Foreign Relations & International Law

The United Kingdom and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: A Summary of Joint Doctrine Publication 0-30.2

Hayley Evans
Tuesday, October 17, 2017, 12:37 PM

The six-year wait is finally over. On September 12, the U.K. Ministry of Defence (MoD) published its doctrine on best practices for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS): Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 0-30.2, Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

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The six-year wait is finally over. On September 12, the U.K. Ministry of Defence (MoD) published its doctrine on best practices for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS): Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 0-30.2, Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Meant first to be published in July 2016, then again in early 2017, JDP 0-30.2 provides a much-needed update to the 2011 publication on U.K. UAS, The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Since 2011, the U.K. national security landscape has undergone extensive changes: the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and ensuing criticism of the statutory duty it imposed; the 2015 killing of Reyaad Khan without prior Parliamentary approval; the 2017 Intelligence and Security Committee report expressing disappointment in the Government’s lack of transparency; and the 2017 Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge/Borough Market and Finsbury Park attacks. JDP 0-30.2 was meant to clarify the way U.K. UAS policy might have changed since 2011, in light of national security developments and evolving UAS technology. Although the MoD has published other doctrines incidentally addressing UAS —such as the 2013 UK Air and Space Doctrine and the 2017 Allied Joint Doctrine for Air and Space Operations—none have been UAS-specific, and none have promulgated NATO-endorsed national doctrine. Produced by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, the MoD’s think tank, JDP 0-30.2 does both.

Moreover, JDP 0-30.2 arguably fulfills an international commitment of the U.K.’s. In the context of the 2016 U.S.-led Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), the U.K., along with 52 other states, made political commitments to transparency and the rule of law surrounding the acquisition and employment of UAV. While JDP 0-30.2 is intended as policy guidance for all joint and single-Service personnel and civilians in the procuring, operating, and supporting of UAS and remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), it is also meant to increase transparency surrounding the legal and operational frameworks of U.K. UAS. The publication was expected to increase transparency by, among other things, addressing U.K. policy on use of UAS outside of armed conflict—a topic the former Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Michael Penning, had planned for JDP 0-30.2 to cover.

Though JDP 0-30.2 does cover much ground, including operational updates since 2011, new details on the UAS tasking process, and the legal framework surrounding ethical challenges to UAS use, it only briefly mentions UAS use outside of armed conflict. When JDP 0-30.2 does, summarily, address the use of UAS outside of armed conflict, the publication momentarily loses its pedagogical tone, and instead, uses language that might be interpreted as an admission that the U.K. has targeted suspected terrorists outside of armed conflict.

This post will summarize the four chapters of JDP 0-30.2. The post will also analyze JDP 0-30.2’s single mention of the use of force outside of armed conflict and proceed to ground that reference in its historical context.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Though framed as an update to its critically received predecessor doctrine, JDN 2/11, JDP 0-30.2 leaves JDN 2/11’s conceptual elements regarding the longer-term vision for the military —like “The Future Force Concept”—to another September MoD publication, Joint Concept Note 1/17. In order to understand the JDP 0-30.2’s relationship to other doctrines, it is necessary to understand the differences between Joint Doctrine Publications (JDPs), Joint Doctrine Notes (JDNs), Allied Joint Publications, and Joint Concept Notes (JCNs). Joint Doctrine Publications, like JDP 0-30.2, are not legally binding and typically promulgate NATO-endorsed national doctrine based on U.K.-specific best practices. In contrast, Joint Doctrine Notes, like JDN 2/11, are not endorsed national doctrine, but rather are raised to encourage debate or place “markers in the sand.” Allied Joint Publications, like the Allied Joint Doctrine for Air and Space Operations, are U.K. doctrines for NATO operations. Finally, Joint Concept Notes, like JCN 1/17, are authoritative high-level analytical concepts that look into future defense operations and serve as bases for the professional education of future staff.

With some higher-level conceptual elements left to the more analytical publication, JCN 1/17, JDP 0-30.2’s tone is, from the start, reassuring about the morality and regularity of current UAS use —citing both positive operational changes and many ethical discussions that have taken place since 2011.

For instance, when JDP 0-30.2 sets out UAS operational trajectory through the early 2020s, it highlights the normalization and predictability of UAS operations. Notably, the Royal Air Force (RAF) will continue to operate its Reaper fleet until about 2020, at which time a fleet of about 20 Protector aircraft will begin to replace it. Compared to Reaper, Protector is intended to have increased wingspan, greater endurance, and a certified sense and avoid system (Chapter 2.9; Annex A, Section 3). Even Reaper itself is to be operated better than ever before, tasked and employed in the same way as its manned equivalent (Chapter 1.6).

