British military drones in 2016: Strikes continue as future drone programmes progress

The UK continued to use its current drone fleet while progressing future armed drone programmes during the year.  Here’s a round-up of some of the main news from 2016

UK drones in Iraq and Syria

An RAF Reaper droneBritish Reaper drones continued to operate over Iraq and Syria throughout the year as part of US-led Coalition to defeat ISIS. However we are not allowed to know exactly how many of Britain’s fleet are deployed there, or indeed, if any have been deployed elsewhere. In spring 2016 there was a noticeable decline in Reaper missions in Iraq and Syria which could indicate that some of the drones had been deployed elsewhere (perhaps for operations over Libya for example) although this remains speculation without further information. Read more

Drones and the 2015 SDSR

As was the case five years ago when we looked at drones and the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), yesterday’s publication of the 2015 SDSR  brought some information, but little detail.

‘Protector’/Predator B

Mock-up of Extended Ranger Predator B
Mock-up of Extended Ranger Predator B

The headline announcement in this area – that the UK is to at least double its fleet of armed drones – was ‘pre-announced’ by the Prime Minister last month in an interview with the Sunday Times. The SDSR adds little new information, stating simply that the UK will have “more than 20 new Protector armed remotely piloted aircraft, more than doubling the number of the Reaper aircraft which they replace.” (Para 4.49) Read more

Drones and the Strategic Defence Review

BAE System's Taranis drone in flight
BAE System’s Taranis drone in flight

For the past two years the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) has been looming ever larger but any questions about process or content have been impatiently batted away with the refrain that such issues were “a matter for after the General Election.”

Now the election has come and gone, the government confirmed in the Queen’s Speech that it “will undertake a full Strategic Defence and Security Review, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that our courageous armed forces can keep Britain safe.” Read more

As war rages in Gaza and Pakistan, drone companies gather at Farnborough to market their wares

Palestinians gather around a taxi in which four members of the Abu Daqqa family were killed in a reported Israeli drone strike on Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on 16 July.  (Ramadan El-Agha / APA images)
Palestinians gather around a taxi in which four members of the Abu Daqqa family were killed in a reported Israeli drone strike on Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on 16 July.
(Ramadan El-Agha / APA images)

Against a backdrop of horrific Israeli air strikes in Gaza as well as a US drone strike in Pakistan, the Farnborough International Air show took place this week in the UK. Although billed as an air show, the event is in reality a week-long marketing event for the world’s military (and some civil) aviation companies to show off their wares with an open-to-the-public air show tacked on at the end.

Drones are increasingly important at Farnborough with a reported 78 companies displaying unmanned drones this year. In terms of British drones the key event was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the UK and France on the £120m ($205m) agreement to study the development of the Future Combat Air System. This funding was first announced earlier this year at the Anglo-French Summit at Brize Norton.

Both BAE Systems and Dassault are independently developing their own advance combat drones  – called Taranis and Neuron respectively – which will be used to ‘inform’ the FCAS programme.. Both companies have prototypes of their combat drones already flying and BAE Systems took the opportunity to promote Taranis with some details and many glossy images of flights that have taken place in ‘stealth’ mode.

Watchkeeper, the Anglo-Israeli drone which is being developed for the British army, is being offered to the French as part of the ongoing UK-French co-operation on drones.  As Watchkeeper programme is now more than three years behind schedule and unlikely to be fielded in Afghanistan, reports are that around half of the UK’s order of 54 aircraft will be mothballed even before being used. Thales UK, which is developing the drone with Israeli company Elbit Systems, announced at Farnborough that it is willing to sell the drone to civil customers.  Or even to lease them.  Given the size and cost of Watchkeeper, and the difficulty of getting regulators to give permission to fly them, the company is looking increasing desperate to find future customers – any customers – for Watchkeeper.

UK and French ministers and officials sign agreement on future drone developments
UK and French Ministers sign an agreement on developing future combat drones at Farnborough 2014

But it was not just the larger drones that were being marketed at Farnborough. As Associated Press rather breathlessly pointed out “the hottest thing” at Farnborough was small drones.  As we have previously reported, drone companies are increasingly looking to weaponize small drones and military companies are happy to provide such weapons.

This year Thales (again) with US company Textron were marketing a new small missile specifically designed for small drones. The 70cm long missile with a 6kg (13lb) warhead is called the Free Fall Lightweight Multi-role Missile (or even less snappily the FFLMM). Ricky Adair, Thales director of sales and marketing for the missiles division was happy to proclaim “There are many market opportunities for a weapon like this.”

Israeli companies were of course present at Farnborough. Who knows, perhaps they were delighted that their products were available for all to see in action on the nightly news. IAI certainly seemed in no way abashed to declare that its Searcher, Heron and Eitan drones were “fully operational with the Israeli air force” during the week despite the horror and revulsion many feel at the horrific loss of life and damage to the civilian infrastructure.

Military companies at these marketing events speak a sanitized language of ‘kinetic events’ and “ordnance consumables” and seem obviously to the misery their products cause. Thankfully, as the latest Pew Research poll on public reaction to US drone strikes shows, (outside of the US) the world is really beginning to become aware of just what a threat drones are to global peace and security.

UK-France declaration reveals new Reaper users club to rival European drones club

cameron and hollande5
Prime Minister David Cameron and President François Hollande

The final text of the Declaration on Security and Defence signed at the UK-France Summit last week has now been released and it reveals some details about future European drone projects.  The whole document is worth reading to get an understanding of where UK-French military co-operation is heading, for example:

“Based on our experience of leadership in foreign policy and defence, the UK and France believe it is essential to take a comprehensive approach to safeguarding European and trans-Atlantic security. This means tackling instability where it arises, preventing conflict, building the capacity of local forces and encouraging long-term economic development as the most effective means to guarantee both the stability of our neighbourhood, the safety of our citizens and the security of our wider interests.” (Para 5)

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