MoD to hold ‘duel of drones’ to choose new armed unmanned system

Artist conception of Loyal Wingman drones

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) will launch a series of competitions this autumn to progress the selection of an armed loyal wingman drone culminating in a duel between the two finalist – “an operational fly-off” as Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of Air Staff described it.  The initiative comes after the abrupt cancellation of Project Mosquito (to develop a loyal wingman drone technology demonstrator for the RAF)  earlier this summer.  The RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) will run the new process, open to both UK and international industry , and aimed at acquiring a “Mosquito type autonomous combat vehicle” after the Mosquito project itself was cancelled as it was not  thought able to achieve an operational drone within the desired timeframe.

Loyal Wingman

The concept of loyal wingman drones is for one or more to fly alongside, or in the vicinity of, a piloted military aircraft  – currently for the UK that would be  Typhoon and F-35, but in the future, Tempest – with the drones carrying out specific tasks such as surveillance, electronic warfare (i.e. radar jamming), laser guiding weapons onto targets, or air-to-air or air-to-ground strikes.   Rather than being directly controlled by an individual pilot on the ground as the UK’s current fleet of Reaper drones are, these drone fly autonomously, sharing data and information with commanders on the ground via the main aircraft.

In addition, loyal wingman drones are supposed to be cheap enough that they can be either entirely expendable or ‘attritable’ (that is not quite expendable, but cheap enough so that it is not a significant event if it is shot down or crashes).  However, Aviation International News, who spoke to an RCO insider, said that the focus would now centre on exploring a drone that fits somewhere between Category 1 (expendable airframes) and Category 2 (attritable airframes). According to the source, there is also a Category 3, which is survivable, indicating a larger airframe with stealth and other advanced technology and no doubt much more expensive.

Which drones will win out to take part in the ‘fly-off’ and come out on top as the UK’s loyal wingman drone is hard to predict, not least because the MoD’s criteria appears yet to be fixed.  However a few of the likely competitors are already emerging:  Read more

Webinar: ‘For Heaven’s Sake: Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space’

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Tuesday 23rd August 2022, 7pm.

Drone Wars UK and CND are co-hosting a webinar to examine the UK’s militarisation of space.  The webinar builds on the briefing the organisations co-published in June (right).

 Speakers

Dr Jill Stuart is an academic based at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is an expert in the politics, ethics and law of outer space exploration and exploitation. She is a frequent presence in the global media on the issue and regularly gives lectures around the world.

Dave Webb is former Chair of CND and long-time peace campaigner. He has played a leading role in CND’s work on missile defence. He is a member of the Drone Wars Steering Committee and co-author of the new report ‘Heavens Above: Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space.

Bruce Gagnon is founder and Coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He is author of numerous  articles on the issue as well as a regular speaker at conferences and meetings. He is an active member of Veterans for Peace.

Chair

Dr Kate Hudson is General Secretary of CND. She has held that post since September 2010, having previously been Chair of the campaign since 2003. She is a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner and author of CND at 60: Britain’s Most Enduring Mass Movement.

 

Although the UK’s space programme began in 1952, until recently it has had very limited impact. However, as the commercial space sector has expanded and the cost of launches has decreased, the UK government is now treating space as an area of serious interest. Over the past two years we have seen the setting up of UK Space Command, the publication of a Defence Space Strategy outlining how the MoD will “protect the UK’s national interests in space” and the announcement of a portfolio of programmes for developing space assets and infrastructure. Over the summer of 2022, the UK MoD plans its first UK space launch from the UK.

Concerns include a spiralling space ‘arms race’; the environmental impact both on earth and in space, and the risk of  an accident sparking an armed confrontation.

Tickets for the webinar are free and can be booked at the Eventbrite page here.

 

 

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri:  the tip of the targeted killing iceberg

President Biden announcing the targeted killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Drone assassination returned briefly to the top of the news agenda this week with the US targeted killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Many could be forgiven for thinking this was the first drone targeted killing since the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, but behind the scenes the use of drones for these type of operations is growing – and spreading.

Over-the-Horizon

The strike on Zawahiri, which took place early on Sunday morning (31 July) in Afghanistan, was announced by President Biden on Monday evening.  US officials speaking to journalists on background said that the strike was carried out by the CIA after Zawahiri’s location was discovered earlier in the year. US officials insisted that he was a lawful target based on his continuing leadership of al-Qaeda although multiple international law scholars question the US’ interpretation of international law in this area.

The strike comes almost a year after US troops withdrew from Afghanistan and, within the US at least, reporting of the targeted killing played out against continuing political arguments around whether the withdrawal has harmed or improved US interests/security in the region.  Biden argues that his ‘over-the-horizon’ strategy – that is remote drone strikes with ‘in-and-out’ special ops raids as necessary – instead of long-term deployments, improves US security.

