Drone Secrecy

We all know that the RAF’s Reaper, Defender/Islander and Shadow R1 aircraft do secret stuff in secret places, but so does the RC135W Rivet Joint.

In the recent PQ on aircraft numbers the MoD listed the forward and depth fleet numbers for all MoD owned fixed wing and rotary aircraft but had this to say about a number of specific aircraft;

Information on the number of aircraft in the Islander AL1, Islander CC2/CC2B, Defender 4K AL2, Defender T3, Shadow R.1 and Reaper Forward and Sustainment Fleets and those in Storage, has been withheld as its disclosure would, or would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces.

There is a danger in over classification of information and at the heart of publishing the figures is a principle of accountability to Parliament.

I also made the point that in Defence Stats, the MoD publish the secret data for all to see anyway, which pretty much makes a mockery of of withholding it in the first place.

Other parliamentary communications make it clear that the MoD does not comment on the basing and general whereabouts of Reaper fleet, again, an important principle of accountability to Parliament. A recent example cites one of the operational locations for the Reaper fleet to be the ‘Middle East’, which by any definition is rather a large area.

Is this secrecy and confusion around the publication of fleet numbers a reasonable approach to operational security and political sensitivities or just secrecy for secrecy sake and a dangerous left turn into ‘none of your business’?

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34 Responses

  1. Yes it’s reasonable. No it’s not just for the sake of it. Ask yourself the question – “need to know” vs “want to know” and which side of that you’re on.

    Parliamentary accountability can be addressed via HCDC, or Privy council if required.

  2. I think what is interesting to distinguish is the difference between one type of aircraft or another

    For example, we have no problems in talking about Tornado but when it comes to Reaper, quite the opposite, which I think reinforces the differences rather than seeing that they are both the same with the simple difference of where the pilot sits.

    Interesting to contrast with the USA or France as well

    Also, the secrecy in PQ’s but the data available for all to see in defence stats on aircraft fleet numbers smacks of right hand left hand not knowing each other

    Personally, I am not bothered at all, have no great desire to know anything like this but worth discussing I think

  3. Perhaps the Repears are in places that are extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks?

    I wonder how the information of similar RPAS/ISTAR aircraft is handled in say the US for example. From what I’ve seen, Congressmen and Senators can’t easily ask such questions as UK Parliamentarians can. And asking FOIAs in the US is fare more troublesome than in the UK–I know from experience.

  4. Tonka and Reaper have some significant differences beyond where the pilot sits.

    When it comes down to OpSec, need to know is the fundamental principle. If that means changing the Defence Stats in the future, then so be it.

    While most – if not all – on this forum would like to know, the fact is that no-one on this forum needs to know. There can be no debate about that simple statement of fact.

  5. NaB, as I said, I have no burning desire to know, not that interested actually.

    But I do find the ‘differences’ in reporting interesting.

    Over classification of data is also an interesting phenomena that has been shown time and time again to be counter-productive to effective security

  6. I agree with the writer of the post ‘Drone Secrecy’ that sometimes information is concealed for the wrong reasons. For example, In making a statement to the House of Commons recently, the Defence Minister, Mr Fallon, indicated, in connection with possible airstrikes into Syria by the RAF that, for security reasons, he would not give details of British combat search and rescue units. The real reason he did not give any details is simply that Britain does not have any such units. – We would be totally reliant on foreign governments to rescue any aircrew shot down over Syria.

  7. Seems a long way from my days with MOD when it was a “need to know” basis.

  8. Some of the replies given above appear confused to say the least. What is being withheld here is perfectly legitimate information which is freely available in both the US and France without recourse to any sort of Freedom Of Information request – ie the numbers of aircraft bought (and normally for how much) of each type of aircraft. No one is talking about where they currently are or what they are being used for, just the numbers bought and the numbers available for use.
    The UK has far more “secrecy” than either of its two closest peers in this regard and it would appear to be no coincidence that such “secrecy” is often aligned with unpaletable financial / organisational problems rather than any operational secrecy….

  9. You probably need to look up the definitions of “operational security”, “forward fleets” and “basing and general whereabouts”.

  10. “the fact is that no-one on this forum needs to know. There can be no debate about that simple statement of fact.”

    It’s my money. If they’ve blown £500 million of it on a load of hangar queens that haven’t been out of storage in the last six years, I would like to know.

