UK planning for strikes against ISIS in Afghanistan says head of Royal Air Force

Within days of withdrawing the last British troops from Afghanistan after 20 years of warfare, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is understood to be undertaking planning in order that the UK can launch airstrikes against ISIS in Afghanistan.  The plans emerged after the Afghanistan branch of ISIS launched a suicide attack at Kabul airport during the chaotic evacuation, which killed a large number of civilians – 90 according to some reports – including two British men, and 13 US troops.  Foreign secretary, Dominic Rabb signed a joint statement issued by the US-led coalition against ISIS saying that they would continue to “draw on all elements of national power—military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic, law enforcement—to ensure the defeat of this brutal terrorist organization.”

Head of RAF, Sir Mike Wigston told the Daily Telegraph “If there’s an opportunity for us to contribute, I am in no doubt that we will be ready to. That will be anywhere where violent extremism raises its head and is a direct or indirect threat to the UK and our allies. Afghanistan is probably one of the most inaccessible parts of the world, and we’re able to operate there.”  Read more

CAA opens UK skies to military drones

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has granted permission to US drone company General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new SkyGuardian drone in UK airspace. The MoD is buying 16 SkyGuardian drones, but renaming them as ‘Protector’. This is the first time that large military drones will be allowed to fly in the UK outside of segregated airspace and the decision will be seen as a breakthrough by the drone industry, who will see it as the beginning of opening UK skies to a whole host of drones to fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS).

The news came in an ‘airspace alert’ issued by the CAA following the announcement that temporary airspace rules were to be put in place around the bases where the drone will be based. The terse, one-sentence paragraph in the alert said:

“The CAA has also completed an in-depth review and issued the authorisation to General Atomics operate within the UK.”

The lack of detail reflects the lack of transparency about the process to allow General Atomics to use its largely untried and untested ‘Detect and Avoid’ (DAA) equipment in the flights.

General Atomics has developed its DAA equipment to supposedly replicate an on-board pilot’s ability to ‘see and avoid’ danger. This is the bedrock upon which all air safety measures are built and – as we reported back in 2018 – regulators at the CAA were deeply sceptical as to whether remote technology can replace an on-board pilot in busy airspace such as UK skies. Test flights of the drone in the US last summer, which were due to fly over San Diego, were routed away from city after apparent concerns from US safety regulators.  Read more

RAF drone programmes fly into stormy skies

BAe System image of Tempest aircraft with accompanying drones

Funding for the ‘Tempest’ Future Combat Air System which is intended to replace the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft is “significantly less than required” and “adds significant overall programme risk” to delivery of the new jet, according to a report on government project management published jointly by HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

In its first assessment of the Tempest programme the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), which reports jointly to the two government departments, reveals that successful delivery of the aircraft is already “in doubt”.  Another high profile drone project, delivery of the RAF’s new ‘Protector’ aircraft, rated a similar assessment.

Tempest is under joint development by Italy, Sweden, and the UK as the next generation combat aircraft for the three nations – a high performance, high cost system consisting of a core aircraft, which is likely to be able to fly in both crewed and uncrewed modes, with an associated network of swarming drones, sensors, and data systems.

The IPA, which each year rates the performance of government departments in delivering major projects, has scored the Future Combat Air System programme with an Amber / Red risk rating in its report for the 2020-21 financial year.  This means that “successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and assess whether resolution is feasible”.  Read more

New report examines civilian deaths in French drone-instigated air strike in Mali

Stoke White Investigations has examined the reported killing of civilians in a French air strike on a wedding party in Mail in January 2021. The following is adapted from the report’s Executive Summary. The full report can be viewed here.  

On 3 January 2021, France undertook 3 airstrikes as part of its Operation Barkhane mission in Bounti, central Mali. France claimed it had attacked an armed “terrorist group”, but locals reported that a wedding party had been attacked. A subsequent UN report into the strikes  – the first investigating France’s military activities in Mali – concluded that a wedding was indeed taking place, and that 19 civilians had been killed.

What exactly happened on the Sunday afternoon is disputed by the various parties of this civilian casualty allegation, but by the evening of the attack, a local social organisation, the AES Corporation, had already notified its members that a wedding was attacked outside Bounti, killing civilians.  Two days later, French forces told the AFP that its military aircrafts had “neutralised” dozens of fighters in central Mali and that reports of an attack on a wedding “do not match the observations that were made”.

French Armed Forces reported on January 7 that they had targeted members of Katiba Serma, an armed group, loosely connected with Al-Qaeda after they had conducted a multi-day intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission in Douentza, in central Mali’s Mopti region. As part of this, a French Reaper drone had been conducting an ISR mission for one hour when it decided to follow a motorcycle carrying two individuals north of the “NR16” highway.  The motorcycle joined approximately “40 adult men in an isolated area”, one kilometre north of the village of Bounti, in the region of Douentza. The real-time intelligence of the drone had apparently given the French Armed Forces the confidence that it located members of the Katiba Serma. Read more

Drone Proliferation Update, July 2021

In the seeming absence of any political will at the international level to control the export and use of armed drones, their proliferation continued unabated during the first half of 2021.

The three main exporters of these systems – Turkey, China and the US –  all signed significant deals, with Israeli companies also exporting large drones, although, as always, Israel never officially admits that its drones can be armed. A number of other countries are attempting to develop indigenous armed drones although it is much harder to gain information on these programmes.

Turkey

Morocco:  The Moroccan armed forces confirmed in April that it had signed a deal with Turkey for the purchase of 13 armed Bayraktar drones at the cost of $70m, with deliveries “to begin within the year” according to news reports.  Reuters had reported late last year that the Trump administration was considering authorising the sale of SkyGuardian drones to Morocco, but this deal may have fallen by the wayside. Morocco also has Israeli Heron drones acquired via France in 2020. Reports circulated in April that Morocco had used a drone to undertake the targeted killing in the Western Sahara region of Polisario commander Addah Al-Bendir, however these reports have been unconfirmed and may be mistaken.

Poland: The Polish President, Andrzej Duda, signed a deal for 24 Bayraktar drones during a state visit to Turkey in May. The four sets of six drones will each have two ground control stations and three ground data terminals at a cost of $270m. The deal includes missiles, training ammunition and operator training.  Poland becomes the first NATO country to purchase Turkish armed drones which are expected to delivered in 2022.  Poland had previously considered the UK’s Watchkeeper drone and has been developing the Zefir UAV as a MALE drone, but it is now unclear whether this programme will continue.

Saudi Arabia: During a press conference In March, Turkey’s President Erdogan revealed that Saudi Arabia also wanted to acquire the Bayraktar armed drones.  While Turkey has been at odds with Saudi since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and some nations have imposed an arms embargo on Saudi due to its war in Yemen – Turkey’s recently report to UN Register of Conventional Weapons shows that 3 UAVs have been exported to the country.  Read more

Say No to US Military Drone Tests in UK Skies!

This summer the US drone company General Atomics is bringing the latest version of its Predator drone – called ‘SkyGuardian’ – to undertake test flights over England and Scotland from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, and RAF Lossiemouth, north of Inverness.  Civil society groups and journalists have documented hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent civilians who have been killed in US drone strikes around the globe. However the drone wars continue to expand, and these flights are to demonstrate the new drone to European and other militaries as well as trialling new technology that will enable such drones to fly in civil airspace.

Further background: New details of US drone flights in UK this summer raise concerns over safety and corporate cronyism.  Read more