Online Event – 25 March: Meaning-less human control: Lessons from air defence systems for LAWS

Together with Center for War Studies of University of Southern Denmark, we are hosting an online event on Thursday 25 March at 2pm (GMT) to discuss our co-published report, Meaning-less human control: Lessons from air defence systems for Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS).

In recent years, autonomous weapons systems have increasingly come to the attention of the international community. Debates on these weapon systems centre on whether they reduce meaningful human control over the use of force.  This event will discuss our latest report with an expert panel:

  • Dr Ingvild Bode (Associate Professor of International Relations: Centre for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark)
  • Maaike Verbruggen TBC (Doctoral Researcher: International Security, Institute for European Studies )
  • Richard Moyes (Managing Director: Article 36)
  • Dr Peter Burt: Chair: (Researcher: Drone Wars UK)

Click here to register for the event and further details 

Drone Wars continues to pursue details of secret UK drone operations

Drone Wars is undertaking legal action in an attempt to gain details of secret British Reaper drone operations that has been taking place since at least 2019.  Appealing against the MoD’s refusal to answer both FoI requests and parliamentary questions about these missions, Drone Wars is seeking answers before an Information Tribunal.

Drone Wars discovered in early 2020 that the UK was flying Reaper missions outside of ‘Operation Shader’, the name of the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Although the MoD acknowledged that such missions were taking place, it flatly refused to detail their location or the number of sorties that had been undertaken.  According to the latest FoI response from the MoD (Jan 2021) it appears these secret sorties are continuing.

After an internal appeal to the MoD was rejected in early 2020, Drone Wars appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in April 2020 with a response received in January 2021. Although the Commissioner accepted that there is “significant and weighty public interest in disclosure of the withheld information,” she ultimately upheld the refusal to release the information following undisclosed submissions made to the ICO by the Ministry of Defence. Read more

‘All the warfare of the future’: Drones, new technology and the Integrated Review

At the beginning of March, the government will publish its long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, known (thankfully) as ‘The Integrated Review’.  It’s purpose is to “define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy.”

When published, the Integrated Review will likely focus on strategy and overarching themes rather than detail specific projects (a White Paper is expected soon after to flesh out equipment plans). However, it is already clear from statements made by ministers and senior military officers that in terms of defence and security, investment in emerging military technology such as direct energy, cyber, AI, and in particular, drones, is seen as key for the UK’s ‘involvement in the world’.

The clearest indication of this came in Boris Johnson’s statement to the House of Commons on defence spending in late November. Framed as an update on the Integrated Review, the Prime Minister announced a significant budget increase, declaring that UK military spending would be around £190 billion over the next four years.  Again and again during his statement, Johnson returned to the government’s commitment to , as he put it, ‘the new technologies of warfare’:

“Our new investment [is] to be focused on the technologies that will revolutionise warfare, forging our military assets into a single network designed to overcome the enemy. A soldier in hostile territory will be alerted to a distant ambush by sensors on satellites or drones, instantly transmitting a warning, using artificial intelligence to devise the optimal response and offering an array of options, from summoning an airstrike to ordering a swarm attack by drones, or paralysing the enemy with cyber-weapons. New advances will surmount the old limits of logistics. Our warships and combat vehicles will carry “directed energy weapons”, destroying targets with inexhaustible lasers. For them, the phrase “out of ammunition” will become redundant.”

Asked about research and development spending, Johnson added

“There is big, big chunk of this package specifically dedicated to research and development in cyber, AI and drone warfare – all the warfare of the future.  The victors of the future will be those who are able to master data and new technology in the way that this package supports.”

And Johnson isn’t the only one talking up the UK’s commitment to drones and new military technology.  Defence Secretary Ben Wallace suggested last summer that 90% of the RAF’s aircraft will be unmanned drones by 2040, insisting that the Army would have to give up assets such as tanks in order to have more drones and other modern equipment. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, told Sky News on Remembrance Sunday that the British army of the 2030s could include large numbers of autonomous or remotely controlled machines while leaks to The Times indicated that the size of the British army could be cut by 10,000 as part of ‘an increased focus on unmanned drones and vehicles along with enhanced technological capabilities.’