  11. You probably need to look up the definitions of “operational security”, “forward fleets” and “basing and general whereabouts”.

    And, while you’re at it, “patronising git”.

  12. @ Nigel

    Actually using Reaper as an example the information you say is secret in terms of numbers purchased isn’t:


    The information that they aren’t disclosing is how many make up the forward or sustainment fleets and how many are in storage. i.e. how many are deployed and how many we could deploy in a hurry which could be seen as sensitive.

    In terms of the price of them I am guessing that somewhere they have said how much they cost probably not in any simple way because some were UOR and some weren’t and there are spares, training etc included but they will be providing in round terms how much is being spent on the system as a whole.

    I am guessing the same information is available for all the other aircraft.

    I am not surprised Reaper is all hush hush for purely PR reasons ie ‘drones’ have a bad image worldwide, but the others I didn’t expect to be so sensitive. The numbers for Airseeker and Sentinel though are very small and they aren’t easily hidden so there probably isn’t any point trying.

  13. Secrecy is useful if it is actually used properly, i.e. there was no question of legality surrounding the intelligence services in this country before the 90’s because they didn’t legally exist, how are they going to be taken to court by privacy activists if they don’t exist. Not saying it is right but it had it’s uses, and it still could do for some military matters. The Army used it in Afghanistan to try and notify families of fatalities before rumours caused to much stress to families, I am not sure how effective it was though. The SF seem to use it effectively to cover what they are doing around the world, until things go wrong and then it tends to leak, Libya for example.

    That said over classification dilutes the effect of seeing a classification marking when it is something really sensitive, which is an issue.

  14. “It’s my money. If they’ve blown £500 million of it on a load of hangar queens that haven’t been out of storage in the last six years, I would like to know.”

    And while I’m being a patronising git, you can look up the difference between “like to know” and “need to know”. Try not to move your lips while doing so. In fact, come to think of it, given that the UK Reaper fleet is known to have flown 50000 hours+ since 2008, one might conclude that “hangar queens” they are not.

  15. @NaB

    I’d be curious to know as to whether or not you ‘know’. Hoarding of information for informations sake is a trait well established in the defence field.

    I would say as it is of interest to the public then it is in the public’s interest to know where these assets are and how of them we have etc.

    It’s a cyclical argument though, as one side (you) wants to feel secure by keeping the other side (them) out of the loop. Those that shouldn’t know these facts already do anyway on account of our shambolic security.

  16. In terms of operational security, forward fleet, operating bases etc – I have no need to know, therefore I don’t.

  17. “While most – if not all – on this forum would like to know, the fact is that no-one on this forum needs to know”

    — Unless of course they’re being used for something they shouldn’t be, in a place they shouldn’t be. In which case Parliament and by extension the general public has every right to know as the repercussions could potentially have serious consequences for the security of the general public. We don’t need to know exactly where each Reaper is stationed down to the grid reference, or to have a live twitter feed telling us exactly what each Reaper is off looking at/shooting at. But “based in country A, supporting ongoing operations in country A by monitoring and engaging enemy B”, is sufficiently vague to avoid most problems while being sufficiently detailed to let Parliament make its mind up on whether the government is pulling the wool over peoples eyes.

    It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the government pulls the secrecy card (“you people don’t need to know”) while at the same time plotting to reduce the privacy and secrecy of its own citizens (“why are you hiding if you’ve done nothing wrong, eh?”).

  18. We staff these bloody questions all the time – and they are rarely more than sad mil enthusiasts wanting to update their top trumps deck. Secrecy is not over-used, but the increase in public curiosity made possible by FOI and the Internet attempts to justify ‘need to know’ when frankly, you don’t. If the drone fleet is busy machine gunning babies and nuns in country X, it’s not the public’s right to know about it but the responsibility of Parliament to oversee operations correctly. You voted for the Government, so let them do the oversight bit and go back to mere ‘want to know because I feel really important and empowered by the computer in my hands’ and go back to playing military top trumps and fantasy fleets.

    There are only 3 classifications now anyway – Official, Secret and Top Secret. It’s fairly easy to classify most things as Secret, which is right and proper. Therefore you do not need to know.

  19. TAS – nail, head, hit. Quite right. As has been made properly clear above the majority of information on defence is rightly restricted to those with a genuine, official need to know. Lots of individuals and quite a few commercial organisations are desperate to know, want to know, or would quite like to know – none of these need to know.

