Patrick Wintour / The Guardian – 2016-12-11 01:51:06
RAF Urged to Recruit Video Game Players to Operate Reaper Drones
Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic editor / The Guardian
(December 9, 2016) — The commander who oversaw the use of Reaper drones in Syria has said the relentless demand to deploy the unmanned aircraft means the RAF needs to test recruiting “18- and 19-year-olds straight out of the PlayStation bedroom” to operate the weapons.
Air Marshal Greg Bagwell, a former RAF deputy commander of operations, disclosed that the psychological pressure on drone operators in the UK was such that some had quit due to mental stress or illness.
He said the law governing the use of drones needed to be recast due to advances in technology that would lead inexorably to the greater use of remote and autonomously operated weaponry.
Bagwell, who retired this year, oversaw RAF Reaper operations, including two controversial drone strikes in 2015 on two UK citizens supporting Islamic State in Syria. Bagwell insisted the strikes were legal but argued the law needed to be revisited to give drone operators greater confidence that they were acting legally. The controversy over the attacks led to some of the operators needing repeated assurance that they had acted legally.
Explaining the demand for drone operators, Bagwell said: “We need to test harder whether we can take a young 18- or 19-year-old out of their PlayStation bedroom and put them into a Reaper cabin and say: ‘Right, you have never flown an aircraft before [but] that does not matter, you can operate this’.”
He added: “In order to be a very good Reaper operator you need that three-dimensional view of what is going on around you, even though you are 3,000 miles away. You are playing three-dimensional chess in your mind, so you understand how the various pieces fit together in terms of prosecuting a target.”
Reaper drones have carried out more than a third of the coalition airstrikes against Isis in Iraq and Syria.
Bagwell’s call for a rethink of the law governing drones was echoed by Gen Sir Richard Barrons, the joint forces commander until his retirement in April.
Barrons said: “We need to set ourselves up for a future where a combination of robotics, autonomous systems and artificial systems will create capabilities that our enemies may have before we do â€“ where machines kill on the basis of an algorithm without a human in the room.
“That is not science fiction and it will not be very long before western armed forces are acquiring capability like that, and they will need to be absolutely clear what rules we have and when they apply.”
He added he was concerned that “we have not thought through the application of current technology in the setting â€¦ where you cannot necessarily have such a high-level control of the targeting process, allowing rigour and advice at every stage. You cannot apply that in a more cyclical, dynamic conflict. It will not work.”
Both men were giving evidence to the all-party committee inquiring into the law governing the use of drones, especially their joint operations. The committee has released a new memorandum of understanding on the use of drones reached by the UK and the US.
A joint select committee argued earlier this year that the law on drones needed clarifying. The joint committee launched its inquiry after David Cameron announced that UK drones had targeted and killed a 21-year-old Briton, Reyaad Khan, in Syria in August 2015. Another Briton, Ruhul Amin, and a Belgian, Abu Ayman al-Belgiki, who were travelling in the same vehicle, also died. [See story below — EAW.]
Revealing the pressure on drone operations, Bagwell said: “The problem we have had is that in seven years of constant operations we have not been allowed to have a break point, to step back and take stock without having to keep pushing crews.”
He said it was stressful for the operators to mount complex attacks over Syria and Iraq and then to return at night to a family home in the UK.
Barrons said he was comfortable about the law governing the existing use of drones, but the pace of change required a rethink. He said the technology being used in aerial drones could equally be applied to underwater warfare, requiring a new legal framework.
UK Forces Kill British ISIS Fighters
In Targeted Drone Strike on Syrian City
Patrick Wintour Political editor and Nicholas Watt / The Guardian
British Isis fighters Junaid Hussain, left, and Reyaad Khan, right, were killed in US and British airstrikes.
LONDON (September 7, 2015) — The British government authorised an unprecedented airstrike in Syria that killed two Britons fighting with Islamic State, David Cameron has announced.
The target of the RAF drone attack was Reyaad Khan, a 21-year-old from Cardiff who had featured in a prominent Isis recruiting video last year. Two other Isis fighters were killed in the attack on the Syrian city of Raqqa on 21 August. One of them, Ruhul Amin, 26, was also British.
