Published in 'The Ecologist', 25th March 2014, under the title, "West Wales: the hills are abuzz with the sound of drones"
MOD Aberporth's Cardigan Bay firing range
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In rural West Wales, the Ministry of Defence and its private sector partner QinetiQ are about to launch a new era in Britain's engagement with drone technology. Paul Mobbs outlines how the skies of West Wales are being forced into the debate on the legality and democratic accountability of drones and mass state surveillance.
I've been touring South and West Wales talking about my new work on "pervasive technology"; the development of semi-intelligent/autonomous military and civil technologies, and what that means for our economy and civil rights. The recent disclosures of whistle-blowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning may have highlighted the issue of networked warfare. But to really understand its significance we have to look at the way autonomous technology is being used by the military, and how that use is likely to change in the near future.
As technology changes, so Britain's military policy has changed. For decades the military's presence in the hills of Wales was experienced through the fencing-off of large areas of land for military exercises, and the use of the region's local long winding valleys for pilot training. Now a new phase is about to begin, with the use of Wales' landscape to support the development and testing of 'unmanned aerial vehicles' (UAVs) – or "drones".
From two sites on the coast of Cardigan Bay, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and its private-sector contractor QinetiQ will develop Britain's drone capabilities. Their intention is to boost Britain's participation in the global drones industry with the founding of the "West Wales UAV Centre".
MOD Aberporth sits on a 550 acre cliff-top headland between Cardigan and New Quay. From the Second World War Aberporth was used to develop missile systems. Today the site is operated by QinetiQ – the former 'Defence Evaluation and Research Agency' (DERA) which was privatised in 2001. QinetiQ have a 'long term partnering agreement' with the MOD – a contract to share costs and sites between the MOD and its private-sector partners. At Aberporth the objective is to support the development of military drones; creating new weapons and surveillance systems for use by Britain, and to sell to other governments.
The West Wales 'Drone Corridor'
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In 2011 the Civil Aviation Authority announced that an air corridor for drones was being created in West Wales. MOD Aberporth already controls a 6,500 kilometre square area in Cardigan Bay – recently there was concern about dropping bombs on the legally protected Bottlenose Dolphins in the bay. The new on-shore zone raises questions not just about the intrusion into natural landscapes by new development, or the safety of aircraft which can and do fall from the sky on occasions, but also the legality of the types of weapon which might be developed here in the future.
To assist drone development, the MOD and QinetiQ recently announced the reopening of RAF Llanbedr – fifty miles north of Aberporth, on the coastal edge of the Snowdonia National Park between Harlech and Barmouth. RAF Llanbedr has three runways, and without nearby commercial air traffic the site is safer for experimental aircraft. The drones stored at Llanbedr could use the military range across Cardigan Bay for initial development and testing. The next phase would be to test the drones across more difficult terrain – flying around the mountains, valleys and wind farms of West Wales.
Training military staff in the use of armed drones requires a live firing range. In the past these exercises have been carried out in the USA. The new West Wales drones corridor allows experimental drones, or military staff training with existing drones, to access the firing ranges at Sennybridge. There has been little public discussion of this issue, and no definite statement from the MOD on live firing by drones in Wales. Quite apart from the issue of public safety, and the increasing intrusion on military flights into one of Southern Britain's last wilderness areas, these activities raise the issue of the legality of preparing for certain types of drone operation.
The United Nations General Assembly appointed a British lawyer, Ben Emmerson, as the "Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism". He was tasked by the UN to assess recent evidence on the use of drones in counter-terrorism operations around the world – to determine if they were carried out legally, especially in relation to the protection of civilians as part of "targeted killings".
To date that has been a difficult process. The nations using military drones for counter-terrorism – primarily the USA, UK and Israel – have been dragging their feet in response to information requests from the UN. The rapporteur's interim report of September 2013 found evidence that the some drone strikes arguably violated international law and the rules of war – and cited many examples of drone attacks across the Middle East and East Africa to support this claim.
The rapporteur's draft final report, released in February, called upon the states using military drones to clarify the legal status of their actions. He stated that there was an "urgent and imperative need to reach a consensus" on a number of different legal points – and has given a deadline of September for submissions from the states involved to clarify these issues.
The military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate the inherent risks of ignoring international law when settling disputes. Stepping outside of this framework once again, by using drones for "counter-terrorism", exacerbates the situation. It weakens the authority of international agencies such as the United Nations; and is driving a new technological arms race as states and groups try to develop their own drone capabilities. Also the increasing involvement of private contractors in military operations, like QinetiQ, blurs the legal boundaries further – creating inconsistencies in liability and accountability for military drone operations.
Britain's support for new drone-based weapons and surveillance systems is obstructing the development of an international framework to control them. We need strict global rules on the use of drones for military action, and mass surveillance through the data they collect, to protect the rights and democratic freedoms of civilians. More importantly, we need strict rules to prevent technologically advanced states from seeking dominance over states and regions who do not have the capacity to defend themselves from these weapons.
For Wales this presents a dilemma. Military drone development is being carried out with little public debate. The questionable legality of certain uses of drones means these activities might also infringe of international law. And by condoning these activities we condone the usurping of international governance. We cannot allow this to pass unhindered – we have to oppose the use and development of military drones in Wales until an appropriate international framework governing their use has been created.