Ed Davey in trouble with Ministry of Defence over drone strikes

From the Evening Standard:

British military chiefs today slapped down Cabinet minister Ed Davey for attacking America over its use of drones to target terrorists.

Energy Secretary Mr Davey accused the US of “transgressing the sovereignty” of Pakistan by launching weapons from unmanned aircraft to kill al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

He also argued that America’s use of drones was setting a “very dangerous precedent” and claimed international law needed to catch up with the technological military advances.

But a senior Ministry of Defence source said: “It’s not appropriate to comment in this way on our closest ally’s military operations.

Ed had been pretty robust about drone strikes on Question Time on Thursday, saying:

And while drones can be, if they are not being used in a military way … used for surveillance in a very effective way, and that’s how the British use them, I think there are some real serious issues, [about] the international law of the use of drones and the American government is beginning to look at that.

There are strict rules of international engagement and conflict. My concern with drones is that the international law has not caught up with them and it must do, so that people who are using these types of technology have to abide by the law.

While Ed’s comments might upset the MoD, they will delight many Liberal Democrat activists who feel deeply uneasy about drone strikes and extra-judicial killings.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Mind blowing. It shows who’s side the Ministry of Defence is on, and it’s not ours.

  • And, frankly, it is NOT down to the MoD to make overtly political comments like this. To be honest, there is a lot of fuss about Prince Charles’s intervention in the political scene, but I am much more worried about this kind of intervention. Words can too easily become deeds. Back off, military.

  • Noteworthy that the Evening Standard article does not attribute anyone in particular at the MoD – “senior sources”. It does, however, attribute anti – Davey, and anti Lib Dem sentiments to Gerald Howarth, a Tory MP with the merest hint of a right wing “history” (see his Wikipedia entry for instance).

  • peter tyzack 16th Nov '13 - 5:38pm

    well said Ed (and Chris and Tim)

  • Richard Dean 16th Nov '13 - 6:33pm

    Of course it’s appropriate for an elected politician to comment in this way on our closest ally’s military operations. It’s even long overdue. It is not appropriate for an MoD official to comment in this way on an elected politician.

    Ed is correct. Of course there are complications – the regions drones are used in do not seem to be places where the relevant government actually has much control, so sovereignty exists to some extent only in theory. And it’s quite feasible that some sections of Pakistani society are happy enough for US drones to patrol the wilder parts of their country, while not being able to say so publically.

    But a major point is surely that the use of drones subverts the hard process that the local population needs to go through, of wresting control of their own place from the terrorists. Drones are short-term temptations, not solutions.

    The nature of justice needs to suit the nature of the population. Ultimately it’s for the locals to choose what kind of justice they accept, “extra-judicial US-style”, or Talibanic, or Islamic, or otherwise. Outside that process of political and related development, the killing of one Taliban leader probably recruits at least one more future leader.

  • Good for Ed. He is of course right. Drones are entirely counterproductive.

    Since when was it okay for military chiefs to engage in politics? One might suppose that even the Conservatives might want to conserve democratic proprieties.

  • Dear Eton, please teach the next batch of UK political elite to aim slightly higher than i) client state and ii) banana republic. Ta muchly!

  • Ed talks sense as usual

  • Tim13 16th Nov ’13 – 5:23pm
    Noteworthy that the Evening Standard article does not attribute anyone in particular at the MoD – “senior sources”. It does, however, attribute anti – Davey, and anti Lib Dem sentiments to Gerald Howarth, a Tory MP with the merest hint of a right wing “history” (see his Wikipedia entry for instance).

    “a senior Ministry of Defence source said:”
    Unless anyone here can point to either an MOD civil servant or a member of the military being responsible for these comments – it is probably much more likely to be a tory minister or a tory special advisor who is the so-called senior Ministry of Defence source.

  • This remote-control undeclared warfare should be outlawed by international law. If nations want to kill the populations of other countries, they should at least have the guts to go and do so by sending real people carrying real guns. In any case, each time one of these disgusting drones kills grannies and grandchildren, mums and dads, brothers and sisters, the result is more supporters and possible recruits for the ‘bad guys’.

    A BIG well done to Ed Davey for what he said. And how dare these unelected anonymous MoD ‘sources’ publicly attack an elected politician for expressing his opinion. The anonymity is cowardice not dissimilar to that of the puerile but murderous war-gamers who play wicked games with drones.

  • A senior MoD source could mean anyone from the staff behind the Costa franchise on the ground floor of Main Building to Hammond…

    That said, the issue is not about RPAS themselves, but whether their use is within the Law of Armed Conflict or not. Would people have the same concerns if the delivery platform had an overpaid driver sitting in the front rather than flying it from elsewhere over a satellite link? The decision chain is the same, with all of the associated governance around it.

