UK-France declaration on drones

At the UK-French summit in Paris today, David Cameron and President Sarkozy agree a new Declaration on security and defence.  The relevant section on drones (paragraph 16) reads: 

Unmanned air systems are crucial to success in the battlefield, as the Libya and Afghanistan campaigns have shown. We have agreed today to take forward our planned cooperation on UAS within a long term strategic partnership framework aimed at building a sovereign capability shared by our two countries. This framework will encompass the different levels from tactical to MALE in the mid term and UCAS in the long term:

Medium Altitude Longue Endurance (MALE) Drone: The Joint Program Office was launched in 2011. We will shortly place with BAES and Dassault a jointly funded contract to study the technical risks associated with the MALE UAV. We look forward to taking further decisions jointly in the light of the outcomes of this risk reduction phase to ensure that our respective sovereign requirements will be met in a cost effective manner.

– Watchkeeper drone: France confirms its interest for the Watchkeeper system recognising the opportunities this would create for cooperation on technical, support, operational and development of doctrine and concepts.  An evaluation of the system by France will begin in 2012, in the framework of its national procurement process, and conclude in 2013.

– We affirm our common will to undertake in 2013 a joint Future Combat Air System Demonstration Programme that will set up a co-operation of strategic importance for the future of the European Combat Air Sector. This work will provide a framework to mature the relevant technologies and operational concepts for a UCAS operating in a high threat environment. We will begin as soon as 2012 the specification of this demonstrator with a jointly funded contract under the industrial leadership of our national fighter aircraft industries (Dassault-Aviation in France and BAE Systems in the UK).


Anglo-French drone takes another step forward

Summary:   Drones are the latest ‘must have’ weapon systems and the big military companies are desperate to be part of what is beginning to be called ‘the drones gold-rush’.   While Cameron is keen to emphasize that only a ‘few tens of millions of Euros’ are being spent at this time, early figures from the MoD indicate that the new drone could cost the UK around £2 billion with other estimates much higher.  The wider legal and ethical questions about the growing use of armed drones are simply being ignored.

Today’s announcement that the UK and France will jointly develop a new armed unmanned drone  is seen by many commentators as inevitable.  Drones are the latest ‘must have’ weapon system and it is important they say, that the UK keeps up with the US and Israel in this key market.   In corporate speak, the ‘direction of travel’ is clear; while companies may squabble over particular contracts and deals it is important that the UK is part of what is beginning to be call ‘the drones gold-rush’


Behind this ‘gold-rush’ however are many serious legal, ethical and moral questions which are not being properly addressed.  And it is not just us who are saying so.

Last April the Ministry of Defence (MoD) published a Joint Doctrine Note examining the technological and scientific issues related to current and future use of armed and unarmed drones.  The document agreed that there were significant moral, legal and ethical issues involved, and in a key passage (517) considers whether unmanned systems will make war more likely:

“It is essential that, before unmanned systems become ubiquitous (if it is not already too late) that we consider this issue and ensure that, by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, that we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”

The passage concludes  “What is needed is a clear understanding of the issues involved so that informed decisions can be made.”   

Unfortunately, the last thing that the MoD or the drone industry wants at the moment is a public debate about the growing use of drones.  The report when publicised by Drone Wars UK and the Guardian was withdrawn from the MoD website (although it did quietly return months later) and the authors were dispatched to Afghanistan.   Instead the MoD  decided to launch a “communication strategy” to win over public opinion in support of armed drones with the key message being to “stress the equivalence of  RPAS [drones] to traditional combat aircraft.”

However there are clear differences between drones and manned aircraft, in particular the way there are being used to loiter over particular areas to seek ‘targets of opportunity’ and their increasing use in targeted killing away from any battlefield.  Some of the questions that need to be asked are:

  • Does the geographic and psychological distance between the operator and target make a positive or negative difference? 
  • Does using unmanned systems mean attacks happen more often? 
  • Does faith in the supposed accuracy of drone sensors and cameras mean that commanders are more willing to undertake ‘riskier’ strikes (in terms of possible civilian casualties) than they would previously have undertaken?

All of these questions and many more need to be debated openly and honesty and require careful analysis and clear-headed judgment based on the available evidence. Unfortunately, that evidence, is being kept strictly under wraps by the Ministry of Defence and they are refusing to engage in a debate on these issues. 

