New details of US drone flights in UK this summer raise concerns over safety and corporate cronyism

New details about the British government’s plans to allow US defence manufacturer General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new SkyGuardian drone in the UK this summer have emerged in MOD documents published on the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) website.

SkyGuardian flights are to be conducted from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, beginning in July and lasting until September, and then from RAF Lossiemouth in North East Scotland, until mid to late October.  The RAF is acquiring a version of the SkyGuardian drone, which it is calling Protector, and which will be modified for UK requirements. Protector will enter service in 2023 to replace the UK’s current Reaper armed drone fleet.  General Atomics’ SkyGuardian flights are significant because they signal the coming integration of large drones, such as Protector, into UK airspace.  This is set to further normalise the use of large drones within the UK, not only by the military, but a host of other operators.

The planned SkyGuardian flights also raise concerns over safety and questions about undue corporate influence over the UK government and airspace regulators. In terms of safety, both RAF Waddington and RAF Lossiemouth are surrounded by houses, school buildings and local businesses. Planned flights of the same drone over San Diego in the US last year did not go ahead, apparently after safety objections from US airspace regulator, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).  The flights instead took place away well from populated areas. US and British armed forces have regularly flown large drones for more than twenty years, yet the constant communication links which they rely on are often lost. Such drones also continue to crash for several other reasons—including poor maintenance and pilot error.  Recent public polling carried out for UK Drone Watch found that 67% of respondents were worried about the safety implication of large drones flying in the UK, with 70% agreeing that such flights should be kept to segregated airspace.  Read more

Death TV: Drone warfare in contemporary popular culture

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For those of us who have no direct experience of drone warfare, popular culture is one of the major ways that we come to understand what is at stake in UAV operations. Movies, novels, TV and other cultural forms can inform our ideas about drone warfare just as much as, if not sometimes more than, traditional news media or academic/NGO reports.

Death TV is a new study that looks in depth at how popular culture informs public understanding of the ethics, politics, and morality of drone operations. It looks at a wide range of popular drone fictions, including Hollywood movies such as Eye in the Sky and Good Kill, prestige TV shows such as Homeland, 24: Live Another Day and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, and novels by authors including Dan Fesperman, Dale Brown, Daniel Suarez, and Mike Maden. Death TV looks at these cultural products and gets inside the way they work. It identifies six main themes that can be found across many of them, and examines the ways that they inform and shape the drone debate.

In broad terms, Death TV argues that popular cultural representations often have the effect of normalizing and justifying drone warfare. Enjoyable narrative texts such as films, TV series, novels, and some forms of popular journalism play a role in the process by which drone warfare is made comprehensible to those of us without first-hand experience of it. Importantly, they also do so in a way which has, however critical any individual story may appear to be, the general effect of making drone warfare seem a legitimate, rational and moral use of both cutting edge technology and lethal military force.  Read more

‘All the warfare of the future’: Drones, new technology and the Integrated Review

At the beginning of March, the government will publish its long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, known (thankfully) as ‘The Integrated Review’.  It’s purpose is to “define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy.”

When published, the Integrated Review will likely focus on strategy and overarching themes rather than detail specific projects (a White Paper is expected soon after to flesh out equipment plans). However, it is already clear from statements made by ministers and senior military officers that in terms of defence and security, investment in emerging military technology such as direct energy, cyber, AI, and in particular, drones, is seen as key for the UK’s ‘involvement in the world’.

The clearest indication of this came in Boris Johnson’s statement to the House of Commons on defence spending in late November. Framed as an update on the Integrated Review, the Prime Minister announced a significant budget increase, declaring that UK military spending would be around £190 billion over the next four years.  Again and again during his statement, Johnson returned to the government’s commitment to , as he put it, ‘the new technologies of warfare’:

“Our new investment [is] to be focused on the technologies that will revolutionise warfare, forging our military assets into a single network designed to overcome the enemy. A soldier in hostile territory will be alerted to a distant ambush by sensors on satellites or drones, instantly transmitting a warning, using artificial intelligence to devise the optimal response and offering an array of options, from summoning an airstrike to ordering a swarm attack by drones, or paralysing the enemy with cyber-weapons. New advances will surmount the old limits of logistics. Our warships and combat vehicles will carry “directed energy weapons”, destroying targets with inexhaustible lasers. For them, the phrase “out of ammunition” will become redundant.”

Asked about research and development spending, Johnson added

“There is big, big chunk of this package specifically dedicated to research and development in cyber, AI and drone warfare – all the warfare of the future.  The victors of the future will be those who are able to master data and new technology in the way that this package supports.”

And Johnson isn’t the only one talking up the UK’s commitment to drones and new military technology.  Defence Secretary Ben Wallace suggested last summer that 90% of the RAF’s aircraft will be unmanned drones by 2040, insisting that the Army would have to give up assets such as tanks in order to have more drones and other modern equipment. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, told Sky News on Remembrance Sunday that the British army of the 2030s could include large numbers of autonomous or remotely controlled machines while leaks to The Times indicated that the size of the British army could be cut by 10,000 as part of ‘an increased focus on unmanned drones and vehicles along with enhanced technological capabilities.’

While the direction of travel is increasingly clear, the question to be asked, then, is what is behind the embrace of drones, autonomy and other emerging technology? What does it indicate about how the government sees the UK’s role in the world that we are investing so heavily in these systems?  Read more

General Atomics plan flights of its new drone in UK – safety fears rerouted previous flights in the US    

A SkyGuardian UAV at General Atomics’ California factory.

General Atomics is to bring a company-owned SkyGuardian drone to the UK in the summer to undertake “a series of operational capability demonstrations” for the UK and other NATO members. The RAF’s soon to be acquired Protector drone is a version of the SkyGuardian with a range of UK modifications. The aircraft is being shipped into the UK rather than flying in (possibly due to the controversy around a previous flight to the UK) and will be based at RAF Waddington. Read more

On the Edge: Security, protracted conflicts and the role of drones in Eurasia

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Our new report, ‘On the Edge: Security, protracted conflicts and the role of drones in Eurasiaexamines the proliferation of drones and loitering munitions (often descried as suicide drones) across Eurasia. It charts their increasing use along the borders of separatist areas, aims to shed some light on the acquisition of large Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) Chinese drones in Central Asia, and asks why this has happened and what the likely consequences might be.

Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, the people of Eurasia still live with conflict and repression that are part of the post-Soviet legacy. The year 2020 saw the most serious violence since 1994 erupt between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region also saw an upturn in violence, whilst Russia maintains its hold over Crimea. Georgia’s separatist regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – are also the site of ongoing clashes. These multiple conflicts impact the lives of civilians and abuses of human rights are common in the contested border regions. Moreover, the political cultures of the five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – remain autocratic and opaque, limiting democracy and human rights.  Read more

Drone Proliferation Update, January 2021

Armed Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drone

Over the last few months have seen a number of significant developments in relation to the increasing proliferation of armed drones. The most significant of these have been the use of Turkish Bayraktar TB-2’s in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh which turned the military engagements in Azerbaijan’s favour and, secondly,  the Trump administration’s decision to unilateral reinterpret the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) agreement in order to allow it to export more armed drones.

  • This latest update details new operators and other significant developments around the proliferation of armed drones.  For our complete list of states operating, or close to operating, armed drones see Who Has Armed Drones?

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