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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UK-French combat drone project gets more funding

PM to press Hollande on EU reformPrime Minister David Cameron and President François Hollande held a mini Anglo-French Summit today at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.  Military co-operation was part of the discussions, with advancing the Anglo-French drone programmes a key item on the agenda.  While there is little detail yet, it has been announced that the two countries have agreed to commit a further £120m to the Future Air Combat System programme for a further two-year feasibility study led by BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation.

The Future Air Combat System is a programme of ongoing work on future unmanned combat systems.   The UK MoD awarded £40m of funding to this programme in January 2012 and in July 2012 France and UK jointly awarded Euros 13m towards the programme. 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

A Century of Drone Crashes

This week  the USAF released an accident investigation report into the crash of a US Predator drone in Afghanistan in April 2012.  This crash brings the number of drone crashes in our updated database  to 100 (see full database here) and so we thought it a good time to do some data crunching.

Our database primarily contains details of crashes of  Class 2 and Class 3 UAVs (i.e. medium and large drones – see here for explanation of drone class and size) since January 2007.  However  there are a few occasions when small drone crashes have been included for some notable reasons (i.e. crashed with another aircraft).  We continue to maintain this database  as, although safety and reliability is a key issue in the growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles, nobody appears to be publicly compiling  drone crash information.   We are not claiming that our database is complete.  Given the secretive nature of drone operations and development, it is highly likely that other drone crashes have occurred and not been publicly reported. Read more

Wither Telemos?

Mock up of Telemos drone on display

British and French Defence Ministers Phillip Hammond and Jean-Yves Le Drian met in London on Tuesday to discuss progress of the Anglo-French defence treaty signed in 2010.  A key element of the treaty was to work jointly on unmanned drones and related technology (see this previous posting).

BAE Systems and Dassult Aviation, who are working together on a proposed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone called Telemos had suggested that contracts could be signed at the Farnborough airshow earlier this month, and when that failed to happen it was suggested that an announcement would be made at this week’s Defence Ministers meeting.  However no such agreement or contract has been signed and there was not even a  mention of Telemos in the post-meeting statement.

Two different agreement were reached about drones.  Firstly a relatively small contract (€13 million) was signed to undertake further basic research work on a future combat drone preliminary dubbed the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) intended for use between 2030 and 2040. Secondly France agreed to evaluate the British-Israeli Watchkeeper drone.  According to DefenseNews “France is acquiring one system from the U.K. to conduct tests and operational studies, expected to last to mid-2013, which may lead to a future French Army acquisition.”   

The silence on Telemos in the post-meeting statement is deafening.  The new administration in France said in May that it was going back to ‘square one’ on the development of a new armed drone   and it seems as though France is keen for Germany and the European conglomerate, EADS to be allowed into the project to join BAE Systems and Dassault.  Some in France are suggesting that France may opt out altogether of investing in a new MALE drone and simply acquire the Reaper from the US.  If this happens in theory the UK could just continue with developing the new drone on its own – presumably based on BAE’s Mantis drone.  By coincidence (!)  BAE has just announced that the Mantis prototype is being brought out of moth-balls and will begin to undertake more flight tests.  However the cost of developing and operating a new drone has been estimated by the MoD to be in the region of £2 billion – a huge amount to invest in a new weapon system at this time of severe economic difficulty.

Latest news on British drones

Some new information has emerged this week about future British drone programmes as BAE Systems held a media briefing at their Warton site to talk about their unmanned projects (our invitation was presumably lost in the post).

Picture of Taranis at Warton, released by BAE Systems.

According to the report by Defense News the first flight of BAE’s Taranis drone has been put back yet again until 2013.  Originally due to make its maiden flight in 2011, it was first delayed until early 2012 for “technical and other reasons” but now won’t fly at all this year.  Little has been heard about Taranis since it was unveiled to journalists (and protestors) in July  2010.  At the briefing journalists were allowed a distant peak at the drone as it sat in its hangar.  The UK government gave BAE Systems £40m of funding to develop unmanned combat systems in January 2012.

Perhaps surprisingly BAE told reporters that it was restarting its Mantis programme. Mantis is an armed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone of similar size and shape to the Reaper.  Unlike Reaper, however Mantis is not remotely controlled but flies autonomously following a pre-programmed flight plan.  Mantis reached the end of its development phase when it flew for the first time at the Woomera test range in Australia in October 2009. Until now it has been suggested Mantis would simply form the basis of the proposed joint BAE-Dassault drone, Telemos.

BAE also said it hoped it would sign contracts with the UK and French government to further develop the Telemos drone  at the Farnborough airshow next month.  Telemos is BAE and Dassault’s offering to fill the UK-French ‘requirement’ for a new armed drone. However the change of administration in France has created uncertainty about the proposal as the newly appointed French defence minister announced in May that he was going back to “square one” on the plan to build a joint military drone.  

Elsewhere BAE continues to undertake work to in order to allow unmanned aircraft to fly within UK airspace.  As part of the ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme, BAE will begin undertaking a series of test flights using a converted Jestream aircraft that can fly autonomously as an unmanned aircraft.   At least twenty test flights will take place over the Irish sea over the next six months.  BAE issued a glossy diagram to explain the work that they will be undertaking (large pdf here). 

The other main ‘British’ drone, Watchkeeper – which is being jointly developed by Israeli company Elbit Systems and Thales UK – seems to have missed out on being chosen by the French army as their new drone.  As part of the Anglo-French defence treaty, France was supposed to consider Watchkeeper for the contract but it was announced this week that they have instead bought further Sperwer MKII drones from French company, Sagem. Given this new contract and the fact that France have announced they are withdrawing early from Afghanistan it is unlikely that the French will want Watchkeeper as well.   For more info on Watchkeeper follow Wandering Raven’s blog and see this recent comprehensive article.

Finally, I can’t finish a post about British drones without mentioning the Reaper.  The Guardian reports this week that British reapers have now fired 281 weapons in Afghanistan up until the end of May 2012 and rightly points out that MoD continues to insist that only four civilians have been killed in these British drone strikes whilst at the same times maintaining that they cannot know how many people have been killed.  

 In the article, human rights lawyer Erica Gaston argues

“there has been little to no visibility on how drone targets are selected or reviewed. There have been many cases in Afghanistan and elsewhere in which the visual identification of a “target” through drone technology proved catastrophically wrong. Such past mistakes have raised the bar on the level of transparency and public accountability required. The ‘trust us’ approach is no longer good enough where drones are involved.” 

Quite. Interestingly, the Labour MP Madeleine Moon, who is on the Commons defence select committee, also said: “Greater priority must be given to ensure those killed in drone attacks are not innocent civilians. Current figures coming out of the Ministry of Defence do not indicate that the level of scrutiny needed is in place. It is imperative that steps are put in place, not only to protect innocent civilians, but demonstrate that have done so.”

In stark contrast to this suggestion, the MoD have written to me (letter here) saying they will no longer answer my Freedom of Information requests on the use of UAVs in Afghanistan “until at least the end of operations in Afghanistan.”  Needless to say I have appealed (letter here) and will continue to demand more transparency and public accountability on the use of  British drones.