    It would also possibly helped had Ed not betrayed his very weak knowledge of their use; Surveillance is a military use, as is reconnaissance and target acquisition. We also have two Squadrons of Reapers, so we use them in a weaponised context as well. The payloads on Reapers can be instrumentation, but we have the option to deploy Brimstone from them.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Nov '13 - 11:39am

    I watched QT and thought Ed Davey put in a good performance, but I was left underwhelmed by the drones comments because I am actually a fan of drones, just not the way they were being used. I didn’t think the point Ed Davey was making was clear, but that is probably because Lib Dem foreign policy isn’t clear.

    Having said this, the fact the MOD have spoken against it makes me uprate his performance. I am not a military basher, but I don’t think military hawkism is the route to domestic prosperity.

  • Richard Dean 17th Nov '13 - 11:51am

    I suspect that an overpaid driver violating sovereign Pakistani roadspace would allow us to see drones for what they really are – IEDs in the sky.

  • Richard, the hyperbole isn’t particularly helpful. IEDs really are completely indiscriminate, you may note the outcome of an explosion yesterday in Kabul when all but one of the deceased were civilians, and the one other was merely a policeman who happened to be in the bus. The decision chain behind a deployment from any air vehicle is extensive, and rigorous and the outcomes from a deployment are very well understood as the engineering is anything but improvised..

    My point remains unaddressed, is it materially different if the aircraft has the pilot sitting in the front doing what he’s told, or sitting at the other end of a satellite link, doing what he’s told. The pilot in a manned aircraft isn’t in a position to make a judgement about the validity of the target, in many ways the controller in an RPAS probably has much better information as he’s got the benefit of a wider range of sources.

    There are legitimate questions to be asked about the US policies that allow military assets to be easily employed in kinetic activities in support of their intelligence organisation. Essentially military assets can be sheep-dipped as CIA staff for the period of an operation. That leaves me very uncomfortable as it leaves the lines between military and agency activity very blurred. Even step back from there and ask whether it’s appropriate for a civilian agency to be undertaking kinetic missions at all?

  • Mammal – you sound as if you are coming from a military background? I think the other issue which you have ignored so far is that, even if the balance of forces is way out of technological kilter between “the sides” of the conflict, there is a feeling that if a combatant is actually on the field of play, as it were, there is a real chance both sides will take casualties. With drones (?RPAs?) you don’t get that feeling. Consequential on this, you might get more reckless targeting. I say, might, I hear your answer already, but frankly, with some of the incidents we have seen, it is difficult to trust all decisions from senior military and security sources!

  • Richard Dean 17th Nov '13 - 3:29pm

    You might find the following book interesting

  • Richard Dean 17th Nov '13 - 3:38pm


    You’re looking at this from the point of view of the aggressor defeating a terrorist. But there’s another point of view too, that of the ordinary citizen who doesn’t fell at all safe from drones. For that ordinary citizen, the drone is an IED in the sky. Its engineering is irrelevant as far as that feeling s concerned, except that the more advanced it is the more fear it generates in ordinary, innocent people.

    As the very experienced author of the book points out, the aggressor-terrorist model of what is going on often exacerbates the situation, creating more terrorists rather than defeating them. It’s an incorrect model. Good for the aggressor, of course, since that appears to justify the aggressor’s actions, self-importance, and funding. But not an actual solution to the actual human problem.

  • Tim

    There was some work done in the US related to the psychological effects of RPAS (Remotely Piloted Air Systems) on the crews, and there was a significant effect on mental health. Essentially they were being expected to go from the high stress environment of “operating” to their home environment on a daily basis, whereas traditionally that had been an event at several month intervals. As a result there have been some changes to operating cycles, and an increased level of support for those involved. experienced levels of stress were high for RPAS crews, less so than for manned crews, but the difference is accounted for by the physical stresses and their impact on decision making abilities in the air.

    With respect to the targetting process, the aircraft, whether manned or remote, is merely a method of getting the weapon into position. Since this is largely about the activities in the FATA I won’t touch on those that are called in by an air controller on the ground. The crew really aren’t just cruising around looking for targets, they have a target to prosecute, with a degree of validation of that target; boxes that should be ticked prior to releasing the weapon. Part of the decision making around the targetting is around the best tool for the job, and it may be that using an air delivery isn’t viable, or doesn’t get what’s needed. One of the reasons that OBL wasn’t prosecuted using air delivered weapon systems was the need to gather evidence; DNA.