    A few months back after some scandal rag had run its Sunday Exclusive exposing some celebrity doing something unfortunate but not important, the editor was interviewed on a TV news program. “Its in the public interest!” spluttered the editor. All credit to the interviewer who responded “There is a difference between ‘will interest the public’ (which this story might) and being ‘in the public interest’ (which this story most definitely isn’t). You only ran this story because it will sell more papers.”

  20. TAS/Chris/NAB

    A fascinating discussion. I would not disagree that FOI etc have made it easier for fantasists and the disgruntled to try and extract information which would be better kept secret. However, I am surprised (at least TAS) you think ‘Secret’ is not overused.

    I think the MOD has a long way to go in implement coherent, consistent application of its classification system. When there are obvious inconsistencies in the level of detail released by different departments (or sections within the same department eg MOD) then it only promotes a general idea that details are being concealed for the wrong reasons.

    For example I don’t think the number of hours flown by our Reaper fleet is something that needs to be in the public domain, while I am constantly surprised by the secrecy over contract details where I do think UK MOD is obsessively over-classified. Too often the concealment of information is deliberate to cover up incompetence or sharp practice (eg payoffs for top chumps, Deepcut evidence) rather than for any genuine security reason. You may disagree but this kind of thing simply makes the general public and investigative journalists even more suspicious, even when the information should quite rightly remain secret.

  21. Having watched the FOI scene unfurl over the last several years of TD I can confidently say that without a doubt the most common is not from military spotters feeling empowered from their keyboards it is from owners of ex military Land Rover owners wanting MERLIN reports on their vehicles, by a very very very long way.

    Why the MoD doesn’t just get some spotty yoofs to do the reports, put them on a public facing website and just point them there I don’t know.

    Then comes pensions, war records and safety enquiries, many about Gulf War syndrome and nuclear testing in the Pacific

    Then contract requests, where do we get bearskins and buttons from for example

    Then a load of other stuff, categorised by the word miscellaneous (UFO’s etc)

    And finally, a very distant last, is what we might call spotter questions, ORBAT’s, kit specs etc etc

    The notion that there is an army of anoraks abusing the FOI system for their own thirst for information is simply not proven by the evidence

    Sorry chaps

    I would also add that FOI requests from the public pale into insignificance against the numbers of PQ’s raised by MP’s and Lords doing their vital governance work, the vast majority of which are so poorly worded as to invite the brush off, or so ridiculous I am amazed they have the gall to ask them.

    Rarely do you see a PQ that is as insightful as some of the FOI’s, which are generally speaking, much more detailed and difficult to wriggle out of

  22. There might also be the issue of the countries hosting our Reapers not wanting their allies or their own populace to know as they might not be very happy.

  23. It is interesting to note in this debate the difference in response to those still in or just left the Military and those who how shall we say have a broader mind set. The difference can be summoned up in a number of replies above between the Military “Why do YOU need to know” to the opposing view of “Is there any reason to stop releasing this data” it is a dangerous mind set for a democracy if the default thinking of any Government is You Don’t Need to Know.
    Ultimately I have every right to know as your employer as a tax payer to know exactly what you are doing, unless you can show for operational reasons only why I may need to appoint an individual to be vetted to see the information on my behalf.
    For too long Politicians, Generals/Admirals, Scientists, The Civil Service etc have got away with Murder and worst because of the “You Do Don’t need to know” attitude which is I am sorry in the modern age is indefensible.

  24. I am not in the military and never have been, but I recognise that I don’t NEED to know much about the military, I would LIKE to know way more but that is just me.

    The taxpayer is not the employer, it is closer to a shareholder to company relationship where we vote for politicians to represent us. Much as shareholders vote for board members to represent them. A shareholder doesn’t have the right to know anything about the activities of the company outside of what the company has to report each year to company house. Similarly the military reports vast amounts of information and is overseen by parliament, who are our elected representatives.

  25. The Ginge
    There’s a lot more going on that has a direct impact on individuals members of the UK public than where airframe qwerty123 is. Ask the 1,400 girls in Rotherham alone impacted by someone’s or some groups decision to ignore their plight . That’s a decision made by someone who will be listened to and obeyed or you will be heavily disciplined or railroaded out of your job and exerted enough of a threat that hardly a soul ran to the press to express their disgust at those orders.

