Revealed: MoD media briefing on British drone operations

Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey meeting UK Reaper pilots

The Ministry of Defence’s ‘Top Level Messages’ briefing for January 2012 contains several items on recent UK drone operation and developments.   While there are no new or dramatic revelations it’s an interesting summary of the UK’s current drone activities.

  • The UK Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) programme has now provided over 30,000 hours of high quality, persistent armed Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) support to UK and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. 
  • Peter Luff MP, Minister of Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, announced in December that the MOD had placed a £40 million contract for aerospace research with BAE Systems. The four-year Future Combat Air System (FCAS) Focused Research contract aims to sustain and develop the UK’s critical technology and skills in this field. It will inform the MOD’s unmanned air system strategy over the coming decades to ensure that the best use is made of these new technologies.
  • The Hermes 450 unmanned air system has provided over 50,000 hours of support to UK Forces since it entered service in 2007.
  • On 6 December 2010, the Prime Minister announced that funding will be made available to enable further increases in the UK Reaper RPAS capability. RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire has been selected as the preferred location for the basing of a key element of this additional capability, the Ground Control Stations. The decision to base the Ground Control Stations at RAF Waddington was informed by the fact that the Station is the RAF’s ISTAR Hub with the required flying supervisory chain of command. Work has already commenced at RAF Waddington in preparation for the stand up of XIII Squadron, the arrival of the UK Reaper Ground Control Stations and associated equipment in 2012.
  • At this stage there are no plans to base or fly UK Reaper aircraft in the UK as the aircraft are specifically required to be based in Afghanistan to support UK and Coalition Forces under Urgent Operational Requirement. However, in the future, as the Ground Control Stations will be based within the UK, RAF crews will be able to fly the UK Reaper aircraft remotely from the UK.
  • The MOD intends to begin relocating 39 Squadron from Creech Air Force Base (AFB), Nevada to RAF Waddington once XIII Squadron is operational. The relocation of 39 Squadron will be phased to ensure there is no disruption to UK Reaper support to current operations. While there are a range of benefits of being collocated with the USAF at Creech AFB, the manpower requirements of 2 squadrons (39 and XIII Squadrons) will require qualified crews to be available for additional tours of duty on Reaper to reduce.

While the MoD is briefing journalists with selected information about UK drone operations, we’d really like them to answer our questions and Freedom of Information requests on the circumstances of the more than 200 UK drone strikes in Afghanistan.

UK MoD release presentations on Reaper and Watchkeeper drones to Drone Wars UK under FoI

Last month the UK MoD’s Air Warfare Centre held a symposium on drones at the Shrivenham Defence Academy. While the overall theme of the symposium was how drones could help ‘UK Resilience Operations’, attendees were also given updates by senior military officials on the progress of the UK’s  major drone programmes: Reaper and Watchkeeper (see our story here from last month).  We applied to the MoD for copies of the presentations under Freedom of Information (FoI) Act and received them yesterday.   To view the presentations simply click on the images.

MoD presentation on Reaper - click to view

The briefing on the Reaper drone, entitled ‘RAF Reaper MALE RPAS  [‘Medium Altitude Long Endurance Remotely Piloted Air System] capability/Lessons’ covers the armed capability of Reaper; the ‘Reaper Roadmap’ as well as lessons identified from operations.  Although the civil use of drones is refered to, there is little no information on this in presentation.

Slide eight of the presentation shows the ‘Reaper Roadmap.  The Reapers currently on operation and those planned to come into service in 2012/13 have an ‘out service date’ of 2015 and there is a three year gap before the planned new drone capability ‘Scavenger’ will be available in 2018.  This ‘gap’ is highlighted in the roadmap and may mean that additional Reapers will be procured.

Most interesting in the presentation are the nine slides covering ‘lessons identified’ covering operations, impact on personnel, safety, training and procurement.  While the presentation only gives the headlines with the detail no doubt covered in the accompanying talk by Wing Commander Gary Coleman, from the presentation we learn that:

  • From mid-2012 there will be 44 Reaper crews operating UK Reapers with three Reapers constantly flying 24/7
  • There have now been over 190 drone strikes in Afghanistan by British Reaper crews
  • Hellfire missiles are three times more likely to be uses than the 500lb bomb
  • If “lower yield weapons” had been available more strikes would have been undertaken
  • Reaper “mishaps” (i.e. crashes) happen approximately every 10,000 hours of flying
  • There are ‘Fatigue and Psychological stressors’ on personnel operating Reaper

The briefing on Watchkeeper  entitled ‘Watchkeeper and Land Forces Operational UAS’ is much more technical and focuses on how Watchkeeper will fit in with other smaller drones such as the Desert Hawk and T-Hawk.

MoD presentation on Watchkeeper - click to view

From the presentation it appears that the Watchkeeper in-service date has slipped again (or as the briefing  tactfully puts it, the ‘schedule re-programmed to meet current operational requirements’. Watchkeepers will now  be deployed to Afghanistan sometime during the first quarter of 2012.  While early flight testing of  Watchkeeper took place in Israel, there have now been 230 flight of Watchkeeper in the UK, with the longest test flight being 14 hours.

Drone industry gets updates on Reaper and Watchkeeper operations

On 8 September, the UK MoD’s Air Warfare Centre held what is apparently an annual symposium on drones at the Shrivenham Defence Academy. While the overall theme of the symposium was how drones could help ‘UK Resilience Operations’, attendees were also given updates by senior military officials on the progress of the UK’s  major drone programmes: Reaper and Watchkeeper.