Cameron justified the killing in the sovereign territory of another country on the basis that Khan represented a specific threat to UK security, and that he had exercised the country’s “inherent right to self-protection”. He said the strike was not part of the coalition’s general fight against Isis in Syria.
“It was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK,” Cameron said on Monday.
A third Briton, Junaid Hussain, 21, was killed by a separate US airstrike, he confirmed.
The prime minister faced questions over the strikes on Monday night when Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chairman of the treasury select committee who has led a campaign against rendition flights, called for an investigation by parliament’s intelligence and security committee. “The ISC exists to scrutinise decisions like this,” Tyrie said. “As soon as they are created [the process to appoint members to the committee in the new parliament] they should do so.”
The committee would be allowed to see the intelligence that prompted Cameron to become the first UK prime minister to authorise an attack by an unmanned drone outside a formal conflict. Cameron could face questions about whether the strikes amounted to killings of UK citizens outside the UK jurisdiction in an echo of the “death on the rock” shooting of IRA terrorists in Gibraltar by the SAS in 1988.
Amnesty International condemned the killing. Its UK director, Kate Allen, said: “It’s extremely alarming that the UK has apparently been conducting summary executions from the air. In following the United States down a lawless road of remote-controlled summary killings from the sky, the RAF has crossed a line.”
It is understood that the strikes against Khan and Hussain were part of a joint operation by the UK and the US. Khan was killed by an RAF Reaper drone on Friday 21 August while Hussain was killed by the US the following Monday.
The prime minister indicated that the UK and the US strikes followed intelligence that Khan and Hussain were plotting to attack “high-profile public commemorations” in the UK.
It is understood they were the Armed Forces Day event to mark the death of Lee Rigby, which was held in Woolwich on 27 June, and the VE Day commemorations presided over by the Queen in London in May.
The prime minister told MPs: “Both Junaid Hussain and Reyaad Khan were British nationals based in Syria who were involved in actively recruiting Isil [Isis] sympathisers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the west, including directing a number of planned terrorist attacks right here in Britain, such as plots to attack high-profile public commemorations, including those taking place this summer. We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens.”
The Sun reported on 27 June that Hussain had allegedly admitted instructing undercover reporters how to attack soldiers in Woolwich on Armed Forces Day.
The prime minister said the British strike against Khan was “entirely lawful” and that the attorney general had been consulted. He warned that the threat to Britain from Islamist extremist violence was “more acute today than ever before”.
Cameron told MPs: “We took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots.
“And there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action.”
The prime minister indicated the attack had been specifically authorised by the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, and that its legal basis had been approved by the attorney general.
Cameron said in the statement: “The strike was conducted according to specific military rules of engagement which always comply with international law and the principles of proportionality and military necessity. The military assessed the target location and chose the optimum time to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. This was a sensitive operation to prevent a very real threat to our country.”
Cameron told MPs that Britain’s permanent representative to the United Nations was writing to the president of the security council about the action, as required by the UN charter.
Labour’s interim leader, Harriet Harman, said no one should be in any doubt about the scale of the threat posed by Isis. But she called for the attack to be reviewed by Britain’s independent reviewer of counter-terror laws and by the intelligence and security committee.
Police and security services have also stopped at least six terrorist attacks against Britain in the last 12 months, Cameron told MPs.
The prime minister also said the growing threat of Isis showed the need to expand the UK’s involvement in airstrikes against the terror group from Iraq to Syria — something that is rejected by Jeremy Corbyn, the frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest.
Downing Street dismissed suggestions that it had deliberately engineered British involvement in the airstrikes rather than leaving them to the US, which is involved in regular strikes over Syria. The prime minister’s spokeswoman said he had sanctioned the operation after receiving specific intelligence that UK citizens were planning terror attacks on UK soil.
Lord McDonald, the former director of public prosecutions, said the killing of Khan was legal and justified. The Liberal Democrat peer was in charge of the prosecution service in England and Wales from 2003-2008 and oversaw numerous charges and convictions of terrorists in the courts.
McDonald said: “I think it is lawful and proportionate to target a British citizen who has travelled abroad to join an armed group which is targeting Britain and British citizens and is on record himself as having that purpose. I think it is appropriate to invoke the principle of self-defence and to target him.”
NOTE: This article was amended on 8 July 2015 to remove the reference to Reyaad Khan being assassinated. This term applies to the murder of prominent political figures.
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