The future of British combat air power in the second drone age

Whilst the UK is already acquiring the latest version of the Predator armed drone, which it is choosing to call Protector, behind the scenes it is also developing new complex combat aircraft and systems to project force and fight wars in the future. Here Tim Street gives an overview of what is happening and discusses how these developments are incorporating lessons learned from drone warfare over the past 15 years.

FCAS: RAF mock up of Tempest aircraft operating with 'loyal wingman' drones
Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS): RAF mock up of Tempest aircraft operating with ‘loyal wingman’ drones

What is the future for combat air power involving the UK and the world’s other leading military nations? More specifically, what types of new technology are being developed in this area? And how does this relate to the second drone age, which is characterised by rapid horizontal and vertical proliferation? Such questions are currently under discussion, with several countries—including the UK—in the process of deciding whether to spend further billions to develop and acquire advanced capabilities for their air forces. This is partly because the current generation of fighter jets will begin retiring from service in the 2030s and 2040s. The next generation of combat aircraft will form a central part of what is often described in a European context as Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS). The FCAS concept refers to a ‘system of systems’, including primarily offensive, war-fighting weapons designed to achieve air superiority.  Read more

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

Drone Wars at Ten #3: What’s next? A peek at the future

In this final post to mark our 10th birthday, I want to peer a little into the future, looking at what we are facing in relation to drone warfare in the coming years. Of course predicting the future is always a little foolish – perhaps especially so in the middle of a global pandemic – but four areas of work are already fairly clear: public accountability over the deployment of armed drones; the push to open UK skies to military drones;  monitoring the horizontal and vertical proliferation of military drones and opposing the development of lethal autonomous weapons, aka ‘killer robots’. 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

New briefing on ‘Protector’ drone as MoD pressure on air safety regulator revealed

As the Guardian today reveals that MoD pressured air safety regulators over the first flight of the UK’s new Protector drone into the UK, we are publishing a new four-page briefing raising many questions about the programme.

The Guardian article, which revealed that MoD pressured the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to delay safety notifications to prevent possible protests shows that clandestine pressure has been effectively applied on an independent public regulator by the MoD which resulted in the erosion of safety norms.

Even more worrying perhaps is that in the near future, the CAA is due to make a significant decisions on whether the MoD’s new military drones, equipped with largely untried ‘detect and avoid’ technology, are safe to fly in UK airspace. The fact that the MoD has already successfully exerted pressure to get the CAA to bend safety rules in relation to the flight of a Protector is extremely disturbing. 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