    That is not to say that mistakes don’t happen. Information used in targetting might be out of date, or it might be intentionally flawed, there are a lot of competing factions some of whom use that to gain their own advantage. The delivery mechanism isn’t the issue in that instance, mistakes also happen with teams on the ground, manned aircraft, field artillery or whatever means the targetting board may choose to deliver the required effect.

    But like you suggest, as I seem to know what I’m on about my opinion should be inherently mistrusted…

  • Richard, I wouldn’t disagree with the need to establish a credible framework for development in order to improve stability and empower the population. The work of our own Military Stabilisation Support Group has made considerable gains on that, it’s not particularly engaging from a media perspective so we do a significant level of reporting bias. In areas where it’s possible to gain access there are three levels to that stabilisation support; in the least permissive environments it’s broadly about creating a safe environment so working at establishing policing etc, the moving into where MSSG work, around establishing the initial economy. Once the area is more permissive and MSSG can hand over to civilians from the Stabilisation Unit or DFID it becomes more about creating markets, establishing the elements of civil society that one might expect; judicial systems, trade etc.

    Broadly we’re not seeing any use of kinetic effect in the final category, and not a significant amount in the second. There does tend to be more in the first phase, with teams on the ground able to call in support from others, whether airborne or using other methods.

    In an area where there is no access, there is no opportunity to get boots on the ground, or those boots aren’t all that reliable. The FATA is very much in the first category, but reliant on another nation to actually do the work. A nation that has a pretty poor record in its own right.

    That all really gets down to the final point I made previously. The FATA is a non-permissive environment for it’s own government, never mind others. Is it appropriate that the CIA directs kinetic activities in the region at all? I don’t see a huge appetite from the Pakistani government to actually establishing civil government, never mind the US establishing the level of troop coverage required to start creating the white-space to encourage development.

    Given the brutality of the Haqqani network, with their routine targetting of civilian population in the FATA, Afghanistan and into Uzbekistan I wish I could say it’s clear cut. They do tend to target CivPop by preferrence, your archetypal terrorism. While any remotely delivered payload, whether from RPAS, manned aircraft or artillery, is likely to lead to some recruitment for one of the many insurgent groups in the area, reducing HNs ability to raise funds should have a significant effect in the medium term. Can’t say I’m sure of the best route either way at the moment.

  • Oh and fwiw I quite like Kilcullen and his work, he knows what he’s on about. He does draw the distinction between the use of kinetic activity within an area of operation that’s governed by the Law of Armed Conflict, and one that’s not. I never engaged within him on the latter,but I’m aware of his practical position on the former.

  • Mammal – Thanks for your interesting input. I am sure most of us here are “interested amateurs”, so your use of abbreviations and jargon is somewhat difficult. It could be useful if you explained the first time you use a term not in common media or lay language. For myself, I have had experience in three developing countries in training and development work, but not in countries where there has been formal conflict engaged in recently by Britain or its allies. One, the then North Yemen, has been in a perpetual state of conflict over decades! Talking to people who have served in the military seems to have given them an entirely different perspective. I am profoundly uneasy about involvement in a situation where an outside force, whether Britain or anywhere else seems to be trying to dictate the host country’s future – as I can see you are well aware, it is difficult to impose peace or order on a situation which is either a recently “released” dictatorship, eg Iraq, or a collection of clan or ethnic groups living as a loose nation, eg Afghanistan. The trouble with any attempt to do this is that it raises quasi-colonial pressures, and I am sure some of the problems seen and mentioned in your pieces are related to that issue. This is intensified in these cases, in that we have engaged militarily with all of these groups over the years (I am sure Afghanistan and Iraq will be discussed in textbooks in years to come as continuing colonial / neocolonial conflicts). All of these thoughts, I am sure, underlie what Ed Davey had to say. So, although your contributions are valuable, I don’t think they go to the heart of the problem we have got into, either in Afghanistan, Yemen, or the NW frontier area of Pakistan (which your FATA presumably refers to?)

  • Richard Dean 18th Nov '13 - 8:41am

    FATA = Federally administered tribal areas, NW Pakistan

  • Richard Dean 18th Nov '13 - 11:25am

    It is good news that the MoD – is this where Mammal comes from? – seems to be taking on board the Kilcullen thesis. But there is also a reality that democracy cannot be imposed from outside. If a population doesn’t want Western-style democracy and doesn’t understand it anyway, then whatever government structures are imposed will wither away once the external force that supports them leaves.

