Against a backdrop of horrific Israeli air strikes in Gaza as well as a US drone strike in Pakistan, the Farnborough International Air show took place this week in the UK. Although billed as an air show, the event is in reality a week-long marketing event for the world’s military (and some civil) aviation companies to show off their wares with an open-to-the-public air show tacked on at the end.
Drones are increasingly important at Farnborough with a reported 78 companies displaying unmanned drones this year. In terms of British drones the key event was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the UK and France on the £120m ($205m) agreement to study the development of the Future Combat Air System. This funding was first announced earlier this year at the Anglo-French Summit at Brize Norton.
Both BAE Systems and Dassault are independently developing their own advance combat drones – called Taranis and Neuron respectively – which will be used to ‘inform’ the FCAS programme.. Both companies have prototypes of their combat drones already flying and BAE Systems took the opportunity to promote Taranis with some details and many glossy images of flights that have taken place in ‘stealth’ mode.
Watchkeeper, the Anglo-Israeli drone which is being developed for the British army, is being offered to the French as part of the ongoing UK-French co-operation on drones. As Watchkeeper programme is now more than three years behind schedule and unlikely to be fielded in Afghanistan, reports are that around half of the UK’s order of 54 aircraft will be mothballed even before being used. Thales UK, which is developing the drone with Israeli company Elbit Systems, announced at Farnborough that it is willing to sell the drone to civil customers. Or even to lease them. Given the size and cost of Watchkeeper, and the difficulty of getting regulators to give permission to fly them, the company is looking increasing desperate to find future customers – any customers – for Watchkeeper.
But it was not just the larger drones that were being marketed at Farnborough. As Associated Press rather breathlessly pointed out “the hottest thing” at Farnborough was small drones. As we have previously reported, drone companies are increasingly looking to weaponize small drones and military companies are happy to provide such weapons.
This year Thales (again) with US company Textron were marketing a new small missile specifically designed for small drones. The 70cm long missile with a 6kg (13lb) warhead is called the Free Fall Lightweight Multi-role Missile (or even less snappily the FFLMM). Ricky Adair, Thales director of sales and marketing for the missiles division was happy to proclaim “There are many market opportunities for a weapon like this.”
Israeli companies were of course present at Farnborough. Who knows, perhaps they were delighted that their products were available for all to see in action on the nightly news. IAI certainly seemed in no way abashed to declare that its Searcher, Heron and Eitan drones were “fully operational with the Israeli air force” during the week despite the horror and revulsion many feel at the horrific loss of life and damage to the civilian infrastructure.
Military companies at these marketing events speak a sanitized language of ‘kinetic events’ and “ordnance consumables” and seem obviously to the misery their products cause. Thankfully, as the latest Pew Research poll on public reaction to US drone strikes shows, (outside of the US) the world is really beginning to become aware of just what a threat drones are to global peace and security.