What 200 military drone crashes tells us about the drone wars

Over the past five years Drone Wars UK has been recording crashes of large military drones (Class 2 & Class 3) as a way of tracking the spread and expansion of the use of military drones. Due to the secrecy surrounding their use, details of crashes sometimes take months or years to be made public (if at all) and our list is therefore almost certainly not complete. Nevertheless our database now shows 200 such crashes between Jan 2007 and Dec 2014. Read more

Israel and the Drone Wars – New Briefing from Drone Wars UK

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Drone Wars UK is today publishing a new briefing focusing on the use of drones by Israel, the only other country besides the US and the UK to have used armed drones.

Israel and the Drone Wars: Examining Israel’s production, use and proliferation of UAVs’ scrutinizes Israel’s 40 years of military drone use, the devastating effects of drone operations in Gaza, and Israel’s burgeoning drone exports.

While its drone use is shrouded in secrecy – Israel has never publicly admitted to the use of armed drones – DWUK’s research pieces together the evidence and describes the human cost to Palestinians living in what campaigners have characterized as a ‘test zone’ for drone warfare. Nader Elkhuzundar, for example, a Palestinian from Gaza interviewed by Drone Wars UK, tells of the fear instilled by the constant noise of drones flying overhead. Read more

Europe presses US on drones – not to cease but to share

EuropeFlagsEuropean countries are piling more pressure on the US to allow them to buy armed Predator and Reaper drones.  As we have previously reported Germany wants to buy armed Reaper drones from the US and France too has reported this week that it ‘expects’ the US to allow it to acquire unarmed Reapers as a step towards it aim of acquiring armed drone capability.

Italy meanwhile is getting frustrated with a lack of response from the US to its request to arm the unarmed Reaper that it currently operates. Read more

Review of the Year Part 2: A Year of Drone Expansion and Proliferation

A year of expansion was signalled in January when President Obama, flanked by an array of senior military officers, stood in front of the media at the Pentagon to announce a new US military plan.  Entitled ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (pdf), the plan, aimed to shape the US military “in light of the changing geopolitical environment and our changing fiscal circumstances,” as Obama put it, was summed up  by many as a future of drones, special ops and cyber warfare’.  As the document stated Read more

Is Drone Proliferation about to Explode?

Over the past few months we have been compiling information about which countries have large drones in military service.  We have posted the results of our research here in our new database of large drones in military service.  According to our research 31 countries currently have Class 3 or Class 2 military drones in their inventories.  Many others are working to develop or acquire large drones or will have the smaller Class 1 drone in their inventory. (see here for a general guide to drone sizes)

Out of the 31 counties that currently have large drones in military service, 28 have either directly purchased some or all of their drones from another country or manufactured their drones with the help of another country.  The primary exporter of drones and drone technology is Israel.  Israel has directly exported the larger types  of drones to  13 countries and assisted 4 others in developing their own drones.  The US has directly exported larger drones to 6 countries while assisting in the development of 1 other; France has directly exported to 3 other countries, while South Africa has exported to 1 (see table below).

Countries which have exported drones & drone technology

While some of these exports and drone programmes reach back over many years, there are indications that drone proliferation is set to explode.   Just over the past weeks for example there have been a number of press reports about drone sales agreed or being explored.

Firstly NATO signed a contact with US company Northrop Grumman to purchase five Global Hawk UAVs.  The $1.7 billion deal, which has long been discussed, was signed at the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this week. NATO expects to spend another $2 billion to operate the aircraft over the next two decades.

After the NATO summit officials briefed journalists that President Obama had told the Turkish President Abdullah Gul, that the US was willing to sell armed drones to Turkey but had to get approval through congress.  Iraq has also announced this week that it is purchasing US drones to protect Iraqi oilfields.  Although most press articles carried pictures of Reaper or Predator drones to accompany the story it is highly unlikely the drones concerned will be armed.

Meanwhile the most prolific exporter of drones, Israel, continues to make sales.  This week Israel company Elbit Systems announced it had secured a $160m contract to supply drones to a European country but wouldn’t say who, while a senior Russian defence official said Russia may also be buying $50m of Israeli UAVs in the near future.  Also this weeek Singapore announced that it had inaugurated their first Heron drone into the Air Force.

