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Debate on drones

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Sir David Omand, the UK’s former Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator and director of GCHQ, is to chair the University of Birmingham’s latest policy commission.

The commission, “The Security Impact of Drones: challenges and opportunities for the UK” was launched at fringe events at the Labour and Conservative Party conferences.

Sir David has said: “Every new technology comes with challenges as well as opportunities, and unmanned air vehicles are a case in point. They have great civil potential, for example in agriculture, environmental monitoring, policing and safety. But in the wrong hands they could be a means of terrorist attack, and an easy way for paparazzi to stalk celebrities.

“On the battlefield they help keep our troops safe but how far would we go in future in sanctioning their use for surveillance? Does the fact that the pilot is in an armchair on the ground and not in the air make it less likely there will be mistakes made in targeting or more likely through the detachment from being on the scene? These questions deserve study and consideration of all the available evidence, without rushing to judgment.”

The use of armed drones, or as air forces prefer to call them, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is on the increase. The UK is using armed drones as part of its campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a policy that has attracted publicity centred on the civilian casualties that such actions cause. What is less frequently remarked upon, the university adds, is the role armed UAVs have played in protecting UK military personnel on the ground. How should we balance the conflicting moral choices involved in conducting these counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency operations?

The Commission will focus on these questions related to the ‘War on Terror’, as well as the wider impact of drone technology on UK and international security.

Professor Nicholas Wheeler, Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security and academic lead on the Commission, said: “This commission will provide a unique opportunity to bring together a distinguished group of practitioners and academic experts to engage with a topic that has profound implications for future national and international security. One of the key roles of such a Commission will be to cut through some of the over-simplifications and misconceptions that shape the current debate.”


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