Many early responses to the killing were quick to affirm the efficacy of drone strikes and this strategy. Trump’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the original withdrawal agreement, told the New York Times “In this case, over the horizon worked.” He called the strike proof that “we can protect our interest against terror threats in Afghanistan without a large and expensive military presence there.”  Elsewhere, the liberal think-tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft also claimed that such strikes ‘work’ insisting that they were “a more sustainable form of risk management” than long-term occupation (although, to be fair, they did argue that such a position “should not be conflated with the unhinged permissiveness of past drone wars”).   However, whether such strikes ‘work’ by increasing peace and security in the long-term, is still  very questionable.  The reality is that the drone warfare has its own logic and momentum, and its increasingly clear just how hard it has become to put this tool back in Pandora’s boxRead more

UK Government release ‘Drone Ambition Statement’ to renew push to open UK skies to drones

Amidst the hoopla of the Farnborough Airshow last week, the Government launched what it described  as it’s ‘Drone Ambition Statement’.  However, ‘Advancing airborne autonomy: Commercial drones saving money and saving lives in the UK’ is in reality, a hodgepodge of previous announced policies, ‘refreshed’ statistics and pleas to business and regulators to ‘get on with it’.  The frustration in the document – both with the public’s scepticism about the benefit of drones and the regulators hesitance on safety grounds to throw open the skies to drones – is palpable.

Fantasy Figures

Underpinning the government’s push to open UK skies to drones is the belief  that it will bring huge financial benefit to the UK.  A 2018 report from consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) sought to put a figure to this conviction and came up with the suggestion that drones ‘could’ give a £42bn “uplift” to the UK economy by 2030. While this figure has been quoted so many times in the media that its now almost taken as fact, in reality it is basically guess work.

As part of this renewed push on drones, the government asked PWC to update its report (hence, Skies Without Limits v2.0) and the consultants now suggests that by 2030 drones could contribute up to £45bn to the UK economy. However as PWC makes clear, this figures is dependent on “best case adoption” and notes that “many challenges must be addressed to unlock this potential estimate.”  Indeed.  These ‘challenges’ include developing the necessary technology to allow many more drones to fly within UK airspace –  and in particular, to allow them to fly ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ (BVLOS); putting in place a new regulatory framework that would allow drones to fly alongside crewed aircraft; and finally changing the public’s negative perception of drones.  Read more

Military drone crash update: Ukraine war toll and and ‘hidden crashes’

Bayraktar TB2 reportedly shot down near Kursk, April 2022

Updated – see below

We’ve added details of another 21 crashes to our drone crash database for the first half of 2022  – although 14 of them occurred in the context of the on-going war in Ukraine, so many will have likely been shot down.

It’s important to be aware that we only include larger (Class II and Class III) drones in our database, typified by medium altitude/long endurance drones like the Reaper MQ-9 and Bayraktar TB2.   There have been dozens of verified reports of smaller drones being shot down or crashing in that conflict but they are outside the scope of our study. However, it is extremely likely that other large drones have also crashed/been shot down in that conflict but have not been verified.

In addition, as we regularly try to explain, there are many crashes of large drones that simply aren’t made public and so don’t make it into our database. More on this below.

Ukraine

As in any armed conflict, there is a significant amount of disinformation and confusion surrounding on-going events.  We are only including details of large drone crashes that have been verified  – primarily through use of images.  @robLee@UAVTracker and @Oryx have done sterling work detailing on-going events.  Significantly, older Soviet-era reconnaissance drones have also been pressed into service by both sides, with indications that they may be being used as ‘flying missiles’.  One of these flew off course, crossing several European borders before crashing in the Croatian capital, Zagreb.  Both Russia and Ukraine have denied responsibility.  In a similar case, a Ukrainian operated Bayraktar TB2 went off course and ended up crashing off the coast of Romania.

Large UAVs crashed/shot down relating to Russia/Ukraine war (till 30th June)

Date Operator Drone type Details/source Location
Jun 28, 2022 Ukraine Tu-143 Reys Mid-flight (shot down) Russia
May 10, 2022 Russian Tu-141 Strizh Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
May 7, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight Romania
May 1, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Apr 27, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 27, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 25, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 12, 2022 Ukraine Tu-143 Reys Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Apr 7, 2022 Russia Inokhodets (Orion) Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Apr 2, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 30, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 17, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 11, 2022 Russia Forpost Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Mar 10, 2022 ? Tu-141 Strizh Mid-flight Croatia

Elsewhere, during the first six months of 2022, large drones operated by the US, India, France, Saudi Arabia and Philippines air forces have crashed or been shot down.  The variety of operators and types of UAVs crashing gives an indication of how difficult it is to operate these systems.  Remotely controlling aircraft is incredibly complex and a huge variety of problems can arise leading to an abrupt termination of the flight, including  mechanical issue, electrical failure, lost-communication link, weather problems and human error.  Read more

Smoke and mirrors: FoI shows there appears little substance to the RAF’s drone swarm squadron

Artist’s impression of aircraft launching swarming drones

14 July 2022 – updated below

A Freedom of Information (FoI) investigation has found that an RAF Squadron set up more than two years ago to take the lead on developing the UK’s swarming drones capability has yet to undertake any testing or trialling of drones and currently has just four personnel assigned to it. The revelation raises serious questions about Ministry of Defence (MoD) statements that it is rapidly progressing towards operational use of swarming drones.

While the MoD initially refused to answer any questions about 216 Squadron’s inventory or testing/trialling of drones, arguing the commercial confidentially mean that such details could not be released, this was overturned after an appeal and the MoD admitted that “216 Squadron has not conducted any UAV tests since it was reactivated on 1 April 2020.”

Background

Early in 2019, as part of his ‘Defence in Global Britain’ speech, then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans to develop a new capability of swarming drones. “I have decided to use the Transformation Fund  [ring-fenced  funds to develop new military technology] to develop swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences.”  Rather rashly, the Secretary of State went on to  declare “we expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of the year.”    Read more