CAA opens UK skies to military drones

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has granted permission to US drone company General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new SkyGuardian drone in UK airspace. The MoD is buying 16 SkyGuardian drones, but renaming them as ‘Protector’. This is the first time that large military drones will be allowed to fly in the UK outside of segregated airspace and the decision will be seen as a breakthrough by the drone industry, who will see it as the beginning of opening UK skies to a whole host of drones to fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS).

The news came in an ‘airspace alert’ issued by the CAA following the announcement that temporary airspace rules were to be put in place around the bases where the drone will be based. The terse, one-sentence paragraph in the alert said:

“The CAA has also completed an in-depth review and issued the authorisation to General Atomics operate within the UK.”

The lack of detail reflects the lack of transparency about the process to allow General Atomics to use its largely untried and untested ‘Detect and Avoid’ (DAA) equipment in the flights.

General Atomics has developed its DAA equipment to supposedly replicate an on-board pilot’s ability to ‘see and avoid’ danger. This is the bedrock upon which all air safety measures are built and – as we reported back in 2018 – regulators at the CAA were deeply sceptical as to whether remote technology can replace an on-board pilot in busy airspace such as UK skies. Test flights of the drone in the US last summer, which were due to fly over San Diego, were routed away from city after apparent concerns from US safety regulators.  Read more

Say No to US Military Drone Tests in UK Skies!

This summer the US drone company General Atomics is bringing the latest version of its Predator drone – called ‘SkyGuardian’ – to undertake test flights over England and Scotland from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, and RAF Lossiemouth, north of Inverness.  Civil society groups and journalists have documented hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent civilians who have been killed in US drone strikes around the globe. However the drone wars continue to expand, and these flights are to demonstrate the new drone to European and other militaries as well as trialling new technology that will enable such drones to fly in civil airspace.

Further background: New details of US drone flights in UK this summer raise concerns over safety and corporate cronyism.  Read more

Turkey driving drone proliferation in its quest for market supremacy

Poland confirms purchase of 24 Bayraktar drones from Turkey: Credit Polish MoD

As the mass-produced version of Turkey’s new Akinci drone passed its maiden flight test, Poland announced that it will buy several models of its ancestor, the Bayraktar TB2.

“We negotiated a contract for the purchase of four sets, that is 24 aircraft, armed with anti-tank missiles,” Poland’s defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak told state radio in a May interview. The first are to be delivered in 2022.

Poland is the fifth of six nations to buy the TB2, following Azerbaijan, Morocco, Qatar and Ukraine, but preceding fellow NATO member, Albania. The unmanned aircraft has also taken to the skies over the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, where it played a decisive role for the Government of National Accord against the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar.

The development of Turkish drone technology has been a generational effort and the result of a two-decade drive toward indigenous design and production across the country’s defence sector. In 2018, Turkey generated around $2.2 billion in sales, making it the world’s 14th largest arms exporter at the time. And while many analysts believe that several challenges – such as a nationwide brain drain – could slow the industry’s growth, the UAV programme has made Turkey an important player in the global drone market.

For decades, the United States and Israel have been the leading producers and sellers of surveillance drones, effectively holding a de facto monopoly over the industry. Figures from 2019 show that 49 countries were operating at least one UAV made in the U.S. and 39 had acquired at least one from Israel. Both, however, have been reluctant to export armed drones during their years at the top, although today, Washington is working to expand its policy so that previously prohibited governments can purchase their large, strike-capable crafts. Read more

MoD report urges embrace of human augmentation to fully exploit drones and AI for warfighting

Click to open report from MoD website.

The MoD’s internal think-tank, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) along with the German Bundeswehr Office for Defence Planning (BODP) has published a disturbing new report urging greater investigation of – and investment in – human augmentation for military purposes. The following is a brief summary of the 100+ page document with short comment at the end.

Human Augmentation – The Dawn of a New Paradigm’ argues that humans are the ‘weakest link’ in modern warfare, and that there is a need to exploit scientific advances to improve human capabilities.

“Increasing use of autonomous and unmanned systems – from the tactical to the strategic level – could significantly increase the combat effect that an individual can bring to bear, but to realise this potential, the interfaces between people and machines will need to be significantly enhanced. Human augmentation will play an important part in enabling this interface.”

Suggested human augmentation to explore for military purposes includes the use of brain interfaces, pharmaceuticals and gene therapy.  Humans, argues the report, should be seen as a ‘platform’ in the same way as vehicles, aircraft and ships, with three elements of ‘the human platform’ to be developed: the physical, the psychological and the social (see image below). Read more

No Space for Peace in the Integrated Security Review

The UK government sees space technology as being of fundamental importance to global power projection.

In March, the UK government published their ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, titled ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’ it describes the government vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade.

There has been a lot of discussions on various parts of the review – especially the increases in the UK nuclear arsenal and military spending – but not so much about the parts that deal with the UK military space policy.  This is also an important part of the Review that needs closer examination.

Boris Johnson makes an interesting comment in the Forward:

“…we will continue to defend the integrity of our nation against state threats, whether in the form of illicit finance or coercive economic measures, disinformation, cyber-attacks, electoral interference or even … the use of chemical or other weapons of mass destruction.

The emphasis in the above has been added to highlight parts relating to what has become known as ‘hybrid warfare’, operations carried out in a ‘grey zone’ between war and peace, which uses political warfare, conventional warfare, cyberwarfare and other subversive influencing methods. This form of covert warfare is now a common component of security strategies.

An Integrated Strategy Serving Military and Commercial Interests

The Review stresses the perceived need to develop “a dynamic space programme” to be underwritten by “the credibility of our deterrent and our ability to project power.” This is to be partially achieved by the development of “an integrated space strategy which brings together military and civil space policy.

UKSpace, the trade association of the British space industry, and the RAF have established a Commercial Integration Cell (CIC) at the MoD’s Space Operations Centre (SpOC) in High Wycombe to work on programmes that jointly serve commercial and military interests.

This civil/military collaboration has already begun – in 2008 the government awarded Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) over £4 million to develop Carbonite 2, a small, low-orbit satellite launched in 2018 to provide high-resolution reconnaissance for intelligence gathering for the MoD. This evolved into Artemis, a project led by the RAF with Airbus, its subsidiary SSTL, Raytheon, the US government and Virgin Orbit as partners. In addition, in 2019 the MoD announced a £30 million military space programme for the development of small satellites and US aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin received £23.5 million to help develop spaceports in the UK. Other defence contractors, such as Raytheon and BAE Systems, are also wanting to become more involvedRead more

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