to tell anyone anything that we didn’t already know…

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