Revealed: details of British drone attacks & plans to purchase more Reapers

Answering Questions: Dr Liam Fox

Catching up on Hansard, have just noticed that last week Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox revealed new details  about British Drone attacks in Afghanistan in response to written question from SNP MP Angus Robertson:

26 Oct 2010 : Column 173W

Angus Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many missions the MQ-9 Reaper has flown in Afghanistan since May 2008; and how many of those missions involved the release of each type of weapon. [18015]

Dr Fox: The primary role of the UK Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System is Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. Since October 2007, it has flown 1,344 sorties and since May 2008 employed 36 laser guided bombs and 84 Hellfire missiles in support of UK and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

A couple of days later, in response to a question from former Labour Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth,  MoD Procurement Minister Peter Luff revealed that the UK plans to purchase five more Reaper drones from the US  (28 Oct 2010 : Column 421W)

Mr Ainsworth: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence (1) how many unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) he expects to order in the Spending Review period; and by what date he expects such vehicles to be in service; [20259]

(2) how many new unmanned aerial vehicles he expects to order; and what timescale he has set for their entry into service. [20418]

Peter Luff: The Ministry of Defence has in recent weeks placed an order for a further 100 Mini Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) Desert Hawk III Air Vehicles to sustain the capability which has been supporting our troops in theatre since 2007. These are expected to be delivered in 2011-12. Additionally, we plan to order and receive up to five additional Reaper remotely piloted aircraft during the Spending Review period. Consideration of our requirement for future persistent armed surface surveillance is in its early stages. A remotely piloted system is one of the potential options to deliver this capability.

Maybe we are entering a new period of government openness on the use of drones – or perhaps its just a co-incidence that the release of information came in the same week… but it is curious…..

Investigation into Drone and Helicopter near miss

Desert Hawk III Drone

The Guardian has revealed  that a British Desert Hawk III drone was in a near collision with two military helicopters over Salisbury Plain.  The incidents, revealed by safety investigations by the UK Airprox Board, took place on February 12th.  According to the Guardian, the Airprox investigation found that:  

An Apache helicopter escorting a Chinook on a simulation exercise entered the landing zone and was at one stage “on a collision course” with the drone… Last-minute manoeuvres by the UAV controllers prevented a collision.  Three hours later a Sea King helicopter entered the same drone’s airspace and came within 300 metres of it.  The UAV operator spotted the helicopter and avoided collision with an “emergency orbit”. “This was a very close encounter and had the [UAV operator] not reacted so quickly a mid-air collision could have occurred,” the report said. 

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) put the blame for the near miss on the helicopter pilots.  “On both occasions Desert Hawk 3 was operating safely under remote pilot control when a manned aircraft incorrectly entered the dedicated air space allocated to it,” it said. 

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which controls UK airspace has specifically allocated dedicated airspace – over Salisbury Plain and Parc Aberporth in Wales – to allow military drones to be tested.  Even within this test space,  it seems that near misses or collisions may be  inevitable.   

 The CAA is coming under increasing pressure from drone manufacturers like BAE Systems as well as the security services to allow much wider use of unmanned drones within UK airspace  (see Surveillance drones in the UK?).  Given the amount of  drones that crash and go rogue (see Crash of the Drones) this must be opposed.

Drone wars: As the lawyers argue, manufacturers get on with it

Reaper drone loaded with missiles

The growing use of unmanned drones in armed conflicts around the world seems set to continue into the future despite calls for restraint and regulation.  As legal groups in the US file lawsuits to try to prevent the drone assassination of a US citizen in Yemen, arguing that the US must stick to international law, weapons manufacturers like Raytheon are pressing ahead and designing new lighter weapons specifically for drones use.  Robert Francois, vice president of advanced missile systems and unmanned systems at Raytheon told Flight Global, for example, that they are developing three new missiles specifically for drone use: 

The Small Tactical Munition is about 10cm (4 inches) in diameter, 61cm long and weighs in at 5.9kg (13lbs) with GPS/inertial navigational system (INS) and a semi-active laser (SAL) seeker for targeting personnel and light vehicles.              

The 15kg Griffin is a short-range, air-to-surface missile is tube launched, also featuring GPS/INS and SAL guidance and is smaller and lighter than the Hellfire. 

Filling in the 45kg gap is Monsoon, for targeting buildings, trucks and personnel, with GPS/INS, otnal SAL and an 18kg warhead.

Meanwhile at the USAF Academy in Colorado,  cadets are also being encouraged to design weapons for future drone wars.  Ideas that have been presented to a recent gathering of UAV experts in Denver include drones spraying each other with acid and drones shooting nets to try to capture and down other drones.     

Far from being a future phenomenon, however, drone proliferation continues apace.  Just this week, the UK placing a further $5m order with Lockheed Martin for additional Desert Hawk III surveillance drones for use in Afghanistan.   A condition of the order is that the drones must be delivered in the Autumn.

But many would argue that the proliferation of drone wars urgently needs to be stopped.  A recent article in Foreign Policy Journal makes the interesting point that Mossad (and others of the ilk) cannot have failed to contrast the international furore around the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel with the virtual silence that surround the US drone assassinations and drawn the conclusion that if the US can do it silently with drones, so can they.  The FPJ article  goes on to call for a debate on drones that

“should engage authoritative policymakers scholars, legal experts and other people with knowledge and understanding relevant to carry out an informed and beneficial discussion aimed at the introduction of international rules that would identify constraints, introduce a well-thought out supervision, and define sanctions helpful in dealing with uncontrolled proliferation of this new form of warfare.”

The US lawsuit launched yesterday  (31st August) in the US by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) argues that the US does not have the authority under international law or the constitution to carry out extrajudicial killings outside declared wars.  They also reiterate the well made point that

“targeting individuals for execution by drone who are suspected of terrorism but have not been convicted or even charged – without oversight, judicial process or disclosed standards for placement on kill lists – poses the risk that the government will erroneously target the wrong people. In recent years, the U.S. government has detained many men as terrorists, only for courts or the government itself to discover later that the evidence was wrong or unreliable.”


Current lawsuits not withstanding, it is highly likely that drone wars and drone assassinations will continue until public opposition grows, and they are specifically outlawed.  In the recent past anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs have been outlawed despite the best efforts of, and huge oppostion from, military planners and the defence industry.    For campaigners, it’s time to get back in the saddle.