“Extremely successful event” … “world firsts” … “unprecedented” … “ground-breaking”. It’s safe to say that, judging from the string of superlatives, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was pleased with Unmanned Warrior 16, last year’s demonstration of the potential for maritime autonomous systems to undertake military tasks. Unmanned Warrior took place off the west coast of Scotland as part of the Joint Warrior NATO naval training exercise which is hosted by the Royal Navy every autumn, and the post-event report for the activity has recently been published in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. But was the Unmanned Warrior demonstration really as innovative as the MoD would like to think it was? Read more
The UK continued to use its current drone fleet while progressing future armed drone programmes during the year. Here’s a round-up of some of the main news from 2016
UK drones in Iraq and Syria
British Reaper drones continued to operate over Iraq and Syria throughout the year as part of US-led Coalition to defeat ISIS. However we are not allowed to know exactly how many of Britain’s fleet are deployed there, or indeed, if any have been deployed elsewhere. In spring 2016 there was a noticeable decline in Reaper missions in Iraq and Syria which could indicate that some of the drones had been deployed elsewhere (perhaps for operations over Libya for example) although this remains speculation without further information. Read more
The use of military unmanned systems, commonly known as drones, has begun to be one of those subjects with which a variety of popular and academic commentators have utilised to discuss a range of divergent topics. The number of books that actually focus in granular detail on unmanned systems themselves and the consequences of their use can be counted more or less on one hand. Thankfully Jai Galliott’s work can now be added to that number.
Focusing on ethics, Military Robots: Mapping the Moral Landscape, reviews the relevant arguments for using unmanned systems and examines the key criticisms under the broad lens of just war theory. In many ways the book is an extended dialogue with the Bradley Strawser edited volume ‘Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of Unmanned Military’ and Christian Enemark’s ‘Armed Drones and the Ethics of War’, both key works but coming from very different perspectives.
Key issues with which Galliott usefully grapples include the implication of reduced risk for users of unmanned systems Read more
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
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.”
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.
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