Anglo-French drone takes another step forward

Summary:   Drones are the latest ‘must have’ weapon systems and the big military companies are desperate to be part of what is beginning to be called ‘the drones gold-rush’.   While Cameron is keen to emphasize that only a ‘few tens of millions of Euros’ are being spent at this time, early figures from the MoD indicate that the new drone could cost the UK around £2 billion with other estimates much higher.  The wider legal and ethical questions about the growing use of armed drones are simply being ignored.

Today’s announcement that the UK and France will jointly develop a new armed unmanned drone  is seen by many commentators as inevitable.  Drones are the latest ‘must have’ weapon system and it is important they say, that the UK keeps up with the US and Israel in this key market.   In corporate speak, the ‘direction of travel’ is clear; while companies may squabble over particular contracts and deals it is important that the UK is part of what is beginning to be call ‘the drones gold-rush’


Behind this ‘gold-rush’ however are many serious legal, ethical and moral questions which are not being properly addressed.  And it is not just us who are saying so.

Last April the Ministry of Defence (MoD) published a Joint Doctrine Note examining the technological and scientific issues related to current and future use of armed and unarmed drones.  The document agreed that there were significant moral, legal and ethical issues involved, and in a key passage (517) considers whether unmanned systems will make war more likely:

“It is essential that, before unmanned systems become ubiquitous (if it is not already too late) that we consider this issue and ensure that, by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, that we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”

The passage concludes  “What is needed is a clear understanding of the issues involved so that informed decisions can be made.”   

Unfortunately, the last thing that the MoD or the drone industry wants at the moment is a public debate about the growing use of drones.  The report when publicised by Drone Wars UK and the Guardian was withdrawn from the MoD website (although it did quietly return months later) and the authors were dispatched to Afghanistan.   Instead the MoD  decided to launch a “communication strategy” to win over public opinion in support of armed drones with the key message being to “stress the equivalence of  RPAS [drones] to traditional combat aircraft.”

However there are clear differences between drones and manned aircraft, in particular the way there are being used to loiter over particular areas to seek ‘targets of opportunity’ and their increasing use in targeted killing away from any battlefield.  Some of the questions that need to be asked are:

  • Does the geographic and psychological distance between the operator and target make a positive or negative difference? 
  • Does using unmanned systems mean attacks happen more often? 
  • Does faith in the supposed accuracy of drone sensors and cameras mean that commanders are more willing to undertake ‘riskier’ strikes (in terms of possible civilian casualties) than they would previously have undertaken?

All of these questions and many more need to be debated openly and honesty and require careful analysis and clear-headed judgment based on the available evidence. Unfortunately, that evidence, is being kept strictly under wraps by the Ministry of Defence and they are refusing to engage in a debate on these issues. 

While David Cameron is keen to stress that at this stage only (only!) ‘a few tens of millions of Euros’ are being allocated towards developing this new drone the costs will soon soar.   Early figures from the MoD indicate that the new drone could cost the UK around £2 billion but other estimates are much higher.


In November 2010  the UK and France signed a defence and security cooperation treaty which included a commitment to work together on nuclear issues and armed drones.  The two countries have agreed to build a new armed drone and BAE Systems and Dassault have joined together to offer the proposed Telemos drone to fulfill this ‘need’.  All indications are that the new drone will be based on BAE’s Mantis drone, although Dassault have also been working on a drone called ‘Neuron’.

EADS, meanwhile, the other giant of the European military industry is fighting its corner for its own drone; Talarion.  Fox News reported that the EADS CEO was “furious” that France is apparently going to choose the BAE Systems/Dassault proposal.

EADS reaction is so strong because they do not want to be left out of what many see as the key market in the global arms trade over the next few years.  While the new UK-France drone contract is estimated to be worth around £2bn, the global drone market over the next three years alone has recently been predicted to be worth around $14bn.  With Israel companies and US drone giant General Atomics already firmly established in the market, winning funds to develop a future European combat drone is vital for these military corporations.

 For more details see The Drone Wars Briefing

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