While the direction of travel is increasingly clear, the question to be asked, then, is what is behind the embrace of drones, autonomy and other emerging technology? What does it indicate about how the government sees the UK’s role in the world that we are investing so heavily in these systems?  Read more

General Atomics plan flights of its new drone in UK – safety fears rerouted previous flights in the US    

A SkyGuardian UAV at General Atomics’ California factory.

General Atomics is to bring a company-owned SkyGuardian drone to the UK in the summer to undertake “a series of operational capability demonstrations” for the UK and other NATO members. The RAF’s soon to be acquired Protector drone is a version of the SkyGuardian with a range of UK modifications. The aircraft is being shipped into the UK rather than flying in (possibly due to the controversy around a previous flight to the UK) and will be based at RAF Waddington. Read more

UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots writes to Defence Secretary on the UK’s approach to LAWS

Guardian report of Gen Sir Nick Carter’s comments on UK’s increasing use of autonomous and remotely controlled machines.

As members of the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Drone Wars and a number of other UK civil society groups have written to Secretary of State Ben Wallace on the UK’s position on the development of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems partly in response to recent comments by the Chief of the Defence Staff.

Dear Secretary of State,

We are writing on behalf of the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, in advance of the next meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on ‘Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems’ (LAWS) at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), as well as the CCW’s meeting of High Contracting Parties. We welcome the UK government’s recognition in the CCW that discussing human control is central to successful international work to address increasing ‘autonomy’ in weapons systems, and that this is an area in which meaningful progress can be made.[1]  Read more

Announcing a new initiative:  UK Drone Watch

Since 2010, Drone Wars UK has been shining a spotlight on the military’s use of drones and the impact on peace and security around the globe. Now, both in the US and in Europe, large military-grade drones which fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) are moving from the battlefield to the domestic front.

Here in the UK, the government is rapidly pushing ahead with plans to enable large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly freely within UK airspace as part of its Airspace Modernisation Strategy.  These plans are keenly supported by the growing drone industry and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who are taking a significant lead in this area with plans, for example, to fly the latest version of the Predator drone – which the MoD is calling ‘Protector’  – in UK airspace.  Ministers argue that the planned changes present exciting opportunities for business to create high-tech jobs and to boost the economy across the UK.  While these plans may well be a boon for some, it is vital that the negative aspects of ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) drone use within the UK are examined, and if such flights are to go ahead, privacy and safety protections are factored in from the start.

Elbit Systems Hermes 900 during UK trial flight for Coastguard and National Police Air Service in September 2020

It should be noted that there are no plans for primary legislation to implement these changes which would given an opportunity to subject these changes to democratic scrutiny via parliamentary debate. Instead a quango, the Airspace Change Organising Group (ACOG), has been established by the Department for Transport (DfT) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), to coordinate and implement government plans in this area.  We believe it is vital that this democratic deficit is publicised and challenged and the public have their say in controlling drones in UK skies.

Over the past few months, we have seen military drones deployed at the UK border to deter refugees crossing the channel, the RAF advancing plans to fly the ‘Protector’ drone in the UK,  UK coastguard and police assessing large Israeli drones for operations and other drone test programmes advanced under the COVID crisis.

Alongside our continuing focus on the military use of drones, we will now have a related programme examining the opening of UK skies to large BVLOS drones and in particular their use for security and surveillance purposes within the UK.

  • For more information see our dedicated webpage: Drone Watch UK
  • Read our first post of this initiative: Benchmarking Police Use of Drones
  • Join us soon for an online discussion on developing campaigning around opening of UK skies to BVLOS drones  (details tbc).