The 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.