While David Cameron is keen to stress that at this stage only (only!) ‘a few tens of millions of Euros’ are being allocated towards developing this new drone the costs will soon soar.   Early figures from the MoD indicate that the new drone could cost the UK around £2 billion but other estimates are much higher.


In November 2010  the UK and France signed a defence and security cooperation treaty which included a commitment to work together on nuclear issues and armed drones.  The two countries have agreed to build a new armed drone and BAE Systems and Dassault have joined together to offer the proposed Telemos drone to fulfill this ‘need’.  All indications are that the new drone will be based on BAE’s Mantis drone, although Dassault have also been working on a drone called ‘Neuron’.

EADS, meanwhile, the other giant of the European military industry is fighting its corner for its own drone; Talarion.  Fox News reported that the EADS CEO was “furious” that France is apparently going to choose the BAE Systems/Dassault proposal.

EADS reaction is so strong because they do not want to be left out of what many see as the key market in the global arms trade over the next few years.  While the new UK-France drone contract is estimated to be worth around £2bn, the global drone market over the next three years alone has recently been predicted to be worth around $14bn.  With Israel companies and US drone giant General Atomics already firmly established in the market, winning funds to develop a future European combat drone is vital for these military corporations.

 For more details see The Drone Wars Briefing

MoD unit seeks hunter-killer tech for UK drones

CDE presentation on ISTAR requirements (click to download)

The Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE) is a bit like the Ministry of Defence’s very own Dragon Den.  It bills itself as “the  first point of contact for anyone with a disruptive technology, new process or innovation that has a potential defence application”.   In other words if any boffin  / entrepeneur / small company out there thinks that have an idea or design for a new weapons system for example they get steered towards the CDE and if its good enough, they get funding.

Over the past couple of years the CDE has begun to host events to try to nudge inventors, academics and small companies to undertake research into particular technologies or areas with specific aims in mind.   Earlier this month the CDE held a day long seminar at Cardiff University entitled  ‘The Military Challenge for Science and Technology’.   The programme for the day stated the event “was split with a morning session looking, in general, at the opportunities for new science and technology to impact on military capability and an afternoon session presenting two current calls for research proposals in the areas of ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) and Sensors.”

A presentation from the morning session – giving an over view of the work is available here

The afternoon session was much more focused and of particular interest was the call for equipment and sensors that can undertake “automatic (assisted) target recognition of vehicles and people” (slide 22) and the “assisted detection and recognition of people and gestures in urban scenarios” (slide 25).  In a scenario envisaged earlier in the presentation, the companies are told to assume “High Value Target list agreed and maintained” and that the “TOI [Target of Interest] trigger is of sufficient priority to enable priority asset tracking” (slide 6). Click the above images to download the full presentation.

The individual recognition sensors that the MoD are interested in developing should be able to be mounted on mobile platforms (presumably such as drones)  need to be able to combine “face, gait and shape features”  and “identify individuals or reacquire targets from their known signature.” Bizarrely the presentation also seem to suggest  that “X-box ‘kinect’ sensors” may be useful for this work.   Video games warfare indeed!    The MoD’s deadline for responses from industry is very short –  closing date for proposals/bids to fill this need is September 27 with a demonstration event set for February 2012.

See also Nick Hopkins Guardian article ‘Updated drones to pinpoint targets sought by MoD’

Waiting for the Watchkeeper?

The UK's Watchkeeper drone being tested in Israel: Copyright Thales

News of the progress (or rather lack of it) on the UK’s Watchkeeper drone programme has emerged over the last few days.   Due to enter service in February 2010, delayed to Spring 2011, the latest information according to Flight International,  is that it will not be deployed in Afghanistan “before the end of the year” due to, as Thales executives helpful put it “technical difficulties.”

Watchkeeper is being built under a £900m MoD contract (the latest NAO report shows that £625m has already been spent on the project !) by a joint British–Israeli venture company (U-TacS) owned by Thales UK and Elbit Systems.  It is based on the Israeli Hermes 450 drone which the UK is currently renting in an innovate ‘pay by the hour’ operation for use in Afghanistan.  Watchkeeper will (eventually) replace the Hermes in Afghanistan.