    There are a lot of conflicting motives here. The West probably doesn’t care much for the welfare of the population – the West just wants to make sure that terrorists can’t use the region as a safe haven. There’s undoubted corruption in the present governing structures, so the population is seeking a solution. Young men seek an outlet for their youthful energies. Imams want to retain their control, and encourage people to “return to basics” and fight corruption. We do the same in Christianity. But unfortunately Mohammed was a military man and Islam seems to be interpreted by some in a way that allows any cruelty as long as the victim is can be considered to be an infidel. So that is what some of the young men do. The army want to retain their power, prestige, and funding, so fighting is fine but beating the enemy isn’t. Some of the politicians either want to wash their hands of the whole thing, or continue to profit from it, or from the fear. Not many people with power seem actually primarily motivated by the welfare of the local populations.

    That is one reason why people like Malala Yousafzai are so important. She represents a rational, honest voice speaking for many in an actual local population, and with a real knowledge of the realities on the ground. But the population contain many different opinions, and the only solution involves developing experience within that population, developing their governing structures out of the hard experience of trying.

  • A Social Liberal 18th Nov '13 - 12:01pm

    So much hot air, so little knowledge.

    I was actually surprised at Ed Davey when he said “if they are not being used in a military way … used for surveillance in a very effective way, and that’s how the British use them” because it is at best an obfuscation.

    RAF Reaper UAVs can be used to kill terrorists, they DO kill Taliban terrorists – in just the same way as the US does,. It is the RoE which is different. So, if a terrorist is in the middle of doing something dastardly and he is spotted doing so then he can expect pretty swift retribution, whether it be from a Reapers Hellfire, a smart bomb from a manned airborne vehicle or a ground fired round.

    What we are not in the business of doing is carrying out extra-judicial execution of terrorists at a time when they are not carrying out a terrorist act. To do so is murder.

  • A Social Liberal 18th Nov '13 - 12:03pm


    Kilcullen is well regarded in UK military circles, and has been for a very long time. To make it sound like he has just been discovered is rather misleading.

  • Richard Dean 18th Nov '13 - 2:10pm

    @A Social Liberal
    Are you confirming that the US murdered the previous Taliban leader? There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he was carrying out a terrorist act at the time he was killed. Indeed, the leader probably doesn’t do the dastardly deeds himself much.

  • Richard Dean 18th Nov '13 - 8:27pm

    @Social Liberal
    We appear to be in different time zones. I expected that Kilcullen was well regarded, but he’s not widely recognized outside. A conflict in a divided society is very different from a conflict between two societies. The population is the prize, in a sense, so there’s no sense meeting terror with worse terror. Would you agree that some of the complexities are as I outlined in my earlier comment? The position of women (and children) in society seems like a big complication. What does the male majority think?

  • Richard there is a lot in your post to respond to around the nature of Islam in Central and South Asia, the motivations behind counter-insurgency, stabilisation and policing operations, the type of stabilisation that UK doctrine has employed for a very long time, essentially sensitive to local context as much as possible.

    Kilcullen articulates in a way that’s attractive to the US audience, some well learned lessons from British history around how to conduct counter-insurgency.

    What people aren’t drawing out, and one of the reasons why operations in the FATA in this way are unlikely to be effective, is that it needs a co-ordinated approach across government. ONe needn’t be in MoD to have a very good understanding of how the process works; policing, DFID, FCO, Min of Justice. None of which presupposses imposing democracy, that’s a very American policy.

    The point at issue here is about whether the use of RPAS is proportionate and legitimate. Given that in the FATA they’re directed under CIA control they’re not covered under the Law of Armed Conflict, so there are questions, as I’ve alluded to upthread, about the appropriateness of their use in this way. Given that any stabilisation needs praactical assistance across a range of disciplines they’re likely to have a limited effect.

    fwiw the FATA was an area of British India that was never really under any kind of control from Calcutta, even in the 1920s it was the scene of a significant amount of military activity to try to stabilise it during the post WWI period of seperatism

  • A Social Liberal 18th Nov '13 - 11:45pm

    Please don’t think that I am in any way connected to HM Forces, MoD or even the US establishment. It is my opinion that drone strikes on terrorists not actually involved in a terrorist act is illegal – but it is only my opinion.

    As to Kilcullen, of course he is not widely recognised outside the area, Asymetric warfare is at best a niche market, where most expertise is kept in the international family.

    Richard, you asked about the complexities.

    On the Armed forces wanting to extend the fighting – I have heard nothing to support this theory. On the West not caring about the population, nothing could be further from the truth. I have attended briefings from Very Senior Officers (as a member of the general public) and they have spoken widely of various ways they have tried to carry the populations in the warzone.

    I cannot emphasise strongly enough how wrong you are about the muslim faith. Yes, extremists may seek to get young men to think this way, but they are by far the minority.

