XLUUVs, Swarms, and STARTLE: New developments in the UK’s military autonomous systems

Behind the scenes, the UK is developing a range of military autonomous systems. Image: Crown Copyright

In November 2018 Drone Wars UK published ‘Off The Leash’, an in-depth research report outlining how the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was actively supporting research into technology to support the development of armed autonomous drones despite the government’s public claims that it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”.  This article provides an update on developments which have taken place in this field since our report was published, looking both at specific technology projects as well as developments on the UK’s policy position on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). Read more

UK rebrands Predators as ‘Protectors’ while ignoring difficult questions

In an interview with the Telegraph ahead of the Tory party conference, David Cameron announced that the UK is to again double the UK’s fleet of armed drones, this time up from 10 US Reapers to 20 ‘Protector’ drones.  No such drone currently exists and some began to wonder whether Cameron had simply got the name wrong. However later clarification from the MoD seemed to indicate that the ‘Protector’ was to be the British name for the longer range and extended endurance Predator-B drone (commonly known as the Reaper) which is currently going through a development programme in the US in part to gain the necessary certification to fly in European airspace (although this is not confirmed). Read more

Analysis: Where are British Reaper drones heading after Afghanistan?

David Cameron with RAF pilots at Al Minhad Air Base in UAE
David Cameron with RAF pilots at Al Minhad Air Base in UAE

As the December 2014 Afghan drawdown deadline approaches the UK government has accepted that it can’t bring its fleet of ten armed Reapers back to the UK except packed up in boxes. Due to safely concerns Reaper drones will not be allowed to fly in the UK even in segregated airspace. The MoD however wants to keep the drones flying so the question that is exercising senior British politicians and officials is where in the world shall we put our armed drones now?

Although it was thought that some UK drones might remain in Afghanistan as part of a post-conflict security arrangement, this option has become much less attractive as there is a desire by the UK to draw a line under the Afghan war and ‘move on’. This conclusion has only been hardened with the increasing possibility that the US forces may not stay in Afghanistan at all after 2014 unless a Bilateral Security Agreement is signed by August.

If the UK wants to keep its armed drones operational it appears to have two broad options; deploy them alongside other British aircraft in the Gulf or deploy them alongside US drones undertaking surveillance and counterterrorism in Africa.

The Gulf Option 

UK military forces in the Gulf receive little publicity as the host countries do not want the presence of foreign troops highlighted while the UK is (a little) sensitive about being seen to support such autocratic regimes. Nevertheless a squadron of RAF Typhoons is based at Al-Minhad Air Base near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and even more discreetly an eavesdropping RAF Sentinel aircraft (note this is different from the RQ-170 drones also called Sentinel) is believed to be deployed to the Al Mussanah Air Base in Oman.

Over the past few years the UK has been trying to bolster its relationship with Gulf states and especially with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This has included the signing of a defence partnership agreement in late 2012. Though this has been in part about trying to gain lucrative arms sales (which embarrassingly did not come to fruition) it has also been about the UK becoming more focused on the Gulf as a key strategic military location.

In the foreword of a briefing paper on the UK-Gulf relationship published in April 2013, Michael Clarke, the Director General of RUSI, the MoD-linked think-tank wrote (pdf)

“The military intends to build up a strong shadow presence around the Gulf; not an evident imperial-style footprint, but a smart presence with facilities, defence agreements, rotation of training, transit and jumping-off points for forces that aim to be more adaptable and agile as they face the post Afghanistan years from 2014. The Minhad airbase at Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as the key to this smart presence.”

Although the UK also has a military presence in other Gulf states including Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia (where officially at least RAF personnel are ‘seconded’ to the Saudi Royal Air Force), Al Minhad in the UAE is the most likely option. Firstly there is already an RAF Squadron present which means the communications and control infrastructure is already in place. And secondly the UAE was the first non-NATO country to have been allowed to buy the unarmed ‘export’ version of Reaper and may well see an advantage to having UK Reapers based alongside them.

Asked about the possibility of establishing a permanent presence in the Gulf during an April 2014 visit to Qatar Defence Secretary Philip Hammond stated: “It’s a possibility that we are looking at and we’re interested to discuss how to take that forward…We haven’t decided for sure to do this yet, but certainly it’s one of the options we are looking at.”

US Predator and Reaper drones regularly patrol the Gulf in what it calls “routine maritime surveillance” and “routine classified surveillance missions”. At least twice this has led to confrontations between the drones and Iranian aircraft, once in November 2012 and again in March 2013. It is known that US Global Hawks and RQ-170 Sentinel drones fly from Al Dhafar airbase in UAE but it is not clear if Predator/Reaper drones are also based there especially since a US drone base in Saudi Arabia was revealed by US media last year.