Chapter 2: Terminology and classification

Chapter 2 sets forth current U.K. terminology underlying the use of UAS, including a new generic term, “remote and automated systems.” In particular, JDP 0-30.2 distinguishes between “unmanned aircraft,” “unmanned aircraft system,” “remotely piloted aircraft” and “remotely piloted aircraft system:”

Unmanned aircraft: An aircraft that does not contain a human operator, is operated remotely using varying levels of automated functions, is normally recoverable, and can carry a lethal or non-lethal payload.

Unmanned aircraft system: A system, whose components include the unmanned aircraft and all equipment, network and personnel necessary to control the unmanned aircraft.

Remotely piloted aircraft: An aircraft that, whilst it does not carry a human operator, is flown remotely by a pilot, is normally recoverable, and can carry a lethal or non-lethal payload.

Remotely piloted aircraft system: The sum of the components required to deliver the overall capability and includes the pilot, sensor operators (if applicable), remotely piloted aircraft, ground control station, associated manpower and support systems, satellite communication links and data links.

These four terminological classifications differentiate the U.K. from the U.S. and NATO. While “unmanned aircraft” in the U.S. “is capable of flight with or without human control,” the U.K. “unmanned aircraft” definition merely requires remote operation. In a similar vein, while the U.K. divides the above aircraft types into four categories, NATO only utilizes two:

Unmanned aircraft system: A system whose components include the unmanned aircraft, the supporting network and all equipment and personnel necessary to control the unmanned aircraft.

Remotely piloted aircraft: An unmanned aircraft that is controlled from a remote pilot station by a pilot who has been trained and certified to the same standards as a pilot of a manned aircraft.

After defining foundational terms, JDP 0-30.2 situates those terms within broader intelligence systems. Take the Task, Collect, Process, Exploit, and Disseminate (TCPED) cycle, for example. Both the U.K. and NATO refer to this cycle as Joint Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (JISR) when carried out in a coordinated process (Chapter 2.13). By contrast, while NATO determines UAS and RPAS classification solely by aircraft takeoff weight, the U.K. Military Aviation Authority (MAA) utilizes other factors—for example, when and how the aircraft will be operated—when classifying aircraft systems (Chapter 2.16–2.17). For more context on U.K. intelligence systems, the MoD also released a separate document, Understanding and Intelligence Support to Joint Operations, clarifying its intelligence and understanding doctrine.

Likely in response to JDN 2/11-era publications and an August 21 Open Letter to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons signed by tech company CEOs, including Elon Musk, much of Chapter 2 is also devoted to the distinction between “automated” and “autonomous” weapons and functions. JDP 0-30.2 Chapter 2.6 unequivocally states, “The UK does not possess fully autonomous weapons systems and has no intention of developing them.” This statement appears to respond directly to the Open Letter’s cautioning against the use of lethal autonomous weapons.

Chapter 3: Task, employ, counter

Chapter 3 sets forth UAS best practice derived from U.K., U.S., and NATO operations. In keeping with the didactic tone of the entire publication, Chapter 3 underscores the commonalities between manned aircraft and other—unmanned and remotely piloted—aircraft.

Despite the extent to which a separate document, the JDP 0-30 UK Air and Space Doctrine, already contains much of U.K. doctrinal guidance, JDP 0-30.2 sets forth the beginnings of a U.K. operational-level doctrine—that is, a doctrine that connects tactical details with U.K. operational goals—for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Here, interoperability is the key doctrinal issue. JDP 0-30.2 Chapter 3.5 states: “[T]he air platform should be considered as a part of a broader intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) effort that must be enabled by a sufficient level of interoperability to cue, and be cued by, other ‘collect’ and ‘process, exploit and disseminate’ (PED) capabilities.” Moreover, while the “collect” element is vital to the ISR process, it is just one part of a larger scheme, also requiring PED capabilities in order to function.

Effective UAS operations require much advance troubleshooting. Operators must consider potential issues ranging from communication link problems (Chapter 3.9) and contractor support operations (Chapter 3.17) to high-latitude operations (Chapter 3.10) and weather (Chapter 3.14). Operators must also prepare passive and active countermeasures for the problem of enemy unmanned aircraft (Chapter 3.20). JDP 0-30.2 notes that in many cases, arms air defense can apply force protection measures originally developed for manned missions to enemy unmanned aircraft.

