BAE Systems pushing ahead with autonomous drone targeting

BAE System's Taranis drone in flight
BAE System’s Taranis drone in flight

In a briefing for selected journalists on its military drone projects, BAE Systems revealed that it is pushing ahead with work on allowing future armed drones to undertake autonomous targeting.

While current British rules of engagement mean that a human must individually authorise targets, company executives told journalists that “the rules of engagement could change.”  The Times reported that the company was ‘proceeding on the basis that an autonomous strike capability could be required in the future.’ 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 MoD releases two presentations on British drones to Drone Wars UK

We have received today two presentations, delivered by senior military officers at the Unmanned Aerial Systems UK Conference in  June 2012, released in response to our Freedom of Information request.  Regular readers may remember that this conference, due to be held in the centre of Bath, was moved within secure military premises due to planned protests.

The first presentation, ‘Information Dominance and UK Approach to Unmanned Systems’, was given by Air Vice-Marshal Mark Green, Director Joint Air Capability.  See here for the full text which can be read in conjunction with the slides – click image right. Read more

Drones continue rapid development as Parliament begins to grapple with the issue

Neuron
New Neuron drone has its first flight

The Defence Select Committee has confirmed this week that it plans to investigate the use of armed unmanned drones. The inquiry into “the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs, commonly known as “drones”)” will form part of a wider investigation into the purpose and future use of the Armed Forces.   As well as examining the use of drones, the wider inquiry will look at “the strategic balance between deterrence, containment, intervention and influence;  the utility of force; the legitimacy of force, including the political/military interface and lessons learned from current and recent operations; the effect of changes in the interpretation of the law on the prosecution of operations, and the relationship between hard and soft power in terms of influence.”  (Phew!) Read more

Shelling Out: New Reports Shows UK Has Spent £2bn on Drones

Drone Wars UK is today publishing a report that shows the UK Government has already spent over £2 billion purchasing, developing and researching drones and unmanned systems since 2007.

The report, Shelling Out: UK Government Spending on Unmanned drones, finds that the UK has spent £872m on five different drones that are currently in service with British forces, including £506m on the armed MQ-9 Reaper drone.  The UK has committed  a further £1,031m to developing new drones such as the Watchkeeper UAV and BAE Systems Taranis drone.  Finally the UK has funded £120m of research within UK universities and British defence companies looking at  unmanned systems.  This included £30m funding for the ASTRAEA programme to open up UK civil airspace to autonomous drones. Read more

Drone developments accelerating

A number of announcements made in the past two weeks to coincide with the Farnborough airshow show the quickening pace of developments around the use of drones and unmanned systems.  Perhaps the most significant was the UK MoD’s announcement that it was setting up a new unmanned systems capability development centre (UASCDC)  to be based at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire

Click image to see presentation: UAS CDC info from slide 19 onwards

The new centre, which will be run in conjunction with defence giant QinetiQ,  aims to develop new drone programmes “from concept to deployment” as well as “facilitate engagement between industry and the MoD to make the best use of collective expertise and facilities.” Although there is as little public information available as yet, some slides about the new centre were included as part of a recent general presentation to industry by the MoD.

It was also announced that the new Unmanned Systems Centre will join with ADS, the UK Aerospace, Defence and Security trade association, and Farnborough Airshow to hold a new ‘expo’ on autonomous unmanned systems at Farnborough in July 2013.   Although shy of using the word ‘autonomous’ (substituting the more acceptable phrase ‘intelligent systems’,  the week-long event is clearly focused on autonomy as ADS Director, Kevin Jones states in a filmed interview (below) “Yes…. we are talking about systems that have the technology and the capability to make their own decisions…”   The event planned for 2013, is a “precursor to a complete Intelligent Systems Air and Ground Expo that will occur at the Farnborough International Airshow 2014 where, as a show-within-a-show, this event will have command of the global aerospace stage.”

The push towards arming smaller drones – and therefore making armed drones more ‘useable’ in crowded urban and civilian areas – also continues.  MBDA announced a “concept vision” of a new range of small missiles for UAVs including Gladius with a launch weight of only 7kg, including a 1kg blast/fragmentation warhead

Meanwhile Raytheon announced that its new purpose-built bomb for small tactical drones, (imaginatively called the Small Tactical Munition) may, following more live testing, enter service within a few months . Raytheon recently issued this video showing the bomb being test launched from a small drone.

Another example of the growing proliferation of drone technology can be seen in the Israeli company IAI’s announcement that it was in discussions with a number of organisations and academic institutions around the world to set up drone training academies.  The academies will offer training on IAI’s own UAVs including Heron, Panther and Hunter which can serve as training for pilots going on to fly those drones or as a generic training course.  According to Defense News:

“IAI has been training customers at a campus in Israel for nearly 40 years but only recently started referring to the site — which the company refers to only as “a secure location near Tel Aviv” — as an academy. It also conducts UAV training flights from Ein Shemer, an army airfield in northern Israel.”

Although BAE Systems had hinted that an announcement (and possible contract signing) in regard to the proposed joint UK-French Telemos drone would take place at the Farnborough airshow in the end nothing happened and a scheduled press conference was cancelled.   President Hollande of France did meet with David Cameron and in the subsequent joint press conference  President Hollande said “We want to work in common on drones. The defence minister is coming to London on July 24, when two arrangements will be signed regarding drones.”

Meanwhile the political case for drones continues to be made in the US as well as the UK.  Two articles extolling the virtues of drones – and challenging those who are critical of them – appeared over the past few days few days.  First Washington think-tank the American Security Project argued that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere were perfectly legal and rather than not having a legal argument, the US was deliberately not explaining its legal position: 

 “It is of strategic value for the US to refrain from providing justification [for the drone strikes] because to acknowledge any legal framework is to implicitly agree to be bound by its terms. By remaining formally unaccountable to international frameworks, the US can operate unimpeded by the red tape of the international legal community. From any angle, such a strategy is in the best interest of US national security. It is also important to note that a lack of public justification does not mean the US is not acting in accordance with international legal frameworks.”

Many might say that operating purely in your own national security interests and regarding international law as mere ‘red tape’ would put you in the same class of rogue state as Syria, for example, but obviously the American Security Project does not agree 

In the same vein, a New York Times op-ed tried to make the moral case for drones arguing that not only was using drones ethically permissible, but it also might be ethically obligatory  due to their advantage in identifying targets and striking with precision. In a quick and strong rebuttal Jeremy Hammond of the Foreign Policy Journal demonstrated that it was in fact making the immoral argument for drones.  Rather than summarise his piece I’d really recommend you read the whole article.

Despite ongoing serious moral and legal doubts, behind the scenes the development of armed drones and unmanned systems by the military and the defence industry is proceeding at a frightening pace.  As always there is need for more transparency, accountability and a proper public debate.