Intervention ‘without the need to consider the human cost’: MoD thinking on UK’s new drone revealed

Documents obtained by Drone Wars using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) reveal how British military officials view the UK’s next generation armed drone, known as Protector, and the types of advanced capabilities the aircraft will have. Protector, which is set to replace the UK’s current fleet of armed Reaper drones in the mid-2020s, is essentially SkyGuardian—the latest version of the Predator drone being produced by General Atomics—plus UK modifications. The modifications revealed in the FOI documents (comprising presentations given by UK military personnel at a drone technology conference held last September) are significant because they provide an insight into how the Ministry of Defence (MOD) plan to utilise Protector.  Looking more widely, Protector epitomises the second drone age, characterised by a global expansion in both the type of drones being used by states and the scale of operations, including in the domestic sphere.

In one of the presentations obtained, Colonel Paul Hughes, Chief Engineer for the UK’s strategic (i.e. armed) drones, details the weapons and electronic tools Protector will carry. One such tool Hughes notes is ‘VORTEX’ (Video Oriented Transceiver for EXchange of Information), which appears to be manufactured by L3Harris. VORTEX is a ‘data link’ system which transmits and receives information, including encrypted live video.  The VORTEX system is important for the UK as it is able to transmit on different types of wavebands. This will allow the UK to utilise its Skynet satellite system to transmit information to and from its drones—which it has been unable to do so far.

Sensitive” Equipment

It is worth underscoring the fact that Hughes- for the first time we are aware of  – explicitly states that Protector will use the UK’s Skynet system rather than US or commercial satellite systems. As Drone Wars has previously noted, the significance of Protector being able to use Skynet is that it increases the range of communication options with the aircraft, and potentially the range of locations in which it can be operated – as well as decreasing dependence on US satellite systems.

His presentation also notes that Protector will be equipped with UK-made Paveway IV and Brimstone 3 missiles. Whereas Reaper could carry a maximum of two 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, Protector has nine weapons stations. As three Brimstone missiles are carried by a single launcher, this is a significant increase in the lethality of the UK’s drones.

Importantly, one slide in Hughes’ presentation details that Protector is being procured from General Atomics using a “hybrid” of Foreign Military and Direct Commercial sales processes. Foreign Military Sales are direct government-to-government contracts used for particularly restricted items. Hughes’ slide states that the “Weapons Stores Carriage” and other “Sensitive” items are being procured in this way, whereas the Protector air vehicle itself, as well as the ground control station and support equipment, is being bought directly from the company. The “sensitive” equipment being obtained is likely secret data gathering sensors.

The use of such advanced data gathering equipment is significant not least because the MOD want Protector to fly in UK airspace, raising concerns about the impact this could have on the privacy and other rights of British citizens, especially if surveillance and intelligence-gathering missions are conducted domestically.

Without a Human Cost?

Referring to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s notion that “hiding and finding will be at the centre of tomorrow’s battlefield”, Watkinson argues in his speech that Protector will help with the “hiding through the removal of aircrew from the aircraft making the cost of intervention a monetary one, without the need to consider the human cost.”  Watkinson’s statement here, whilst highly revealing, should come as no surprise.

Mosul 2017: Relatives mourn family members killed in aerial bombing. Image: Aris Messinis

When calculating the “cost of intervention”, the UK’s defence and security establishment regularly omits, without a second thought, the impact of the UK’s use of force on the people who are on the receiving end of it. In addition, producing an accurate assessment of the harm caused by the British military’s use of force is made much more difficult by the fact that it is often not even recorded. A recent report by the NGO Airwars, for example, concerning the UK’s involvement in the war against ISIS, found that the UK is “generally poor on accountability for non-combatant harm, with the Ministry of Defence seemingly incapable of detecting civilian casualties from its urban actions.”  Importantly, the Director of Airwars, Chris Woods, notes that the British media share some of the responsibility for this situation as they have displayed “a worrying complacency towards civilian harm from UK military actions”.  It has instead required independent journalists such as Mark Curtis to report and document the severe human cost of the UK’s recent overseas interventions, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

The “human cost” Watkinson actually has in mind are the pilots who no longer need to be on board modern drones. Yet armed drones are operated by air crew on whom, it has become clear, the demands of drone warfare can take an exacting toll.

Both the USAF and the RAF face problems recruiting and retaining armed drone operators. Such difficulties can be attributed to several factors, including: mental health issues associated with operating these systems; fatigue from long shifts and heavy workload; and concern about the ethical and legal controversies associated with the use of armed drones. As a result, the MOD’s Independent Medical Experts Group has recommended further study of the impact of flying drones on aircrew, while the permanent secretary at the MoD has suggested that the most significant risk to the Protector programme, is, understandably, personnel shortages.

The presentation included a mocked-up image of Protector over London. The MoD is pushing hard to open UK airspace to its new drone.

The personnel problems facing the UK’s armed drone programme may also partly explain the MOD’s recent announcement that Protector is to be “autonomy enabled”. As Peter Burt has explored, autonomy in drones may involve them being  able to fly themselves – staying aloft for extended periods, but also the ability “to select, identify, and destroy targets” without human involvement. Details about what autonomy may mean in practice for Protector—and the government’s wider plans to procure autonomous military systems, which were announced as part of the Prime Minister’s recent decision to give a massive boost to the UK’s defence budget—have yet to be given.

Overall, the presentations provide an important insight into the thinking of the British military and security establishment on Protector, and their belief that our “blood and treasure” are what primarily matters when the UK undertakes overseas interventions. As Agnes Callamard, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions argued recently, the UK should instead prioritise observing and upholding international humanitarian and human rights law, especially around the protection of civilians during conflict, and take the necessary steps to improve accountability and public understanding of the human cost of drone warfare


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