Location, location – the end of the airbase?

Last week, the United States Navy landed an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air system, as they like to call them, on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Virginia.   The X-47B is a prototype drone, roughly the size of fighter jet and the manoeuvre, landing on an aircraft carrier, is considered one of the most difficult that a pilot of a manned aircraft can undertake.  The US Navy’s press release was glowing in its praise of this landing, quoting Navy UCAS Program Manager Capt. Jaime Engdahln as saying:

Today we witnessed the capstone moment for the Navy UCAS program as the team flawlessly performed integrated carrier operations aboard USS George H.W. Bush with the X-47B aircraft… Our precision landing performance, advanced autonomous flight controls and digital carrier air traffic control environment are a testament to the innovation and technical excellence of the Navy and Northrop Grumman team.

The US Navy has much to be pleased about.  The development of this new drone capability means that no longer will the US be reliant on the need for air force bases in other countries. This will mean that the US can operate more freely, e.g. no longer subject to relevant local legislation, and have the potential to be far more mobile.  The previously static airbase, reliant on the hospitality of allies, can now become a thing of the past – the aircraft carrier will allow drones to undertake more missions, closer to the “action” able to respond in a shorter timeframe.  This capability marks a new era in the US use of drones, increasing the capacity of the Navy to use this technology; as indicated by their Unmanned Carrier-Launched Air Strike and Surveillance programme for which contracts were awarded to Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics Aeronautical systems and Lockheed Martin, in March 2013. Continue reading

Lawful action?

Public Interest Lawyers have produced a thorough and insightful legal opinion on the legality of the UK Government’s use of armed drones.

While it is well worth reading the opinion in full, a summary at para 1.5 states

In brief, we conclude that in the absence of international agreements, armed drones themselves are unlikely to be illegal per se, but that fully automated drones would breach international law. As to whether the UK’s use of drones in Afghanistan breaches international law: we have evaluated the available evidence of the UK’s prolific use of drones in Afghanistan in light of the onerous restrictions which international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) place upon their use. We conclude that it is highly likely that the UK’s current use of drones is unlawful. There is a strong probability that the UK has misdirected itself as to the requirements of the IHL principles of proportionality, distinction and humanity and as to its human rights obligation to protect human life and to investigate all deaths (civilians and combatants alike) arguably caused in breach of that obligation. We conclude that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is capable of application to the UK’s use of drones and that human rights accountability and the rule of law require its application. We call for urgent accountability for the UK’s drones programme. Continue reading


The Defence Committee has announced the terms of its inquiry into drones – details below.  The Committee’s website can be found here.



The Defence Committee today announces a new inquiry into current and future use of Remotely Piloted Air Systems by the UK military and intelligence communities.

This inquiry is the second of a series which have evolved from our inquiry Towards the next Defence and Security Review. These will cover a number of significant strands which the Committee believe would benefit from further Defence Committee consideration.

Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) are also often referred to colloquially as Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) or “drones”.

The UK’s RPAS capabilities are established and, potentially, expanding. Several systems, including the armed Reaper aircraft, have been used by UK forces in Afghanistan. Domestically, in recent months, test flights to prove the technology for civilian unmanned aircraft have been carried out by the ASTRAEA consortium. The aim of the programme is to enable the routine use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in all classes of airspace without the need for restrictive or specialised conditions of operation.[1]

In this context, the Committee wishes to examine:

  • Nomenclature – defining the terms RPAS, UAS and “drone”;
  • Current utility and dispersal – for what purposes are RPAS used currently?;
  • Lessons learned from operations in Afghanistan;
  • Tomorrow’s potential – what additional capabilities will the UK seek to develop from now to 2020?;
  • Constraints on the use of RPAS in the UK and overseas; and
  • Ethical and legal issues arising from the use of RPAS.

The Committee will make recommendations to inform the future development and use of RPAS by the UK in the context of the next Strategic Defence and Security Review.

The Committee would welcome written evidence to this inquiry. This should be sent to the Clerk of the Defence Committee by Friday 13 September 2013.

“Particularised cases” – use of drones by the FBI

On 19th June, the Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, told the US Senate Judiciary Committee that his agency had used drones for surveillance purposes.  In his testimony, which was primarily concerned with telephone data collection, he was briefly questioned on the FBI’s use of this technology and the relevant privacy issues which arose.

On the issue of the development of policies and procedures around drone use by the FBI, he said that the organisation was in the initial stages of undertaking this work.  He went on to comment that the agency’s “footprint was very small; they had very few; and they were of limited use”.  He confirmed that they were used on US soil.  Highlighting the concern of the impact of drone use on privacy, Senator Dianne Feinstein, questioned the privacy strictures on the use of drones.  In response, Mueller stated that use was limited, narrowly focused and only used in “particularised cases”.  He wasn’t clear on how the images gathered were kept. Continue reading