Drone manufacturer, General Atomics, hosted an event in London on 24 January in order – as its press release put it – “to recognize UK companies that are contributing to operational systems such as MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and the new MQ-9B SkyGuardian RPA program” (which the UK MoD is calling ‘Protector’).
As part of the day, the US company signed agreements with three major UK defence companies: Raytheon, MBDA and BAE Systems. Raytheon will supply and integrate Paveway IV bombs onto the new British drone while MBDA will integrate and supply it with the new Brimstone missile. BAE Systems, however, will play a wider role, helping to enable the new drone to be flown within the UK airspace. Read more →
In May 2017, Chair of BAE Systems, Sir Roger Carr, blithely insisted at the company’s AGM that Brexit would have no impact whatsoever on the on-going development of the new Anglo-French advanced combat drone. “We will still be working with the EU on defence, certainly in terms of fighting terrorism, and we can preserve our relationship with France in developing the next generation of unmanned aircraft,” he told shareholders.
Just two months later Carr had to eat his words as a major realignment of European 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.
Two different agreement were reached about drones. Firstly a relatively small contract (€13 million) was signed to undertake further basic research work on a future combat drone preliminary dubbed the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) intended for use between 2030 and 2040. Secondly France agreed to evaluate the British-Israeli Watchkeeper drone. According to DefenseNews “France is acquiring one system from the U.K. to conduct tests and operational studies, expected to last to mid-2013, which may lead to a future French Army acquisition.”
Some new information has emerged this week about future British drone programmes as BAE Systems held a media briefing at their Warton site to talk about their unmanned projects (our invitation was presumably lost in the post).
Perhaps surprisingly BAE told reporters that it was restarting its Mantis programme. Mantis is an armed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone of similar size and shape to the Reaper. Unlike Reaper, however Mantis is not remotely controlled but flies autonomously following a pre-programmed flight plan. Mantis reached the end of its development phase when it flew for the first time at the Woomera test range in Australia in October 2009. Until now it has been suggested Mantis would simply form the basis of the proposed joint BAE-Dassault drone, Telemos.
In the article, human rights lawyer Erica Gaston argues
“there has been little to no visibility on how drone targets are selected or reviewed. There have been many cases in Afghanistan and elsewhere in which the visual identification of a “target” through drone technology proved catastrophically wrong. Such past mistakes have raised the bar on the level of transparency and public accountability required. The ‘trust us’ approach is no longer good enough where drones are involved.”
Quite. Interestingly, the Labour MP Madeleine Moon, who is on the Commons defence select committee, also said: “Greater priority must be given to ensure those killed in drone attacks are not innocent civilians. Current figures coming out of the Ministry of Defence do not indicate that the level of scrutiny needed is in place. It is imperative that steps are put in place, not only to protect innocent civilians, but demonstrate that have done so.”
In stark contrast to this suggestion, the MoD have written to me (letter here) saying they will no longer answer my Freedom of Information requests on the use of UAVs in Afghanistan “until at least the end of operations in Afghanistan.” Needless to say I have appealed (letter here) and will continue to demand more transparency and public accountability on the use of British drones.