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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.