Chapter 4: Legal framework, moral and ethical issues

Chapter 4 discusses the ethical issues associated with UAS operations, both describing how weapons systems are legally reviewed, and directly refuting arguments commonly levied against UAS.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the chapter comes at its very beginning. JDP 0-30.2 Chapter 4.1 states: arguments against using unmanned and remotely piloted aircraft “may also arise from the recent UK, and other states, practice of targeting suspected terrorists outside of the armed conflict itself and the meaning and application of a state’s right to self defence.” This statement is interesting for two reasons. First, despite a Member of Parliament promising that JDP 0-30.2 would address the use of UAS both inside and outside of armed conflict, the quoted text is the only portion of the publication that addresses UAS use outside of armed conflict. Second, the excerpt above is anomalous when read next to the U.K. Government’s Response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ (JCHR) 2016 Report, The Government’s policy on the use of drones for targeted killing.

The JCHR is a twelve-member parliamentary committee that examines matters relating to human rights in the U.K. In 2015, the JCHR announced an inquiry into the U.K.’s policy on drone use for targeted killings, largely in response to what former Prime Minister, David Cameron, called a “new departure” in Government policy—the apparent use of drones for targeted killing outside of armed conflict. The JCHR’s 2016 report, analyzed in this Aurel Sari post on Lawfare, is a result of this inquiry. It details the U.K.’s view on interrelated International Humanitarian Law (IHL), or Law of War, concepts, including the meaning of “armed attack” as it relates to self defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter; the meaning of “imminence” as it relates to the legality of the use of force in self defense; and the applicability of IHL outside armed conflict.

After inquiring into the existence of government policy to use drones for targeted killing outside of armed conflict, the JCHR report concluded that “it is the Government’s policy to be willing to use lethal force abroad, outside of armed conflict (in Libya, for example), against individuals suspected of planning an imminent terrorist attack against the UK, as a last resort, when there is no other way of preventing the attack.” The U.K. government responded to the above JCHR contention, stating, “The Government does not have a ‘policy on targeted killing’ …. If the Government does resort to the use of military force...then the Government will act in accordance with the requirements of international law.” Read in this context, the above statement from JDP 0-30.2 (“the recent UK, and other states, practice of targeting suspected terrorists outside of the armed conflict itself”) could be interpreted as an admission of the U.K. practice of targeting suspected terrorists outside of armed conflict. The U.K. government has repeatedly denied such a practice, in one instance in a House of Commons debate, and in another in oral evidence for the JCHR.

The JCHR likewise pressed the U.K. government on specifying the legal regime it would apply outside of an armed conflict—a question that many rights groups have sought an answer to via strategic litigation. When asked which legal framework the U.K. would apply, the Government responded, “[T]his is a hypothetical question and if this scenario arose as a live issue it would require detailed analysis of the law and all the facts. However, the Government considers that in relation to military operations, the law of war would be likely to be regarded as an important source in considering the applicable principles.” This equivocation leaves open remaining questions as to the bases on which the U.K. might apply the Law of War, and whether the effect of its application is distinguishable from U.S. global war on terror theory. The U.K. Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon M.P., has continually rejected the argument that the U.K. applies the same framework as that of the U.S.

Next, Chapter 4 reviews the litany of international and domestic legal frameworks that regulate the use of weaponry, including UAS. Here, MoD again draws a stark distinction between “automation” and “autonomy.” As initially defined in Chapter 2.5, the U.K. defines an automated system as one that “in response to inputs from one or more sensors, is programmed to logically follow a predefined set of rules in order to provide an outcome.” By contrast, the U.K. defines an autonomous system as one “capable of understanding higher-level intent and direction, [and] capable of deciding a course of action, from a number of alternatives, without depending on human oversight and control.” JDP 0-30.2 drives home the U.K. policy on autonomous weapons, spending several sections discussing the U.K.’s support of increased automation, but not autonomy. Notwithstanding its predictions that fully autonomous weapons are unlikely to exist in the near future, the MoD states in Chapter 4.18: “The UK Government’s policy is clear that the operation of UK weapons will always be under human control as an absolute guarantee of human oversight, authority and accountability.”

JDP 0-30.2 also discusses the mental health of UAS operators. This topic may have been included as a rejoinder to concerns raised by various interest groups regarding UAS operator trauma and stress. Examples of extant concerns include these questions by a party spokesperson, concerns voiced by an RAF Wing Commander, and an aviation expert’s evaluation of UAS operator mental health. Noting concerns about the cumulative effect of remotely piloted aircraft operations on their operators, JDP 0-30.2 cites studies in response: a 2013 US Air Force study that found no difference between the mental health of manned and unmanned aircraft pilots, and a 2017 U.K. Armed Forces study that recommended close monitoring of RPAS operators for cumulative fatigue and emotional impact stemming from RPAS operation. These citations are likely intended to minimize concerns and demonstrate due diligence in investigating the problem.

