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.

BAE ties up with Dassault not EADS on joint drone

BAE Systems have announced this morning that they have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with French aircraft manufacturer, Dassault, to work together on a new armed drone.   The new drone will be one of the first products of the new Anglo-French defence treaty signed last November,  and will be based on BAE’s Mantis drone.

There had been speculation that BAE would tie up with European arms conglomerate, EADS, and combine Mantis with EADS Talerion drone, but this is obviously not to be.  

More on this story soon.

British troops learn drone war in Israel as Reaper replacement battle starts

‘UK Troops Use ‘War Crime Drones’ In Israel was a rather surprising headline this week from the sensational Sun Sky News.  Behind the headline was the news that British troops are being trained by Israeli company Elbit to use Hermes and its Watchkeeper drones replacement in Israel.

 As is well known the UK is currently renting Hermes drones for use in Afghanistan until the new Watchkeeper drones, built under a joint UK-Elbit venture, can be deployed next year.  (see British Drones the Israeli Connection)

In 2008 the UK government insisted that trials for the Watchkeeper should not be undertaken in the occupied territories but was seemingly happy enough for the testing to take place in Israel. Amnesty International was quoted in the Sky News article as saying “It would seem wholly inappropriate for UK forces to be trained in the use of drones by a country with a track record of applying this technology in grave abuses of people’s human rights.”  Quite. No one could disagree with that (except perhaps commentators on  The Jersualem Post version of the story)?

Meanwhile the battle to replace the British Reaper drone is sparking into life.  EADS, which is developing the Talarion drone, urged decision makers to ‘make a choice’ with regard to the future armed UAV.   Two drones, BAE’s Mantis and EADS Talarion are the main contenders but there are also other possible candidates which could be developed to fulfil the Scavenger requirement to be in service around 2015-2018.  The joint UK-France treaty signed late 2010 seems to imply that these two main programmes will somehow be merged but it seems progress is slow and frustrating for EADS.

News on BAE’s drones

Artist impression of Taranis

BAE’s Mantis drone has returned to the UK following a series of tests at an Australian military test range according to a report in Flight International.    “BAE says a production version of Mantis would be able to fly at altitudes up to 50,000ft and deliver an endurance of over 36h. The design is a potential candidate for the UK Ministry of Defence’s Scavenger requirement, which seeks a persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capability to enter use from around 2015 to 2018.

The Flight article also reveals that BAE’s “combat drone”  in development, Taranis,  is to be unveiled at a special ceremony at BAE’s Warton factory on Monday July 12th.  The seems likely to co-incide with a military industry conference on ‘weaponised’ unmanned drones due to take place in London on 13/14th July.

MoD confirms joint UK/France study into future drone

An MoD spokeswomen has said that the UK and France are half-way through a joint three-month feasibility study into the possibility of jointly producing/purchasing a new drone.    The study came to light after the a senior Dassault executive called a press conference to argue against the possibility of a joint purchase of Reaper drones.   According to the report in Defence News potential candidate drones include developments of EADS Talarion, BAE Systems’ Mantis,  General Atomics Reaper and  Dassault /Thales Système de Drone MALE (SDM).