A recently released University of Birmingham Policy Commission report, ‘The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK’, draws together expertise from manufacturers and legal and military experts to explore the issues confronting the UK government in the development, regulation and use of drones.

The review headed by Sir David Omand, former director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – a British intelligence and security organisation – underscores significant benefits of drone technology for the UK’s national security over the next few decades.

Maintaining that drones pose no greater ethical challenge than other military weapons, the report simultaneously calls for Britain to lead the campaign for an international ban on development of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), the so-called ‘killer robots’ i.e. fully autonomous drones that select their own targets.

Emphasising the responsibility of the UK government, especially the Ministry of Defence, to educate the public about the inevitable growth of UAV in armed conflict, the report calls for “public diplomacy” to improve the British public’s acceptance of the legal and ethical reliability of the practice.

The question is, argues Chris Cole of the Drone Wars UK – a website that monitors the British use of unmanned technologies – does the term ‘public diplomacy’ mean greater transparency? And does this comprise availability of accurate data to civil society, academics and the parliament to reach independent decisions vis-a-vis legal and ethical issues?

The commission further maintains that parliamentary oversight will lower the threshold for use of force by drones. Again, will the MoD release accurate data for the British MPs to execute meaningful scrutiny? After all much can be withheld under the pretext of operational considerations.

Interestingly the report suggests that legal and ethical concerns about the use of military drones stem from the American use of armed drones beyond legally accepted boundaries. In contrast, UK drone operations must always be conducted by “uniformed, military personnel”, the report maintains, with “the appropriate ethical and technical training, and the requisite educational level and maturity.”

UK Reaper drones – operated by the RAF – have flown more than 4,800 missions in Afghanistan since 2008. According to the report available evidence suggests that UK drone strategy complies with international legal obligations by adhering to “the same exceptionally strict Rules of Engagement” that are applicable to manned aircraft – no weapon should be discharged unless there is zero possibility of collateral damage.

So far the only confirmed incident of civilian casualties in UK drone strikes occurred in 2011 when four Afghan civilians were mistakenly killed and two others injured in Helmand. An inquiry was launched by Isaf investigators and families of the victims were offered compensation. All this is of course a far cry from US drone strikes targeting Pakistan’s tribal areas.

That said, critics remain concerned at the time it took for the attack to be made public. A transparent record of casualties is essential not only to understand the proportionality of violence but to ascertain the conduct of military personnel.

Information released by the MoD in 2014 in response to a freedom of information request demonstrated that British pilots were flying US drones in Afghanistan long before the RAF had any unmanned aircraft of its own in 2008. One wonders if there can be a final word on the conduct of UK drone operators without the release of crucial data.

The report points out the legal implications of British military and intelligence personnel working at US Air Force bases while suggesting that officials need to be careful that intelligence cooperation with the US military does not involve British troops or officials in illegal activity.

The report thus emphasises that the UK government should confirm that relevant staff has received guidance, and that safeguards are in place, to ensure that in sharing intelligence with the US the UK government does not “inadvertently collude” in drone warfare or other counter-terrorist actions contrary to international law. It also recommends that in case of collateral damage investigation outcomes must be made public.

Jennifer Gibson of Reprieve, the sole representative of civil society organisations on the commission, minced no words when talking to the media: “When figures such as the former head of GCHQ are suggesting Britain needs to distance itself from the US drone programme, the UK government needs to listen...There can no longer be any doubt that covert US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen contravene international law. As long as the UK continues to support this programme – through the sharing of intelligence, air bases and personnel – it is complicit in these illegal drone strikes carried out by the CIA.”

Given its close cooperation with the US on drones – more recently in Iraq – can the UK government balance military advantage with legal and ethical concerns as the report prudently suggests? Sounds like a million pound question with no easy answers.

The writer is a post-doctoral researcher at Birmingham University.

Email: talatfarooq11@gmail.com