  26. There may be several reasons for not releasing data that are not immediately apparent to your average enthusiast. It is quite easy for example to determine the number of Reaper airframes the UK bought and indeed how many have been lost – Hansard contains that info. Similarly, we know how many frigates and destroyers we’ve bought. If you know how to look you can even work out which are in refit at any one time.

    However, why does anyone outside the mil community need to know where the Reapers are flying from in the current op? Or indeed how many are available for ops at relatively short notice? Or the readiness profile of our ships. Believe it or not, there are people who could make use of that information in ways that are not in the interests of this country.

    Spouting platitudes like “in the modern age” is not in itself a valid argument.

  27. Of course there is another facet to the dissemination of official information – way back in the mists of time a slip of blue paper, about the size of a postcard, was put on the desk in front of me. I was told I needed to sign as a condition of the job. I signed, obviously. In that small act I signed the Official Secrets Act (like thousands of others have done) which, I was told very firmly, would apply for life. I have no problem with that; I understand defence matters should be protected from those that might do us harm. Just because the signature was signed decades ago, the personal obligation to keep knowledge of official information away from the public domain has not diminished – I signed; I accepted without caveat to be bound by that act. According to Wiki the signature has no impact upon applicability as the Official Secrets Act is an article of law, not a contract between the individual and the state, but all the same I made that commitment and I will stand by it.

  28. @ The Ginge

    ‘Is there any reason to stop releasing this data”’

    Are sure no-one has asked that question?

  29. My favorite was the answer to one of the UK defence committee’s request for budget information for the upcoming year, the civil servant replied that he would not give that information to the committee because it would prejudice budget negotiations with the Treasury. Personally I would have fired the guy on the spot for maintaining only he and the Treasury were qualified to know how to spend UK money.

    I think open discussion about upcoming budgets are one of the major hallmarks of an open democracy. How the electorates money will be spent is a very big deal. But how on earth is any UK politician (and don’t kid yourself they have inside information, they don’t) to judge whether 2% is an adequate sum (for example) without knowing how it will be spent? How many aircraft, tanks, ships will be bought, how many servicemen & women paid? How much for operations? How much for training?

    As for UK investigative journalists, that’s an oxymoron. They’re asleep on the job.

  30. “You voted for the Government, so let them do the oversight bit and go back to mere ‘want to know because I feel really important and empowered by the computer in my hands’ and go back to playing military top trumps and fantasy fleets.”

    — With respect, British governments don’t exactly have a great record of providing oversight to themselves. In fact they have quite a strong and sustained record of doing everything they can to mislead the public to stop them finding out the true details of what’s going on behind the closed doors of various ministries. This is one of the reasons we now have freedom of information requests, to stop governments of all levels from hiding important and potentially embarassing information from the public.

    “However, why does anyone outside the mil community need to know where the Reapers are flying from in the current op? Or indeed how many are available for ops at relatively short notice? Or the readiness profile of our ships”

    — So the public can be assured that the government is sticking to its promises over the details of military action. So that MPs (both opposition and back bench) who might have voted to support government action can be assured that what they voted for is actually being enacted properly and that the government is not extending its remit on the sly. To find out whether the government is doing deals behind closed doors with dodgy regimes for basing rights. To make sure that the government is telling the truth in it’s reports about the capability and readiness of the armed forces, and not trying to hide problems caused by cut backs or a lack of investment in things like training.

    You know, all the normal things that we would expect a democratic government to be held to account for, not least so that HM Opposition of the day can provide an effective alternative at the next election (stop laughing at the back) and so that the public can make informed choices about which group of bastards, sorry MPs, we want to have in charge.

  31. @TD,

    I see it boath ways. Some MPs and Lords like Nicholas Soames, Angus Robertson, fmr Admiral West and a few others do ask relevant defence questions and ORBAT questions. And from dare, some FOIAs (asked by me!) just further on them or detail them in stronger format.

    Yeah, FOIAs replies are pretty bland. It must be boring on the receiving end of release infor on how fat soldiers are, how many surplus Land Rovers, and how many uniforms aren’t fireproof/waterproof/lousy etc.

  32. Be thankful for FOIAs and some PQs and debates. In some countries, you never get to know what your taxes are used for.

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