    On politicians – again, I tend to disagree with you (at least as far as British politicians are concerned). There may be the odd one who have no thoughts for the afghani population but most are genuinely concerned for them.

    However, on the drawdown from Afghanistan. I do not think that leaving the country in a stable state is the primary concern of either Obama or Cameron. Whether it is public opinion, the financial cost, the cost in human lives or the lack of political will I confess I don’t know. In my opinion we are leaving the country too early, there is no guarentee that the ANA will be able to cope given that their men are still inexperienced, their fire support is basic and their air transport even more so. Time will tell if they have the forrtitude to withstand an onslaught, I can only hope so.

  • A Social Liberal – Rules of Engagement are subordinate to the Law of Armed Conflict, and are endorsed on an operational basis. The issue that’s been missed is around the LOAC not applying to operations conducted under the direction of a civilian agency; CIA.

  • Richard Dean 19th Nov '13 - 10:12am

    While I appreciate there may be intricacies of law involved, Ed Davey’s comments seem to be expressing something more than that. Of course the intricacies do need sorting. If the US is acting illegally, is the UK also at fault for supporting them?

  • Richard Dean 19th Nov '13 - 1:34pm

    @A Social Liberal
    Sure, differing views can be had on some things, but surely it is absolutely and utterly clear that neither the US nor the UK have as their prime motive the welfare of the local population? We are in these places as part of a strategy to defend ourselves – some might say the strategy is flawed but few deny that as its primary aim.

  • Richard, based on open source material the CIA is acting under a presidential mandate allowing it to operate in a kinetic manner within the boundaries of other states. In that sense I’m not sure if what they’re doing is legal or not.

    The CIA does not operate under LOAC, so the concept of ROE isn’t relevant.

    Another presidential mandate allows US military assets to be attached to CIA operations, and the use of US Forces in Afghanistan (USForA), means that on some operations US military will be acting under LOAC, and on some they won’t. As an example Operation Neptunes Spear, alluded to upthread, was carried out under CIA control hence could take place in Pakistan.

    For someone who spent two and a half years as our Foreign Affairs spokesman, and who recognises that progress with stabilisation operations involves negotiation, he has a weak handle on International Humanitarian Law.

  • Richard Dean 19th Nov '13 - 7:00pm


    As far as I recall, there is no principle in international law that allows the government of one country to determine what is legal for its citizens to do in another country, except with the agreement of that other country. In effect a Presidential mandate has no authority in any country that chooses to reject it. On that basis it seems that the CIA is operating illegally in Pakistan, unless there is some agreement which is not public.

    We are undoubtedly at war with the Taliban – they have declared war on Pakistan by video/internet, and on the wider world. So we have a right to defend ourselves, including by taking the fighting to the enemy’s front door. But it this is a different kind of war that the country vs country scenario that international law has attempted to address. It is not between countries as such. Perhaps that is what Ed Davey is talking about – updating and clarifying law for this new type of war.

  • A Social Liberal 19th Nov '13 - 9:00pm

    Richard Dean said

    “Sure, differing views can be had on some things, but surely it is absolutely and utterly clear that neither the US nor the UK have as their prime motive the welfare of the local population? ”

    Richard – if you truly believe this of our forces in Afghanistan then you know nothing of either the Geneva Conventions or HM Forces RoE. British troops have CONSTANTLY ceased fire or not opened fire in the first place when the Taliban have engaged with civilians in the immediate area.

    As for your assertion that “If the US is acting illegally, is the UK also at fault for supporting them?”, well – what can I say? Were Fatah culpable, either morally or legally, when Hamas members threw member of the opposition off high buildings? Of course not. Were Marines B and C found guilty of murderalongside of Marine A – absolutely not. An individual, an organisation, a country cannot be found guilty (either morally or legally) for the actions of another where they have no control over the actions of them, where they have not influenced the decision to behave in such a way.

  • Richard Dean 20th Nov '13 - 9:41am

    @A Social Liberal

    So, the prime aim was to get the Taliban? Right? UK Forces aren’t doing that for the benefit of the locals. Our primary motive is that we want a regime in Afghanistan that will be strong enough and pro-Western enough to prevent the country being used as a terrorist safe-haven. That is one great big wish! As part of that wish/motive, we recognize that we need the local population to be strong and pro-Western, so we care for them in military missions.

    Get real!

    You previously seemed to suggest that the US was guilty of murder in Pakistan. In a UK court, and possibly in a US court too. an accomplice to murder is as guilty as the person who did the deed.

    Ed Davey is rightly calling for some clarity. Clarity in terms of aims usually helps achieve aims, as well as helping identify inappropriate aims. Clarity in terms of law helps to avoid unplanned consequences.

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