Drone proliferation in light of increased targeted killing

Drones_for_saleThe news that the UK has followed the US and Israel in using armed drones to launch a targeted killing outside of UN sanctioned armed conflict should make the international community even more concerned about the growing proliferation of armed drones.

All three countries known to have used armed drones have now gone beyond the generally accepted provisions of international law in this area, although perhaps unsurprisingly the countries themselves refute this. Read more

UK drone exports – a peek behind the curtain

trade_showaDrones, or as the industry prefers to call them unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are the latest ‘must have’ weapon system and many countries are seeking to acquire or develop various types of military drones. While Israeli and US companies dominate the drone export market (and are also involved in lobbying efforts to ‘relax’ the international controls on their export), drones are increasingly been seen by the UK arms industry as a growth area and already a number of smaller niche companies have been swallowed up by the big guns. Read more

As war rages in Gaza and Pakistan, drone companies gather at Farnborough to market their wares

Palestinians gather around a taxi in which four members of the Abu Daqqa family were killed in a reported Israeli drone strike on Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on 16 July.  (Ramadan El-Agha / APA images)
Palestinians gather around a taxi in which four members of the Abu Daqqa family were killed in a reported Israeli drone strike on Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on 16 July.
(Ramadan El-Agha / APA images)

Against a backdrop of horrific Israeli air strikes in Gaza as well as a US drone strike in Pakistan, the Farnborough International Air show took place this week in the UK. Although billed as an air show, the event is in reality a week-long marketing event for the world’s military (and some civil) aviation companies to show off their wares with an open-to-the-public air show tacked on at the end.

Drones are increasingly important at Farnborough with a reported 78 companies displaying unmanned drones this year. In terms of British drones the key event was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the UK and France on the £120m ($205m) agreement to study the development of the Future Combat Air System. This funding was first announced earlier this year at the Anglo-French Summit at Brize Norton.

Both BAE Systems and Dassault are independently developing their own advance combat drones  – called Taranis and Neuron respectively – which will be used to ‘inform’ the FCAS programme.. Both companies have prototypes of their combat drones already flying and BAE Systems took the opportunity to promote Taranis with some details and many glossy images of flights that have taken place in ‘stealth’ mode.

Watchkeeper, the Anglo-Israeli drone which is being developed for the British army, is being offered to the French as part of the ongoing UK-French co-operation on drones.  As Watchkeeper programme is now more than three years behind schedule and unlikely to be fielded in Afghanistan, reports are that around half of the UK’s order of 54 aircraft will be mothballed even before being used. Thales UK, which is developing the drone with Israeli company Elbit Systems, announced at Farnborough that it is willing to sell the drone to civil customers.  Or even to lease them.  Given the size and cost of Watchkeeper, and the difficulty of getting regulators to give permission to fly them, the company is looking increasing desperate to find future customers – any customers – for Watchkeeper.

UK and French ministers and officials sign agreement on future drone developments
UK and French Ministers sign an agreement on developing future combat drones at Farnborough 2014

But it was not just the larger drones that were being marketed at Farnborough. As Associated Press rather breathlessly pointed out “the hottest thing” at Farnborough was small drones.  As we have previously reported, drone companies are increasingly looking to weaponize small drones and military companies are happy to provide such weapons.

This year Thales (again) with US company Textron were marketing a new small missile specifically designed for small drones. The 70cm long missile with a 6kg (13lb) warhead is called the Free Fall Lightweight Multi-role Missile (or even less snappily the FFLMM). Ricky Adair, Thales director of sales and marketing for the missiles division was happy to proclaim “There are many market opportunities for a weapon like this.”

Israeli companies were of course present at Farnborough. Who knows, perhaps they were delighted that their products were available for all to see in action on the nightly news. IAI certainly seemed in no way abashed to declare that its Searcher, Heron and Eitan drones were “fully operational with the Israeli air force” during the week despite the horror and revulsion many feel at the horrific loss of life and damage to the civilian infrastructure.