There have also been recent reports that Switzerland and the UK are evaluating Israeli drones with a view to purchase.  Both countries already possess drones built in conjunction with Israeli companies.

The proliferation of drones  is supposed to be controlled under  the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) but it is a non-binding, voluntary agreement which seems close to being ignored in relation to drones.

Two years ago the then US Defense Secretary said it was ‘in the United States interest to share drone technology with allies despite the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)’  while manufacturers are lobbying hard to ease the so-called ‘tough restrictions’ on exports of drones.

Some are suggesting that the MTCR, which is not primarily aimed at controlling drones, may no longer be the appropriate mechanism to regulate their proliferation.  However if a new control regime is to be developed, it needs to happen very quickly – or it will simply be too late.

Later this year, the 34 partner nations of the MTCR will meet for their annual plenary review and it is vital that there is progress on curtailing the growing proliferation of drones.

Drones at DSEi 2011

BAE Sytems Mantis drone at DSEi 2011

Drones were big news at this year’s DSEi arms fair, with many of the smaller ‘niche’ players launching new product and the ‘big boys’ showing off their wares and engaging in verbal fisticuffs about whose drone was  biggest/ brightest/best.

BAE Systems displayed their Mantis drone at the fair and were reportedly “confident” that their proposed new drone, dubbed Telemos (to be developed jointly with Dassault) would win the contract for the UK’s next generation drone.  EADS, meanwhile, the other giant of the European military industry is fighting its corner for its own drone; Talarion.  Fox News reported that the EADS CEO was “furious” that France is apparently going to choose the BAE Systems/Dassault proposal.
EADS reaction is so strong because they do not want to be left out of what many see as the key market in the global arms trade over the next few years.  While the new UK-France drone contract is estimated to be worth  between £1bn -£2bn, the global drone market over the next three years alone has recently been predicted to be worth around $14bn.  With Israel companies and US drone giant General Atomics already firmly

iStart mini-drone from Blue Bear Ltd

established in the market, winning funds to develop a future European combat drone is vital for these military corporations.  Many, not least the UK’s Defence Minister Peter Luff, has predicted that there will be no more ‘manned’ aircraft developed after this current generation of fighters; the future they suggest is drone.

Increasingly it is not just the large military companies involved in the drone wars.  Smaller companies are also seeking to get their foot in the door.  For example Blue Bear, a Bedford-based company launched a new ‘man-portable’ drone called iStart at DSEi.  As reported in Shephard News:

The platform can go ‘from box to launch in under five minutes’ and the only time-consuming thing during a mission is ‘waiting for the GPS’.  [It] has a ‘shake and start’ engine, a 40 minute endurance, and folded wings for easy carriage. It is derived from the company’s larger Black Star, of which the UK MoD is a customer.   It was developed in 18 months with police input, and is ultimately designed for special forces operations, [Company spokesperson] Williams-Wynn said.

An excellent article on other small drones on show at DSEi this year, including Spy Arrow, Shirk and Switchblade can be read here at the National Defense Magazine blog.

Thales, joint manufacturer of the new Watchkeeper drone along with Israeli company Elbit, were also at the arms fair and promoting Watchkeeper .  Below you can watch a short clip of Nick Miller – Thales business director for UAVs – promoting Watchkeeper during the DSEI fair (clip from flightglobal.com)

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The much delayed Watchkeepers  are (finally) due to come into service by the end of 2011 and will gradually  replace the Hermes 450 drones that the UK has been renting from Israel for the past four years.  This of course creates  a business ‘opportunity’ – anybody want to buy a squadron of second-hand, slightly used Israeli drones?  Elbit, it seems are open to offers.

Meanwhile, Qinetiq, were promoting their ‘West Wales UAV Centre’  – where the Watchkeeper drone is currently being tested – at DSEi.    The owners of the centre at Parc Aberporth,  site of a number of protests against drones already , are keen to attract more drone manufacturers.  While each individual Watchkeeper drone  will undergo testing at Parc Aberporth until at least 2014, it appears there is still plenty of room for more drones –  and no doubt more protests.

Speaking of which, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and SPEAK organised a protest outside General Atomics’ London office during the DSEi arms fair.  The manufacturers of the Predator and Reaper drone were curiously absent from DSEi this year – so protesters went to visit them.  Below you can seen Amy Hailwood of FoR speaking about drones against the background of the protest.