Happy birthday to us! Drone Wars UK is ten

Rather unbelievably, Drone Wars UK is ten years old this week. Although I had been researching and writing about drone warfare earlier, Drone Wars UK as a blog, an organisation, an entity came into being on 1st June 2010.  In the decade since, the use of armed drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles – or ‘remotely piloted air systems’ as we are pressed by some to call them – has (ahem) taken off.  As we and many others feared and predicted, the use of these systems has become virtually normalised and are spreading across the globe, and yet this is still only, I would suggest, the beginning of the drone war era.

While the existence of Drone Wars UK does not, of course, coincide with the existence of drone warfare itself – unarmed UAVs have been used in warfare in various ways for decades with the first air strike from a drone taking place soon after 9/11 – the past decade has undoubtedly seen drones established as a key tool of modern warfare.

We had a public event planned for this week, bringing experts together to discuss and reflect on drone warfare – and with cake to mark the anniversary – but sadly due to Covid-19 restrictions, that has had to be postponed till later in the year. In the meantime, I answered a few questions about our work over the past decade and our future plans in a video interview, and I’ll be sharing a short series of reflections, taking stock of where we are now, what has changed over the past decade, and where we are likely headed in the near future.  As always, we rely on donations to keep our campaign work going. If you are able to make a contribution to our 10th birthday appeal we would be extremely grateful.  

Reflections #1: Are ‘drones’ (still) a thing to focus on?

Throughout the past decade, with perhaps the exception of an 18-month period in 2012/3, we’ve been repeatedly told that drones are not something to focus on.

At the very beginning this was because they were thought too obscure and irrelevant to what was happening at the time and there were other issues around peace and security to work on.  As time went on and the use of drones became more prominent, we began to be told that drones were in fact no different from other forms of air power so there was little point on limiting our work to simply drones. Later still, as the media coverage of the US use of drones to carry out targeted killings in Pakistan and Yemen grew, and the UK followed down this path, Read more

Protector starts with ‘PR’: the coming battle over military drone use in the UK

UK has been using armed drones overseas since 2008

The use of armed drones by the UK and in particular, the US, grew rapidly in the early 2000s as the ability to carry out remote strikes and targeted killings, with no risk to one’s own forces, was increasingly valued. However, because the public perception of drones has always generally been negative, military, industry and government officials know that they need to shape and improve how the public perceive the use of these systems. This effort is now being ratcheted up for two key and related reasons: i) to continue to be able to use armed drones for military operations overseas ii) to fly military drones in domestic airspace. 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

UK rapidly developing new drone programmes: Mosquito and swarming

The UK’s ‘Mosquito’ is being developed under the MoD’s LANCA programme

While the primary focus for UK military drone operations has been around larger systems like Reaper, the forthcoming ‘Protector’ and Watchkeeper; the UK is increasingly funding the development of smaller drones to engage in war-fighting roles. Read more

Military drone crash data undermines MoD case to fly Protector drones in UK

Drone Wars is today publishing a new report reviewing large military drone crashes over the past decade.  Accidents Will Happen details over 250 crashes of large Predator-sized (NATO Class II and III) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) across the globe operated by a number of different countries, primarily the United States. The data is being released as UK airspace regulators are coming under pressure from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and industry lobbyists to open British airspace to such drones.

Although there has been public and parliamentary discussion about the impact on public safety and security of the increasing use of small drones (particularly since the incursions at Gatwick airport in late 2018), there has so far been little media or political discussion about the implications of opening up UK airspace to large military drones. However airspace regulators have serious concerns about the danger of operating unmanned systems alongside piloted aircraft.  Read more

Will the UK continue to launch strikes against ISIS?

On Saturday (23 March) the Syrian Defence Force announced that ISIS’ last stronghold, the small town of Baghuz on the banks of the Euphrates, had been captured. With that, ISIS’ so-called Caliphate was at an end.

When British MPs voted for resolutions supporting strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, these had specific aims. Firstly, in 2014, strikes were authorised to aid Iraqi security and then in 2015, to eliminate ISIS’ safe haven in Syria. Now, more than four years later, Iraq has declared victory over ISIS, and the so-called ‘safe haven’ for ISIS has been removed Read more