*UPDATE* News of 6 individuals arrested following the protests: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/jun/04/six-arrested-drone-protest-raf-waddington
*UPDATE* RAF Waddington as the new Greenham Common? http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2013/jun/07/drones-waddington-protest-greenham-common
The news that Reaper drones are going to be operated from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire has brought the debate regarding the use of killer drones to the forefront of British consciousness and has invited a wider consideration of the use of drone strikes abroad. Previously, British drones had been operated out of Creech Air Force Base, which is in Nevada in the United States. The move to a base on British soil has literally and figuratively brought the debate home. Whilst the majority of British drones are used for surveillance, the MOD does have a number of armed Predator drones which have lethal capabilities. It is these drones which have caused the greatest concern amongst the public.
The RAF has stressed that British armed drones are only being used in declared battle-spaces, such as Afghanistan, rather than in a pre-emptive manner in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen. Despite these reassurances there has been a significant public outcry. Indeed on the 27th of April The Guardian reported that 400 protesters had gathered at the airbase in Lincolnshire, and this was widely noted by the international, as well as British, press, demonstrating the salience of the issue for a wide range of audiences.
Protestors are primarily concerned by the legal and ethical issues regarding the use of non-human methods to kill others. They are concerned about the potential for these “killer robots” to become more autonomous and result in a future that too closely resembles James Cameron’s ‘The Terminator’. Whilst the RAF has signalled its intentions to keep human controllers in the loop (preferring the term: Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS) to drones for this reason) it acknowledges that increasing autonomy is likely in some areas of development (for example many drones are already able to take off and land autonomously). Additionally, protestors have voiced concerns that the lack of risk to British soldiers might encourage the UK government to seek violent solutions to problems that would previously have been dealt with diplomatically or without resort to force.
Whilst none of these concerns are new to those who have been following the drone debate on the international stage, it will be interesting to see if and how the change of base location affects British support for the use of drones and the perceptions of their use. Research undertaken in 2012, as part of the American Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, indicated that whilst international opinion was generally opposed to the use of drones, British opinion was divided equally with 44% approving and 47% disapproving (http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2012/06/Pew-Global-Attitudes-U.S.-Image-Report-FINAL-June-13-2012.pdf p18). It is likely that a new Global Attitudes Project will be undertaken shortly, and this would certainly provide an interesting insight into how British opinion has or has not changed as a result of the move to Lincoln and other elements.
Disclaimer: The views articulated in this post are the views of the author and not of the Institute of Conflict, Cooperation and Security.
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