In its final section, JDP 0-30.2 describes three common arguments levied against the use of RPAS. First, the MoD sets forth Argument 1: “Remotely piloted aircraft systems are used or could be used, illegally. Civilian casualties are disproportionate.” The MoD response to the first argument highlights the U.K.’s implementation of a legal review process that greatly reduces the possibility of illegal RPAS use. JDP 0-30.2 cites checks and balances against abuse, including MAA regulatory requirements, access to legal and policy advisors, and the applicability of the Law of Armed Conflict. Its response also selectively cites U.N. Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson’s, 2013 report on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, in an effort to bolster the argument that RPAS can be used in a way that would benefit civilians. While Emmerson’s report emphasized a lack of transparency surrounding victims and the heightened necessity of state compliance with IHL when using UAS, JDP 0-30.2 uses the following passage: “If used in strict compliance with the principles of international humanitarian law, remotely piloted aircraft are capable of reducing the risk of civilian casualties in armed conflict by significantly improving the situational awareness of military commanders.”

The MoD then introduces Argument 2: “We have created a disconnected ‘PlayStation’ generation of operators who are divorced from the reality of their activities and kill indiscriminately.” The MoD’s response stresses distinctions between RPAS and their manned equivalents that make it more likely that operators exercise judgment commonly associated with more traditional piloting. JDP 0-30.2 emphasizes that operators have a longer time than pilots of manned crafts to assess and understand targets and collateral damage, increasing operators’ capacity to make informed decisions. Though by its very wording, this argument appears to allude directly to concerns raised in 2010 by a report by the NGO, Drone Wars, and an article co-authored by the Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project and the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. MoD’s response seems to betray either a misunderstanding of the argument levied, or a purposeful redirection of the conversation. Not only does MoD’s framing of the argument appear to be much outdated, but it also sidesteps the crux of the argument: lowering the threshold for launching an attack. It is not so much a concern about the end operators “pulling the trigger” as they would in a game of PlayStation, but rather about the ability for decisions along the chain-of-command to become almost instantaneously effectual. This sort of decision-making framework could, allegedly, allow for RPAS to be used like weapons in a video game—divorced from principles of humanity that accompany more traditional methods of warfare.

Finally, JDP 0-30.2 puts forth Argument 3: “Remotely piloted aircraft systems should be banned because their availability lowers the threshold for conflict.” The MoD counters by highlighting the political authorization required for any U.K. military operation’s use of armed force. The straightforward response to this assertion raises the question of whether the “commonly levelled” allegation is properly characterized. As discussed throughout the post, different groups have raised concerns about the threshold of using force for counterterrorism outside of armed conflict. Thus, one might question whether the MoD’s answer is responsive to an actual concern, or whether it merely flattens a straw man of its own making.

Additional Considerations

In addition to the policy items outlined above, JDP 0-30.2 includes a slightly updated statement of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) policy. While UAS and RPAS are both automated weapons, LAWS are fully autonomous and as such, have sparked questions about the role of human control and oversight in their operation.

As a State Party to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), the U.K.’s LAWS policy was promulgated just in time for the international discussions on LAWS at the United Nations. From November 13–17, the Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems will meet to discuss a number of issues related to technology, military effects, and legal and ethical challenges pertinent to LAWS.

Although the MoD unequivocally confirmed its commitment to refrain from developing LAWS in JDP 0-30.2, the U.K. defines autonomous weapons systems and LAWS in such a futuristic way that it is difficult to discern the U.K. position on other, less sophisticated LAWS that are actually on the cusp of development. Discussions with other CCW High Contracting Parties may push the U.K.’s perspective on the parameters of “human control and oversight,” and may cause the MoD to expand its definition of LAWS to encompass weapon systems with a lesser degree of autonomy than full . Whether the MoD continues to tow the line on conservatively approaching the development of fully autonomous weapons, or whether states parties come to a different agreement in the line-drawing exercise between automation and autonomy, is well worth the attention of those involved in the development of international security policy.

Hayley Evans is a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law. She graduated from Harvard Law School, where she was co-president of the Harvard National Security and Law Association and Executive Editor for Online of the Harvard International Law Journal. Prior to law school, Hayley spent two years working for the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. She graduated cum laude from the University of Notre Dame.

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