If UK drones are deployed to the Gulf it may well be that they take on these patrols and potential clashes with the Iranian air force.

The Africa Option

Another option for the UK appears to be basing its drones alongside US and French drones in Africa. The known location of deployed US drones is mapped below although it is highly likely that there are other bases that are not in the public domain (rumours include Quagadodo in Burkina Faso and Al-Wigh in Libya) .

Known locations of US drone bases in the region (click to enlarge)
Country Location Type
Afghanistan Jalalabad and Kandahar Reapers, Predators & Sentinel
Djibouti Camp Lemonier Predators / Reapers
Ethiopia Arba Minch Reapers
Italy Sigonella Global Hawks & Reapers
Kuwait Ali Al Salem Predator
Niger Niamey Reapers
Saudi Arabia Unknown Predator?
Seychelles Mahe Reapers
Turkey Incirlik Predators
United Arab Emirates Al Dhafra Sentinel & Global Hawk
Yemen Al-Anad Air Base Reapers


Both Michael Clarke of RUSI and UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson have suggested that UK drones may be deployed to Africa after Afghanistan. So far all the MoD has been willing to say is that ‘no decision has yet been taken on future basing of UK Reapers’.

While the British Army has a small training unit in Kenya (about 50 UK personnel are permanently stationed there to facilitate training exercise by British troops) it has no permanent air base. It is likely therefore that if UK Reapers are to be deployed to Africa it will be alongside US drones based at (or nearby) Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, Arba Minch in Ethiopia or Niamey in Niger. Given that French Reapers have also been deployed to Niamey in Niger, if deployed to Africa it is perhaps most likely that British drones would be deployed there.

Decisions, Decisions

It is highly likely that, in consultation with international partners, British politicians, military officials and diplomats are at this moment debating the pros and cons of each of the basing options for the UK’s Reaper drones. From their perspective the advantage of basing UK drones in the Gulf is that the infrastructure is already in place. However, how much and how often the drones would be allowed to fly is debatable. It is also likely that being in the Gulf, UK drones would take part in patrols over Gulf waters. Although relations between the West and Iran are stabilising at the moment, drone flights over the Gulf have led to military confrontations in the past. The UK could easily get drawn into such a confrontation in the future.

Although there is no RAF infrastructure in Africa, it is likely there will be more opportunity for RAF pilots to fly missions there than in the Gulf.  If the drones end up being based at Niamey where US and French drones are already based this would also facilitate co-operation between three nations operating Reapers. However just as in the Gulf, it would be easy once these systems are deployed to become further entangled in military operations within Mali or whatever crisis erupts.

A third possibility is that the UK’s drones could be deployed to the Sigonella airbase in Italy alongside Italian and US drones or to various bases in North America where they could simply be involved in training exercises. This however is apparently an unlikely option.

Whatever happens, it should be remembered that behind the decision to re-deploy drones from Afghanistan to either the Gulf or to Africa is not some magnanimous desire to create security for the people living in that part of the globe.  Rather it is simply the wish to keep the drones operational – to be part of the drones club.   However once the drones are re-deployed, it increases the likelihood that the UK will become embroiled in further armed conflict.  The best option, the one that will really increase global security, is simply for the drones to be disassembled and packed back into their boxes for storage at RAF Waddington.  This option however, appears to be off the table.

An RAF Reaper being assembled at Kandahar in 2010. Time for British drones to be put back in their box


Pausing at the crossroads – drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Africa

under MQ-9Over the past decade the use of armed drones has dramatically increased and spread with drone strikes reported to have taken place in up to ten countries. Although the US use of drones in Pakistan and  Yemen has been most controversial and received  the majority of media coverage, Afghanistan has been the real centre of armed drone use.  The first combat drone strike took place in Afghanistan just weeks after 9/11 and the vast majority of drone strikes have taken place there although exact figures remain shrouded in secrecy.  It is not surprising therefore that the forthcoming end of NATO combat operations in Afghanistan later this year brings the drone wars to something of a crossroads. Read more

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

‘Drones Fly, Children Die’ – Today, Tomorrow, Forever?

Reaper-2The present and future use of armed drones in Afghanistan came under the spotlight this week, with details of one drone strike in which a 2 year-old child was killed being revealed.

Negotiations continue between Afghanistan and the US over a bilateral security agreement that would allow US military forces to continue operating within Afghanistan after December 2014 when NATO combat operations are due to end. Read more