A year after the UK doubled its drone fleet David Cameron visited RAF Waddington today to signal further commitment to – and spending on – drones and special forces. The Prime Minster told the media that he had asked Defence Chiefs to look at how to do more to counter the threat posed by ISIS including spending more on “spy planes, drones and Special Forces.” Cameron insisted that “in the last 5 years, I have seen just how vital these assets are in keeping us safe.” He also, according to reports, suggested that the new Aircraft Carrier, Queen Elizabeth could be used to deploy drones in the future. Read more
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)
The report, Shelling Out: UK Government Spending on Unmanned drones, finds that the UK has spent £872m on five different drones that are currently in service with British forces, including £506m on the armed MQ-9 Reaper drone. The UK has committed a further £1,031m to developing new drones such as the Watchkeeper UAV and BAE Systems Taranis drone. Finally the UK has funded £120m of research within UK universities and British defence companies looking at unmanned systems. This included £30m funding for the ASTRAEA programme to open up UK civil airspace to autonomous drones. Read more
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).
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.
The Washington Post reported this week that the CIA is seeking to expand its use of drone strikes in Yemen. According to the report, the CIA is currently “limited” within Yemen to using drone strikes against known individuals on a targeted kill list. However it now is seeking permission from the National Security Council (Chaired by President Obama) to launch drone strikes when intelligence shows what is called the “telltale signature of al-Qaeda activity”. These so-called ‘signature’ strikes (as opposed to ‘personality’ strikes) are based on intelligence about vehicle movements, communications, movements in and out of a particular building or compound, and patterns of behavior.
It should be noted that in Yemen, as opposed to Pakistan, US military forces such as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) are also involved in launching attacks against suspected al Qaeda targets and these forces may well already have such “permission”.
Of course the whole idea that the US can grant itself “permission” and “authority” to attack either known individuals associated with al Qaeda or those suspected of being involved, anywhere in the world, at any time has no basis in international law as many have repeated made clear.
This week Human Rights Watch (HRW) has again challenged the CIA’s use of drone strikes. In a speech at Harvard Law School on April 10, 2012. entitled “CIA and the Rule of Law” the CIA’s general counsel, Stephen Preston, said the agency would implement its authority to use force “in a manner consistent with the … basic principles” of the laws of war. James Ross legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch said
“When the CIA general counsel says that the agency need only act in ‘a manner consistent’ with the ‘principles’ of international law, he is saying the laws of war aren’t really law at all… The Obama administration should make it clear that there’s no ‘CIA exception’ for its international legal obligations.”
HRW argues that command of all US armed drone strikes should be transferred to US military forces rather than remain in the hands of the secretive and unaccountable CIA.
Others argue that the drone strikes should cease altogether and accuse the US of participating in war crimes. Drone protestors attempted to deliver a war crimes indictment at Hancock Air Force base this weekend on Earth Day were preemptively arrested by police two blocks from the entrance. According to the groups press release, those arrested included an 87 year old woman in a wheelchair, parents (accompanying their children), a member of the press, and the group’s attorney Ron Van Norstrand. Cameras, camcorders and phones were confiscated by the Sheriff’s Department. Six other people, did manage to reach the gate of the base, where they were also arrested. The indictment can be read here.
Meanwhile General Atomics, maker of the Reaper and Predator, have announced they have designed a significant upgrade for their drones which will enable them to expand to almost double the amount of time they can stay in the air. The company is proposing extending the wings, adding additional fuel pods and strengthening the landing gear in order to enable the drone to stay aloft for up to 42 hours nonstop. General Atomics says the upgrades can be done to current drone in service ‘in the field’, but as yet it is not known if this proposal will be taken up by US and British military who have armed drones in active military service.