Flight tests of Watchkeeper are being undertaken from Parc Aberporth in West Wales and on 17 April 2010 Watchkeeper went on her maiden UK flight.   A  500 square mile test zone for UAVs between Parc Aberporth and Epynt Mountain is currently being considered (See correction below).   Thanks to a helpful FoI inquiry we know that up until mid-February 2011, 13 test flights have take place in the UK since then (till Feb 2011).  Other flight tests of Watchkeeper are taking place in Israel.  Incidentally the Welsh Assembly has also applied for planning permission to use Llanbedr Airfield in Harlech for “research, development, testing and evaluation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).” (Thanks David)

Parc Aberporth

The first ten Watchkeepers, which were due to be assembled in Israel, have already been built according to the Flight International article and training of armed forces personnel for the new drone will begin at Larkhill Artillery Training Centre in May.   Following initial training there will then be operational exercise for Watchkeeper using temporary restricted airspace above Salisbury Plain after taking off from the MoD’s Boscombe Down test centre.

In an interesting sideswipe at the project , The Register argues that at a cost of £16.5m each, the 54 Watchkeepers are hugely expensive and, possibly, not even wanted by the Royal Artillery.   Watchkeeper “isn’t about jobs or British industry or weapons for the armed forces”, it says ”it’s mainly [about] pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into French and Israeli arms companies .”

Wandering Raven has more information (including a helpful list of Watchkeeper component manufacturers) and regular updates on the Watchkeeper drone – see the Wandering Raven Watchkeeper stream. 

Correction: The orignal post said that this testing area had already been approved.  It has been pointed out (thanks JG) that the consultation is still on going as of May 2011)

UK and France Plan Joint Work on “essential” Drones

David Cameron & Nicolas Sarkozy

UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy jointly signed The Declaration on Defence and Security Co-operation yesterday at the 2010 UK-France Summit.  The treaty, dubbed by the tabloids as ‘the entente frugale’, contains two paragraphs on drones:

 Unmanned Air Systems have become essential to our armed forces. We have agreed to work together on the next generation of Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Air Surveillance Systems. Co-operation will enable the potential sharing of development, support and training costs, and ensure that our forces can work together. We will launch a jointly funded, competitive assessment phase in 2011, with a view to new equipment delivery between 2015and 2020.

In the longer term, we will jointly assess requirements and options for the next generation of Unmanned Combat Air Systems from 2030 onwards. Building on work already started under the direction of the UK-France High Level Working Group, we will develop over the next two years a joint technological and industrial roadmap. This could lead to a decision in 2012 to launch a joint Technology and Operational Demonstration programme from 2013 to 2018.

Within hours BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation had submitted a joint letter to the two leaders offering to work together to jointly develop drones.  As I have previously suggested, (‘SDSR, Drones and Autonomy) FlightGlobal is reporting that this will mean “building  on the lessons learned during Europe’s Dassault-led Neuron and BAE Systems’ Taranis technology demonstration programmes”.

BAE Systems told the Financial Times that they welcomed the proposal to develop a joint drone “Not only is this an important milestone in terms of the development of our unmanned aircraft capability, but it represents a significant investment in the future of our UK and French military aerospace capability.”

As I say far too often on this blog, meanwhile US drones strikes continue in North Waziristan with eleven people killed in three separate drones strikes today (3rd November)  and five killed in a drone strike on Monday (1st) according to the Press Association.

Addition:  BBC Report:  BAE Welcomes new alliance 

BAE’s Demon Drone Flies With Help of Ten British Universities

Demon's First Flight - September 2010

Ten British universities have been working with BAE Systems on a new unmanned experimental drone system called Demon.  Demon, which uses small air jets to manuever rather than conventual mechanical flaps, has been developed under the £6.2m FLAVIIR programme.   Demon, had its  first flight in mid September  from Walney Island Airport, a small airport owned by BAE Systems on an island off the Cumbrian coast.  Demon has been built by BAE Systems in association with the following universities:  Cranfield, Imperial College, Warwick, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Southampton, Swansea, and York.  Demon will now undergo a two-years test and development programme.

Meanwhile BAE Systems has been awarded a $4m contract from the USAF for ‘engineering, training, and other services’ for the company’s Silver Fox UAV.   Silver Fox is a small drone used for intnellegence and surveillance purposes.   This contract is vital to supporting the warfighter,” said Gordon Eldridge, acting vice president and general manager of aerospace solutions at BAE Systems.

In March 2009, BAE bought Advanced Ceramic Systems, the company that US company that developed the Silver Fox and Coyote drones, for $15m.