RAF drone programmes fly into stormy skies

BAe System image of Tempest aircraft with accompanying drones

Funding for the ‘Tempest’ Future Combat Air System which is intended to replace the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft is “significantly less than required” and “adds significant overall programme risk” to delivery of the new jet, according to a report on government project management published jointly by HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

In its first assessment of the Tempest programme the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), which reports jointly to the two government departments, reveals that successful delivery of the aircraft is already “in doubt”.  Another high profile drone project, delivery of the RAF’s new ‘Protector’ aircraft, rated a similar assessment.

Tempest is under joint development by Italy, Sweden, and the UK as the next generation combat aircraft for the three nations – a high performance, high cost system consisting of a core aircraft, which is likely to be able to fly in both crewed and uncrewed modes, with an associated network of swarming drones, sensors, and data systems.

The IPA, which each year rates the performance of government departments in delivering major projects, has scored the Future Combat Air System programme with an Amber / Red risk rating in its report for the 2020-21 financial year.  This means that “successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and assess whether resolution is feasible”.  Read 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

Intervention ‘without the need to consider the human cost’: MoD thinking on UK’s new drone revealed

Documents obtained by Drone Wars using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) reveal how British military officials view the UK’s next generation armed drone, known as Protector, and the types of advanced capabilities the aircraft will have. Protector, which is set to replace the UK’s current fleet of armed Reaper drones in the mid-2020s, is essentially SkyGuardian—the latest version of the Predator drone being produced by General Atomics—plus UK modifications. The modifications revealed in the FOI documents (comprising presentations given by UK military personnel at a drone technology conference held last September) are significant because they provide an insight into how the Ministry of Defence (MOD) plan to utilise Protector.  Looking more widely, Protector epitomises the second drone age, characterised by a global expansion in both the type of drones being used by states and the scale of operations, including in the domestic sphere. Read more

Announcing a new initiative:  UK Drone Watch

Since 2010, Drone Wars UK has been shining a spotlight on the military’s use of drones and the impact on peace and security around the globe. Now, both in the US and in Europe, large military-grade drones which fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) are moving from the battlefield to the domestic front.

Here in the UK, the government is rapidly pushing ahead with plans to enable large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly freely within UK airspace as part of its Airspace Modernisation Strategy.  These plans are keenly supported by the growing drone industry and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who are taking a significant lead in this area with plans, for example, to fly the latest version of the Predator drone – which the MoD is calling ‘Protector’  – in UK airspace.  Ministers argue that the planned changes present exciting opportunities for business to create high-tech jobs and to boost the economy across the UK.  While these plans may well be a boon for some, it is vital that the negative aspects of ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) drone use within the UK are examined, and if such flights are to go ahead, privacy and safety protections are factored in from the start.

Elbit Systems Hermes 900 during UK trial flight for Coastguard and National Police Air Service in September 2020

It should be noted that there are no plans for primary legislation to implement these changes which would given an opportunity to subject these changes to democratic scrutiny via parliamentary debate. Instead a quango, the Airspace Change Organising Group (ACOG), has been established by the Department for Transport (DfT) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), to coordinate and implement government plans in this area.  We believe it is vital that this democratic deficit is publicised and challenged and the public have their say in controlling drones in UK skies.

Over the past few months, we have seen military drones deployed at the UK border to deter refugees crossing the channel, the RAF advancing plans to fly the ‘Protector’ drone in the UK,  UK coastguard and police assessing large Israeli drones for operations and other drone test programmes advanced under the COVID crisis.

Alongside our continuing focus on the military use of drones, we will now have a related programme examining the opening of UK skies to large BVLOS drones and in particular their use for security and surveillance purposes within the UK.

  • For more information see our dedicated webpage: Drone Watch UK
  • Read our first post of this initiative: Benchmarking Police Use of Drones
  • Join us soon for an online discussion on developing campaigning around opening of UK skies to BVLOS drones  (details tbc).                                      

Watchdog reports continuing problems with Protector and Watchkeeper drone programmes

General Atomics SkyGuardian drone which UK MoD chooses to call ‘Protector’

Last month the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it had signed a £65 million contract for delivery of three new Protector drones for the Royal Air Force (RAF).  In an upbeat press release, which included the bold claim that the drones are “capable of strike missions anywhere in the world,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace enthused that “the UK is proving once again that we are a world leader in defence technology” (although Protector will actually be purchased from General Atomics, a US-based company, and manufactured in the US) and that the drones would be “meeting the UK’s defence and security needs for decades to come.”

A few days before the MoD’s announcement, however, a more impartial assessment of progress of  the Protector programme was published by the government watchdog, the  Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in its annual report on progress of  major projects.  The Protector programme was rated as ‘amber’ by the IPA in its confidence assessment for delivery of the programme, meaning that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention. These appear resolvable at this stage and, if addressed promptly, should not present a cost/schedule overrun”. The rating is an improvement from amber-red last year (“successful delivery of the project is in doubt”) and red the year before that (“successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”).    Read more