Watchdog reports continuing problems with Protector and Watchkeeper drone programmes

General Atomics SkyGuardian drone which UK MoD chooses to call ‘Protector’

Last month the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it had signed a £65 million contract for delivery of three new Protector drones for the Royal Air Force (RAF).  In an upbeat press release, which included the bold claim that the drones are “capable of strike missions anywhere in the world,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace enthused that “the UK is proving once again that we are a world leader in defence technology” (although Protector will actually be purchased from General Atomics, a US-based company, and manufactured in the US) and that the drones would be “meeting the UK’s defence and security needs for decades to come.”

A few days before the MoD’s announcement, however, a more impartial assessment of progress of  the Protector programme was published by the government watchdog, the  Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in its annual report on progress of  major projects.  The Protector programme was rated as ‘amber’ by the IPA in its confidence assessment for delivery of the programme, meaning that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention. These appear resolvable at this stage and, if addressed promptly, should not present a cost/schedule overrun”. The rating is an improvement from amber-red last year (“successful delivery of the project is in doubt”) and red the year before that (“successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”).    Read more

A Joint Enterprise: How the UK and the US co-operate on drone warfare

Click to open

A new report published today by Drone Wars UK investigates the co-operation between the UK and the US in relation to armed drone operations. While the UK insist its armed drone programme is separate and independent to that of the US, our report, ‘Joint Enterprise: An overview of US-UK co-operation on armed drone operations’, argues that close historic ties, shared use of infrastructure and tightly integrated operations show that that the two programmes amount to a joint enterprise, with arguably joint liability.

The report lays out how co-operation between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and US Air Force (USAF) takes place in a wide range of areas and maps out the bases, companies, and operational units behind this joint enterprise. It shows how the harmonisation of equipment and concepts of operation, interoperability, and a single centre of command and control help to tie the UK into overseas ‘coalition’ wars led by the US.

As Drone Wars has revealed, there are currently a number of RAF Reapers deployed on a mission which the MoD will not discuss. It is more vital than ever that there is proper public transparency over UK drone operations and clearer understanding of the links with US drone operations. Read more

Book review: ‘Visibility equals death’ – living under the martial gaze

In 1978 the then-US under-Secretary of Defense, William Perry, declared that the Pentagon was seeking the ability “to be able to see all high-value targets on the battlefield at any time, to be able to make a direct hit on any target we can see, and to be able to destroy any target we can hit.”  In ‘The Eye of War‘, author Antoine Bousquet argues that military technology is increasingly allowing this objective to be achieved at virtually any time and in virtually any place around the world.

‘The Eye of War’ is the story of the evolution of what Bousquet calls ‘the martial gaze’ – a gaze that threatens anything which falls under it with obliteration.  Today’s military drones are a high profile, modern manifestation, of an ability to spot and destroy a target which has been emerging since the Middle Ages, and ‘The Eye of War’ sets out in vivid terms the histories of the various technologies involved and how they have converged to create a world which, in the words of military scholar Martin Libicki “visibility equals death”.  Read more

XLUUVs, Swarms, and STARTLE: New developments in the UK’s military autonomous systems

Behind the scenes, the UK is developing a range of military autonomous systems. Image: Crown Copyright

In November 2018 Drone Wars UK published ‘Off The Leash’, an in-depth research report outlining how the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was actively supporting research into technology to support the development of armed autonomous drones despite the government’s public claims that it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”.  This article provides an update on developments which have taken place in this field since our report was published, looking both at specific technology projects as well as developments on the UK’s policy position on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). Read more

Book Review ‘Eyes In The Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare’ by Arthur Holland Michel

Arthur Holland Michel, author of ‘Eyes In The Sky’, is one of the co-founders of the Centre for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York State.  The Centre for the Study of the Drone has done extraordinary work in monitoring the spread in the use of drones, including publication of ‘The Drone Databook’, a detailed country-by-county study of military drone capabilities;  a comprehensive study of counter-drone systems; and a weekly round-up of news and developments in the world of drones.

With this pedigree, and Michel’s background as a journalist reporting on technical issues, we can expect an authoritative and carefully considered account of the topic he has chosen to investigate in this book: the emergence of wide area persistent surveillance systems and their use in warfare and policing.  Based in large part on interviews with insiders, ‘Eyes In The Sky’ gives a balanced but nevertheless worrying account of the dramatic implications that wide area surveillance will have for society.  Read more

US Reaper drones test Agile Condor: Another step closer to ‘Killer Robots’

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, manufacturer of the Reaper drone, has recently been awarded a US Air Force contract to demonstrate the  ‘Agile Condor’ artificial intelligence system with the MQ-9 Reaper drone.  According to General Atomics President David R. Alexander,

“The Agile Condor project will further enhance RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] effectiveness by specifically allowing a MQ-9 to surveil a large area of operations, autonomously identify pre-defined targets of interest and transmit their locations.”

This type of capability represents a tangible step further towards the development of autonomous weaponised drones able to operate without human input – flying killer robots, in other words.  From identifying targets without the need for a human decision to destroying those targets is a very small step which could be achieved with existing technology. Read more