In a little-noticed response to an information request earlier in 2015, the United Kingdom's ministry of defence admitted that the Royal Air Force was undertaking more air-raids in Iraq using armed Reaper drones than the Tornado strike-aircraft. In itself this was a strong indication of how far "remote-control warfare" had come. It also became known that the drones were involved in reconnaissance flights over Syria. So far, drone-based air-attacks in Syria have not happened - no doubt because the House of Commons voted against this at the end of August 2013 - but the very use of reconnaissance flights is an indicator of how the mission is creeping.
Britain has only a small role in the coalition attacks against Islamic State. But its reluctance to facilitate a debate on the policy is in striking contrast to the Pentagon’s approach, which is reflected in the way that United States defence think-tanks such as the Institute for the Study of War are able to publish copious information on the war on a near-daily basis.
The current British penchant for discretion has taken a further turn because of considerable uncertainty over what the UK's Reaper drone force is actually doing. Initially the RAF had a squadron of five Reapers “flown” by operators based at the USAF Creech airbase, in Nevada. That has now been overtaken largely by a home base, RAF Waddington, south of Lincoln. The force was also doubled in size in 2014, in the closing months of UK military deployment to Afghanistan.
After the British forces left Afghanistan, there were indications that half were placed on standby and the other half committed to the air operations over Iraq; though the defence minister Michael Fallon stated during a visit to Paris in early June that all the UK drones were now “out on service, every one of them”.
The cost of silence
What is unclear, at least for now, is whether the drone operations over Iraq and Syria now have double the forces assigned to them or whether the RAF is conducting them elsewhere. If the latter, candidate locations include the Sahel (involving cooperation with French operations), Libya (anti-people-smuggling operations), or just possibly Nigeria (aiding the new government in its campaign against Boko Haram).
The point is that we just do not know. And that itself is important, for it is now clear that there has been a significant change of policy in recent months. The usual explanation for such deep reluctance to engage in open discussion, of course, is that to provide more information might compromise security.
But there is also a political factor, for the development comes at a time when the overall use of drones is being questioned. The Remote Control Project has published the results of research by Paul Gill of University College London, which analyses the impact of drone strike on paramilitary violence in Pakistan. One of its findings is that “violent responses to drone strikes by terrorist groups are disproportionately more likely to target civilians, suggesting that drone strikes are having a cumulative effect on civilian casualties in terms of indirect victims”.
Meanwhile, the United States may have been involved in recent successful assassination attacks on al-Qaida leaders in Libya and Yemen, but the impact on the strength of support and capabilities of the movement overall do not support the idea that these are having a restrictive effect.
The first anniversary of the air war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is approaching. It is already several years since the United States and its coalition partners began their wider use of armed drones in attacks on many countries, including Iraq, Syria, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. For all this effort, Islamic State and related movements show no sign of being in retreat - if anything the opposite is true in some of the war zones.
What is most significant in Britain is that there now appears to be a determined effort to limit the information entering the public domain. This is a lot easier to do when there are no longer thousands of “boots on the ground”, and remote-control warfare dependent partly on armed drones makes a narrowing of access even easier.
This would be problematic at any time. But the government has just started a comprehensive Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that should determine UK defence policy for the next five years. At this critical juncture, the absence of any informed discussion of British policy brings into question the very idea of democratic accountability.