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Dear Friends,

Last week Boris Johnson published his government’s Integrated Review of defence, security and foreign policy, setting out the government’s commitment to develop and use emerging military technology to engage in both overt and ‘grey zone’ warfare.

Today will see the publication of a Defence Command Paper, giving more detail on which military programmes and defence company projects will receive funding for developments “in cyber, AI and drone warfare – all the warfare of the future” as Boris Johnson put it.

Boris Johnson flies a drone during a military exercise on Salisbury Plain in 2019.

Over the past decade Drone Wars has scrutinized and challenged the government’s use of drones and other emerging technology and we very much need your help to continue to do so. Read more

New details of US drone flights in UK this summer raise concerns over safety and corporate cronyism

New details about the British government’s plans to allow US defence manufacturer General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new SkyGuardian drone in the UK this summer have emerged in MOD documents published on the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) website.

SkyGuardian flights are to be conducted from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, beginning in July and lasting until September, and then from RAF Lossiemouth in North East Scotland, until mid to late October.  The RAF is acquiring a version of the SkyGuardian drone, which it is calling Protector, and which will be modified for UK requirements. Protector will enter service in 2023 to replace the UK’s current Reaper armed drone fleet.  General Atomics’ SkyGuardian flights are significant because they signal the coming integration of large drones, such as Protector, into UK airspace.  This is set to further normalise the use of large drones within the UK, not only by the military, but a host of other operators.

The planned SkyGuardian flights also raise concerns over safety and questions about undue corporate influence over the UK government and airspace regulators. In terms of safety, both RAF Waddington and RAF Lossiemouth are surrounded by houses, school buildings and local businesses. Planned flights of the same drone over San Diego in the US last year did not go ahead, apparently after safety objections from US airspace regulator, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).  The flights instead took place away well from populated areas. US and British armed forces have regularly flown large drones for more than twenty years, yet the constant communication links which they rely on are often lost. Such drones also continue to crash for several other reasons—including poor maintenance and pilot error.  Recent public polling carried out for UK Drone Watch found that 67% of respondents were worried about the safety implication of large drones flying in the UK, with 70% agreeing that such flights should be kept to segregated airspace.  Read more

Death TV: Drone warfare in contemporary popular culture

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For those of us who have no direct experience of drone warfare, popular culture is one of the major ways that we come to understand what is at stake in UAV operations. Movies, novels, TV and other cultural forms can inform our ideas about drone warfare just as much as, if not sometimes more than, traditional news media or academic/NGO reports.

Death TV is a new study that looks in depth at how popular culture informs public understanding of the ethics, politics, and morality of drone operations. It looks at a wide range of popular drone fictions, including Hollywood movies such as Eye in the Sky and Good Kill, prestige TV shows such as Homeland, 24: Live Another Day and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, and novels by authors including Dan Fesperman, Dale Brown, Daniel Suarez, and Mike Maden. Death TV looks at these cultural products and gets inside the way they work. It identifies six main themes that can be found across many of them, and examines the ways that they inform and shape the drone debate.

In broad terms, Death TV argues that popular cultural representations often have the effect of normalizing and justifying drone warfare. Enjoyable narrative texts such as films, TV series, novels, and some forms of popular journalism play a role in the process by which drone warfare is made comprehensible to those of us without first-hand experience of it. Importantly, they also do so in a way which has, however critical any individual story may appear to be, the general effect of making drone warfare seem a legitimate, rational and moral use of both cutting edge technology and lethal military force.  Read more

Online Event – 25 March: Meaning-less human control: Lessons from air defence systems for LAWS

Together with Center for War Studies of University of Southern Denmark, we are hosting an online event on Thursday 25 March at 2pm (GMT) to discuss our co-published report, Meaning-less human control: Lessons from air defence systems for Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS).

In recent years, autonomous weapons systems have increasingly come to the attention of the international community. Debates on these weapon systems centre on whether they reduce meaningful human control over the use of force.  This event will discuss our latest report with an expert panel:

  • Dr Ingvild Bode (Associate Professor of International Relations: Centre for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark)
  • Maaike Verbruggen TBC (Doctoral Researcher: International Security, Institute for European Studies )
  • Richard Moyes (Managing Director: Article 36)
  • Dr Peter Burt: Chair: (Researcher: Drone Wars UK)

Click here to register for the event and further details 

Drone Wars continues to pursue details of secret UK drone operations

Drone Wars is undertaking legal action in an attempt to gain details of secret British Reaper drone operations that has been taking place since at least 2019.  Appealing against the MoD’s refusal to answer both FoI requests and parliamentary questions about these missions, Drone Wars is seeking answers before an Information Tribunal.

Drone Wars discovered in early 2020 that the UK was flying Reaper missions outside of ‘Operation Shader’, the name of the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Although the MoD acknowledged that such missions were taking place, it flatly refused to detail their location or the number of sorties that had been undertaken.  According to the latest FoI response from the MoD (Jan 2021) it appears these secret sorties are continuing.

After an internal appeal to the MoD was rejected in early 2020, Drone Wars appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in April 2020 with a response received in January 2021. Although the Commissioner accepted that there is “significant and weighty public interest in disclosure of the withheld information,” she ultimately upheld the refusal to release the information following undisclosed submissions made to the ICO by the Ministry of Defence. Read more

Meaning-less human control: Lessons from air defence systems for lethal autonomous weapons

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A new report co-published today by Drone Wars UK and the Centre for War Studies; University of Southern Denmark examines the lessons to be learned from the diminishing human control of air defence systems for the debate about lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) – ‘Killer Robots’ as they are colloquially called.

In an autonomous weapons system, autonomous capabilities are integrated into critical functions that relate to the selection and engagement of targets without direct human intervention. Subject expert Professor Noel Sharkey, suggests that a Lethal Autonomous Weapon System can be defined as “systems that, once activated, can track, identify and attack targets with violent force without further human intervention”. Examples of such systems include BAE Systems’ Taranis drone, stationary sentries such as the Samsung Techwin SGR-A1, and ground vehicles such as the Kalashnikov Concern Uran-9.

Air Defence Systems are an important area of study in relation to the development of LAWS as, they are already in operation and, while not completely autonomous due to having a human operator in control, they have automated and increasingly autonomous features. Vincent Boulanin and Maaike Verbruggen’s study for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that 89 states operate air defence systems. These includes global military powers such as the US, the UK, France, Russia, and China but also regional powers such as Brazil, India, and Japan.  Read more