Will underwater drones bring a sea change to naval – and nuclear – warfare?

maratime unmanned- 500Although aerial drones have taken off a lot faster than their maritime and ground-based equivalent, there are some signs that the use of naval drones – especially underwater – is about to take a leap forward.

The US Navy has taken a particular interest in this area and this month, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Pentagon plans to spend $600 million over the next five years on the development of  unmanned underwater systems. Read more

Drones and the 2015 SDSR

As was the case five years ago when we looked at drones and the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), yesterday’s publication of the 2015 SDSR  brought some information, but little detail.

‘Protector’/Predator B

Mock-up of Extended Ranger Predator B
Mock-up of Extended Ranger Predator B

The headline announcement in this area – that the UK is to at least double its fleet of armed drones – was ‘pre-announced’ by the Prime Minister last month in an interview with the Sunday Times. The SDSR adds little new information, stating simply that the UK will have “more than 20 new Protector armed remotely piloted aircraft, more than doubling the number of the Reaper aircraft which they replace.” (Para 4.49) Read more

BAE Systems joins the drones PR push with media briefing on Taranis

BAE Systems Taranis
BAE Systems Taranis

After the MoD’s PR push on the use of Reaper drones last month and David Cameron’s announcement last week of further funding for UK-France work on a future combat drone, this week its BAE Systems turn to push drones with a media briefing on their new Taranis drone.

As well as working on a range of technology aimed at enabling drones to fly, BAE Systems has been working over the past few years on two specific unmanned aircraft; the Reaper-class Mantis and the more advanced unmanned combat drone, Taranis.   While Mantis seems to have stalled, BAE have today revealed some more details about Taranis, announcing  that the first flight took place on August 10, 2013 at an undisclosed location and other flight tests, again undisclosed, have taken place since.

Taranis is another expansion in the use of armed unmanned systems. Drones like Taranis and the US X-47B are not flown by pilots on the ground but fly autonomously, taking off, flying a mission, and returning to land by themselves.    BAE Systems and the UK MoD insist that there continues to be a person-in-the-loop, “overseeing” the drone, particularly if it ever comes to launching weapons, yet Taranis is undeniably one more step towards autonomous weaponry.

Chris Cole, Director of Drone Wars UK said:

“The development and deployment of ‘First Strike’ nuclear weapons brought the world to the brink of disaster during the Cold War.  In a similar escalation, this new generation of autonomous, stealthy drones, designed to be used in the ever expanding global war on terror to launch armed strikes wherever ‘our interests’ are threatened, simply makes the world a more dangerous place.”


Background

In December 2006 the MoD signed a contract for a £127m project to design and build an experimental unmanned combat drone, called Taranis.   In its response to a questions from the Defence Select Committee in 2008, the government stated that

“TARANIS will address a range of technology issues including low observable signature technology integration, vehicle management (including autonomous operation), sensor and payload integration, air vehicle performance, command and control and communications integration.”

Taranis was unveiled to journalists in 2010 (although they had to stay 10 metres away!) and was due to make its first flight in 2011. This deadline was missed and it was later  announced that the first flight would occur in early 2013.

Primarily BAE Systems is hoping to persuade the MoD to buy its drones to fulfil Scavenger, a programme which the MoD’s policy document on unmanned aerial vehicles states is aimed at providing UK forces with “a theatre-wide, persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability and an ability to attack land and maritime time-sensitive targets.”

The MoD estimates that the Scavenger programme (which is part of a wider  intelligence gathering and analysis plan called Solomon) will cost £2 billion.  It should be remembered that the UK is operating armed Reaper drones in Afghanistan under Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) rules, meaning that the cost of purchasing and operating Reaper, like the cost of all UK military operations in Afghanistan, is not funded out of the efence budget but out of the Treasury Reserve.

UK-France declaration reveals new Reaper users club to rival European drones club

cameron and hollande5
Prime Minister David Cameron and President François Hollande

The final text of the Declaration on Security and Defence signed at the UK-France Summit last week has now been released and it reveals some details about future European drone projects.  The whole document is worth reading to get an understanding of where UK-French military co-operation is heading, for example:

“Based on our experience of leadership in foreign policy and defence, the UK and France believe it is essential to take a comprehensive approach to safeguarding European and trans-Atlantic security. This means tackling instability where it arises, preventing conflict, building the capacity of local forces and encouraging long-term economic development as the most effective means to guarantee both the stability of our neighbourhood, the safety of our citizens and the security of our wider interests.” (Para 5)

Read more

UK-French combat drone project gets more funding

PM to press Hollande on EU reformPrime Minister David Cameron and President François Hollande held a mini Anglo-French Summit today at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.  Military co-operation was part of the discussions, with advancing the Anglo-French drone programmes a key item on the agenda.  While there is little detail yet, it has been announced that the two countries have agreed to commit a further £120m to the Future Air Combat System programme for a further two-year feasibility study led by BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation.

The Future Air Combat System is a programme of ongoing work on future unmanned combat systems.   The UK MoD awarded £40m of funding to this programme in January 2012 and in July 2012 France and UK jointly awarded Euros 13m towards the programme. Read more

Wither Telemos?

Mock up of Telemos drone on display

British and French Defence Ministers Phillip Hammond and Jean-Yves Le Drian met in London on Tuesday to discuss progress of the Anglo-French defence treaty signed in 2010.  A key element of the treaty was to work jointly on unmanned drones and related technology (see this previous posting).

BAE Systems and Dassult Aviation, who are working together on a proposed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone called Telemos had suggested that contracts could be signed at the Farnborough airshow earlier this month, and when that failed to happen it was suggested that an announcement would be made at this week’s Defence Ministers meeting.  However no such agreement or contract has been signed and there was not even a  mention of Telemos in the post-meeting statement.

Two different agreement were reached about drones.  Firstly a relatively small contract (€13 million) was signed to undertake further basic research work on a future combat drone preliminary dubbed the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) intended for use between 2030 and 2040. Secondly France agreed to evaluate the British-Israeli Watchkeeper drone.  According to DefenseNews “France is acquiring one system from the U.K. to conduct tests and operational studies, expected to last to mid-2013, which may lead to a future French Army acquisition.”   

The silence on Telemos in the post-meeting statement is deafening.  The new administration in France said in May that it was going back to ‘square one’ on the development of a new armed drone   and it seems as though France is keen for Germany and the European conglomerate, EADS to be allowed into the project to join BAE Systems and Dassault.  Some in France are suggesting that France may opt out altogether of investing in a new MALE drone and simply acquire the Reaper from the US.  If this happens in theory the UK could just continue with developing the new drone on its own – presumably based on BAE’s Mantis drone.  By coincidence (!)  BAE has just announced that the Mantis prototype is being brought out of moth-balls and will begin to undertake more flight tests.  However the cost of developing and operating a new drone has been estimated by the MoD to be in the region of £2 billion – a huge amount to invest in a new weapon system at this time of severe economic difficulty.