Tempestuous relations: Brexit and UK future drone developments

Tempest concept image

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

Wither Telemos?

Mock up of Telemos drone on display

British and French Defence Ministers Phillip Hammond and Jean-Yves Le Drian met in London on Tuesday to discuss progress of the Anglo-French defence treaty signed in 2010.  A key element of the treaty was to work jointly on unmanned drones and related technology (see this previous posting).

BAE Systems and Dassult Aviation, who are working together on a proposed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone called Telemos had suggested that contracts could be signed at the Farnborough airshow earlier this month, and when that failed to happen it was suggested that an announcement would be made at this week’s Defence Ministers meeting.  However no such agreement or contract has been signed and there was not even a  mention of Telemos in the post-meeting statement.

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.”   

The silence on Telemos in the post-meeting statement is deafening.  The new administration in France said in May that it was going back to ‘square one’ on the development of a new armed drone   and it seems as though France is keen for Germany and the European conglomerate, EADS to be allowed into the project to join BAE Systems and Dassault.  Some in France are suggesting that France may opt out altogether of investing in a new MALE drone and simply acquire the Reaper from the US.  If this happens in theory the UK could just continue with developing the new drone on its own – presumably based on BAE’s Mantis drone.  By coincidence (!)  BAE has just announced that the Mantis prototype is being brought out of moth-balls and will begin to undertake more flight tests.  However the cost of developing and operating a new drone has been estimated by the MoD to be in the region of £2 billion – a huge amount to invest in a new weapon system at this time of severe economic difficulty.

The French drone ‘crisis’

Nicolas Sarkozy, Dassault and.... the Union Jack!

Prime Minister David Cameron will meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy today in Paris for bilateral talks.  While the agenda will no doubt be dominated by the Euro crisis, they may well have a quick word about drones too.

Last November  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 fulfil this ‘need’.   An announcement on the deal was expended earlier this year and then postponed for 12-18 months.

While today’s meeting was originally supposed to be a full-scale summit between the countries including Defence Ministers and  with, according to the Guardian, representatives of BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation also present – it was suddenly announced on Monday that the summit has been postponed until next year with just Cameron and Sarkozy to meet instead.

While the Euro is of course the crisis of the hour, the issue of drones has become a hot political topic in France recently.  While the proposed British-French drone won’t be ready till around 2018, the French military want to buy some ‘off-the-shelf’ drones as a stop-gap measure.    The military have chosen to buy the Israeli  Heron-TP drone (IAI have teamed with Dassault to offer the drone) but a French Senate report released last week is highly critical of the decision and is urging the military to accept the bid from General Atomics (teamed with EADS) for the Reaper drone instead. The military’s choice was also the more expense one with the Heron drone bid coming in at €320 million as opposed to the ‘cheaper’ Reaper drone bid of €209 million.

Head of Dassault, French industrialist Serge Dassault (who sits in the French Senate as a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling conservative party) was outraged that the Senate should interfere in arms procurement in this way saying it would cost jobs and stifle France’s arms industry.

“We proposed the Israeli drone to meet an obvious gap in drones today… If we buy an American one, well then everything is screwed up and we’ll spend more money, drive up unemployment and reduce exports – if that’s what you want, I don’t understand,” the 86-year-old head of said. “

Worse was to come for Serge as the French Senate this week actually cut the military budget available for the interim drones by  €100million seemingly forcing the military now to buy the American Reaper drone  instead.

Complicating European drone matters even more, German Defence Minister Stéphane Beelemans argued this week that EADS should be included in the proposed Anglo-French drone project, Telemos.  EADS have their own separate future drone proposal, Talarion, but it seems unlikely at this stage to go anywhere.  As Defence News reported this week : “EADS seeks a place at the top table in the Telemos project alongside BAE and Dassault, but Dassault will only consider a junior subcontractor role for the pan-European company, retaining leadership firmly in the hands of the Anglo-French team.”

With all this going on, if drones do come up at today’s Cameron-Sarkozy meeting, officials may wish their masters had stuck to the simple task of solving the Euro crisis.

BAE salivating at prospect of £2bn drone contract as USAF recruits kids to the drone wars

At a pre-Paris Air Show briefing this week, BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation could hardly contain their excitement at the prospect of being awarded a contract to develop a new armed drone.   The companies say they expect a government decision on the new joint UK/France drone programme in the very near future.  The MoD have estimated the new programme to total around £2 billion.

Development of a new armed drone is one of the ‘first fruits’ of a military co-operation treaty signed by France and the UK in November 2010.  BAE and Dassault signed an agreement to work together on the proposed programme in February, with BAE’s Mantis drone expected to be the basis of the new development.

Ian Fairclough, BAE’s Director of Strategic UAV’s stated: ‘We believe we are ready to begin the programme now. We have got some fairly mature plans in place for BAE Systems and Dassault to go ahead with this and we have also mobilised a joint team to work on this.’

Meanwhile, the USAF has just released a new video  game on its recruitment website aimed at teenagers  that enables young people to play at being a drone pilot and carry out drone strikes.   Many have already pointed out the similarity between video games and the operation of drones, and indeed how drones can blur the distinct between the reality of warfare and gaming.

Drone Strikes: Just Kids Play?

Although supporters of drones technology refute any such connections, their denials  are undermined by reports showing that gaming software and hardware are being used  to control UAVs.   Wired.com quotes Mark Bigham, business development director for Raytheon’s tactical intelligence systems as saying: “Gaming companies have spent millions to develop user-friendly graphic interfaces, so why not put them to work on UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]?”

What cannot be denied, is that the rapid increase in the use of drones has led to a shortage of drone pilots and hence the need to boost recruitment.

Enticing young people to join the military with video games – with the idea of then moving them on  from playing at drone wars to actually undertaking drone strikes  – is, disturbing to say the least.   When CIA Director Leon Panetta called drone strikes “the only game in town” little did he know how prescient his words would be.