Military companies at these marketing events speak a sanitized language of ‘kinetic events’ and “ordnance consumables” and seem obviously to the misery their products cause. Thankfully, as the latest Pew Research poll on public reaction to US drone strikes shows, (outside of the US) the world is really beginning to become aware of just what a threat drones are to global peace and security.

Parliamentary Committee urges Government to ensure controls on drone exports are not weakened

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague

The UK Parliamentary Committee that oversees arms exports has today published its latest annual report. While the press have rightly focused on the shocking amount of arms exported to human rights abusers, the growing issue of drone proliferation also gets deserved scrutiny in the report.

Last October Drone Wars UK made a submission to the Committee drawing their attention to two specific issues in relation to the proliferation of drones. As the report states (Para 333) “Drone Wars UK raised concerns that the Read more

Mapping drone proliferation: big business vs. the MTCR

Countries that have drones according to GAO report

A new US Congress report on the proliferation of drones has confirmed a huge rise in the number of countries that now have military unmanned aerial systems.  The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published an unclassified version of its February 2012 report on the proliferation of UAVs.  The report examines both the proliferation of UAVs, commonly known as drones, and examines US and multilateral controls on the export of drone technology. Read more

Is Drone Proliferation about to Explode?

Over the past few months we have been compiling information about which countries have large drones in military service.  We have posted the results of our research here in our new database of large drones in military service.  According to our research 31 countries currently have Class 3 or Class 2 military drones in their inventories.  Many others are working to develop or acquire large drones or will have the smaller Class 1 drone in their inventory. (see here for a general guide to drone sizes)

Out of the 31 counties that currently have large drones in military service, 28 have either directly purchased some or all of their drones from another country or manufactured their drones with the help of another country.  The primary exporter of drones and drone technology is Israel.  Israel has directly exported the larger types  of drones to  13 countries and assisted 4 others in developing their own drones.  The US has directly exported larger drones to 6 countries while assisting in the development of 1 other; France has directly exported to 3 other countries, while South Africa has exported to 1 (see table below).

Countries which have exported drones & drone technology

While some of these exports and drone programmes reach back over many years, there are indications that drone proliferation is set to explode.   Just over the past weeks for example there have been a number of press reports about drone sales agreed or being explored.

Firstly NATO signed a contact with US company Northrop Grumman to purchase five Global Hawk UAVs.  The $1.7 billion deal, which has long been discussed, was signed at the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this week. NATO expects to spend another $2 billion to operate the aircraft over the next two decades.

After the NATO summit officials briefed journalists that President Obama had told the Turkish President Abdullah Gul, that the US was willing to sell armed drones to Turkey but had to get approval through congress.  Iraq has also announced this week that it is purchasing US drones to protect Iraqi oilfields.  Although most press articles carried pictures of Reaper or Predator drones to accompany the story it is highly unlikely the drones concerned will be armed.

Meanwhile the most prolific exporter of drones, Israel, continues to make sales.  This week Israel company Elbit Systems announced it had secured a $160m contract to supply drones to a European country but wouldn’t say who, while a senior Russian defence official said Russia may also be buying $50m of Israeli UAVs in the near future.  Also this weeek Singapore announced that it had inaugurated their first Heron drone into the Air Force.

There have also been recent reports that Switzerland and the UK are evaluating Israeli drones with a view to purchase.  Both countries already possess drones built in conjunction with Israeli companies.

The proliferation of drones  is supposed to be controlled under  the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) but it is a non-binding, voluntary agreement which seems close to being ignored in relation to drones.

Two years ago the then US Defense Secretary said it was ‘in the United States interest to share drone technology with allies despite the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)’  while manufacturers are lobbying hard to ease the so-called ‘tough restrictions’ on exports of drones.

Some are suggesting that the MTCR, which is not primarily aimed at controlling drones, may no longer be the appropriate mechanism to regulate their proliferation.  However if a new control regime is to be developed, it needs to happen very quickly – or it will simply be too late.

Later this year, the 34 partner nations of the MTCR will meet for their annual plenary review and it is vital that there is progress on curtailing the growing proliferation of drones.