As was the case five years ago when we looked at drones and the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), yesterday’s publication of the 2015 SDSR brought some information, but little detail.
The headline announcement in this area – that the UK is to at least double its fleet of armed drones – was ‘pre-announced’ by the Prime Minister last month in an interview with the Sunday Times. The SDSR adds little new information, stating simply that the UK will have “more than 20 new Protector armed remotely piloted aircraft, more than doubling the number of the Reaper aircraft which they replace.” (Para 4.49)
As we commented previously, the desire to control the narrative around the use of drones is what is leading the MoD to baptise this ‘new’ drone as the ‘Protector’, a far more soothing name than ‘Predator’ or ‘Reaper’. Despite the re-branding, the drone will be the Predator B (also known as the Reaper) according to senior MoD officials speaking at a Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) conference in October. As Tim Robinson of RAeS wrote:
“Speaking at the event, Air Commodore Peter Grinsted, Head of Unmanned Air Systems, MoD, disclosed the ‘Protector’ drones will be procured from General Atomics Aeronautical systems (GA-ASI) and are set to enter service in 2020. Though the firm configuration will not be decided until March 2016, the Protector will be an “upgraded Reaper with greater capability” said Air Cdre Grinsted. Specifically, it will be the enhanced variant of Predator B (Reaper) which has been designed to be compatible with NATO airworthiness standards – allowing it to operate in civilian airspace. This European-airspace compatible Certifiable Predator B (CPB) will also come with the extended wing and fuel tanks of the ER (Extended Range) version now entering service with the USAF, giving increased endurance of over 40 hours. First flight of the CPB variant, redesigned to meet these strict NATO RPAS standards, is expected in 2016, with a production-standard aircraft to fly in 2017.”
More details about ‘Protector’ are likely to come into the public domain next March when funding decisions are due to be taken.
Future Combat Air System / Unmanned Combat Air System
For some time the UK and France have been working jointly on a new unmanned combat drone to be in service around 2030. The MoD told the Defence Select Committee last summer
“Key attributes of a UCAV would include the ability to undertake long-range missions and to provide high levels of persistence and survivability in a contested environment featuring advanced air and ground threat systems. These attributes of range, persistence and survivability coupled with an advanced suite of sensors and weapons should permit a UCAV to make a major contribution to the provision of precise attack and ISTAR capabilities for the UK.”
A £120 million, 2-year feasibility study was launched in early 2014 and both countries have also separately been working with national industry partners on their own combat drone systems with the UK part funding BAE Systems’ Taranis drone demonstrator programme.
While the project gained only a passing mention in the SDSR document itself (“We will work with France to develop our Unmanned Combat Air System programme, and collaborate on complex weapons” – para 4.50), on Facebook (!) yesterday David Cameron wrote:
“As part of our historic partnership, under the Lancaster House Treaty, we also intend to make a significant joint investment with France in developing unmanned combat air vehicles.”
As the two-year feasibility study draws to a close, it is likely that there will be more details on this “significant joint investment” early in the New Year.
Mark Menzies MP, who represents Fylde, the constituency where BAE Systems main factory is based and where the Taranis drone is being developed, popped up to ask David Cameron for reassurance that BAE Systems will get a share of drone spending:
“Will he give me, as the Member of Parliament representing Warton, an assurance that the future of unmanned aerial combat vehicles will involve more than simply buying them off the shelf?
David Cameron was happy to give such assurances telling the MP “the commitment, the money and the research are all there. I want Britain to stay at the cutting edge of these technologies.”
Not specifically mentioned in the SDSR document (other than a reference to investment in advanced high-altitude surveillance aircraft – para 4.46) but again highlighted in David Cameron’s Facebook post was the procurement of new ultra-long endurance drone: “These British-designed unmanned aircraft will fly at the very edge of the earth’s atmosphere and allow us to observe our adversaries for weeks on end, providing critical intelligence for our forces.” This will be the Zephyr.
Zephyr was designed and developed in the UK by QinetiQ where it broke a number of records for longest flight – but in 2013 the programme was bought wholesale by Airbus where it underwent further development.
In September 2015 Airbus officials briefed the military press that the MoD was buying three Zephyr 8’s but this was swiftly and embarrassingly withdrawn. Presumably the company were supposed to wait till after the SDSR to make the announcement. Defense News reported at the time:
“The Zephyr 8 machines will be capable of flying at around 70,000 feet for up to three months, giving military and civil customers the ability to conduct persistent surveillance or establish communications relays at a fraction of the cost of satellites or manned aircraft and significantly longer than other unmanned platforms.
The British will use the three UAVs for operational capability demonstrations, including flying two of the machines at the same time, Whitby [of Airbus] told reporters.
Deliveries of the machines for the British are expected to take place over the next 15 to 18 months and the first test flight is scheduled for 2017, he said. The British have conducted flight tests on an earlier, smaller version of the Zephyr they acquired from Airbus.”
Without doubt David Cameron’s government is committing the UK more and more to the drone wars. For over a decade now the UK has been involved in remote-controlled strikes – the first RAF-controlled drone strike took place in late 2004 – and it is now waging war this way on virtually a daily basis. These latest funding pledges mean further involvement in remote warfare, not only today and tomorrow, but for decades to come. And lest anyone be unsure whether that means further British drone targeted killing or not, Cameron is explicit what he wants drones for:
“We need to be able to find and track terrorists in these hostile environments. Where they pose an imminent threat to the UK, British interests abroad or to our allies, and there is no way to bring them to justice, we will act decisively.” (Para 4.92).
Britain’s drone wars it seems are here to stay.