We have asked the MoD for a full copy of the updates under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) and will post them here when (if!) our request is accepted.  Meanwhile we will have to reply on the reports of the briefings according to an article in Shephard News.   According to the article Wing Commander Gary Coleman briefed delegates about the Reaper:

The RAF’s fleet of MQ-9 Reapers purchased under a UOR for operations in Afghanistan has now completed 25,000 flight hours. The RAF’s Reaper community is now doubling in size to 10 aircraft and a second squadron – XIII Sqn – is being reformed onto the Reaper to begin ground control station operations from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. With a fleet of 10 aircraft and 44 crews, the RAF will be able to provide three ‘combat air patrols’ or CAPs over Afghanistan 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Wing Commander Gary Coleman, HQ 2 Group ISTAR (Land), told delegates that crew retention had been an issue as aircrew were being based at Creech AFB outside Las Vegas for three years away from family and friends in the UK, flying operational missions and then returning home to family.

He also pointed out that the time differences between Afghanistan and Creech meant that while the aircraft was flying in daylight over Afghanistan, the crews at Creech would be working night shifts flying it. Coleman hopes that the time differences will be addressed when flying begins from Waddington which is just four hours behind Kabul time.

He did point out that the Reaper community had enjoyed an influx of personnel from the Nimrod fleet, which was taken out of service in May 2010.   An experimental training programme, Project Daedalus, trained a group of four non-aircrew including two air traffic controllers, a fighter controller and a policeman in the United States to fly the MQ-1 Predator. The four were amongst the top-rated in their class beating pilots with fast jet experience. There is now some consideration in training the four up to fly the MQ-9.

Shephard News also reported  on the update by Major Matt Moore of the Watchkeeper Implementation Team.  According to the article Moore reported that the British Army’s new Watchkeeper UAS has flown its longest flight yet during a test flight from west Wales.

A test flight in the beginning of September from the Parc Aberporth flight test centre saw the Watchkeeper fly for 14 hours and out to a range of 115 km, making the sortie the longest both in terms of range and endurance…

‘We launched the air vehicle at dawn and we recovered it at dusk as we are currently limited to testing in daylight hours only, but we still had another four hours of fuel in the tank.’

Watchkeeper has now completed some 320 hours of flight testing over 230 flights and Moore said the programme is still on track to be fielded in Afghanistan in the first quarter of 2012.

In preparation, a number of modifications have been made to get the aircraft ready for operation in Afghanistan including the addition of covert lighting as well as additional IT systems in the ground control station to make it more compatible with systems being used in theatre.

Personnel began training for Watchkeeper in May. As well as flight testing at Aberporth, the Royal Artillery will also conduct training flights from MoD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire from where the aircraft will be flown in airspace specially allotted for UAV flying around and to the south of the Salisbury Plain Training Area. Royal Artillery crews will also be able to use the grass airstrip at Upavon for rough field or austere flight operations with the system.

Moore also said his team was exploring the potential of partnering the Watchkeeper with the Army Air Corps Apache attack helicopter, so that the Watchkeeper could cue or send the Apache imagery of potential targets.

As well as this Shivenham confernce and the ASTRAEA conference reported below, the DSEI arms fair has generated a lot of news about drones, whihc we will cover in the next post.

British Drone Strikes in Afghanistan in 2010: What we know and what we need to know

Over the past few weeks I have been trying to extract details about British drone strikes in Afghanistan from the RAF’s weekly operations reports.  It goes without saying that a complete or reliable analysis is not possible from this material alone as it is very limited, subject to censorship and is primarily produced to show UK forces in a positive light.  Nevertheless it is possible to gleam some information from the reports which may be more useful in the future when combined with other sources.

UK Drone Strikes reported in RAF Operations Reports 2010

In the reports some details of 44 individual British drone strikes in Afghanistan are given.  It is certain that there were more UK drone strikes in 2010 than are mentioned in these reports.  I would estimate, from other figures supplied by the MoD, that the true number of British drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2010 is actually in the region of 55 to 65.

While specific details or background circumstances of the drone strikes are omitted from the reports, the targets of 44 British drone strikes mentioned in the RAF reports are broken down in the table below.

Where details are given, the majority of the strikes were carried out using a single weapon.  16 times a single Hellfire missile was used and 5 times a single Paveway 500lb guided bomb was dropped.  On two occasions two hellfire missiles were used, however for 21 of the reported strikes no details of the weapons used were given.

Breakdown of Drone Strikes reported in 2010 RAF Operations Reports

Only on one occasion are casualties specifically mentioned.  A report from January 2010 states that a UK Reaper “fired a Hellfire missile which killed 12 insurgents who were massing to attack a target.”  Three times during the period covered  it was reported that the possible injury to civilians meant a drone strike was aborted at the last moment  or that a missile was deliberately diverted after it had been fired in order to miss its target.

Questions, Questions

Questions around the current use of drones in Afghanistan fall under several headings.  Does the ‘risk free’ nature of remote warfare mean that attacks are undertaken more frequently?  Does the supposed accuracy of drone sensors and cameras mean that ‘riskier’ strikes are undertaken?  Are British drones being used to undertake targeted killings in contravention of humanitarian and international law?

Analysis of the limited information provided by the RAF reports for 2010 fail to answer these questions.  Indeed it raises further questions.  For example what are the ‘hostile acts’ (if they are not attacks on friendly forces which are detailed under a separate heading) that led to eight of the drone strikes? Two drone strikes were launched at insurgents planning an attack.  How were these plans discovered and could the plotters have been arrested?  Three separate drone strikes were launched at identified ‘active insurgents’.  Were these  targeted killings by British forces or were
the insurgents engaged in armed attacks at the time of the drone strikes?

While some of the targets attacked by drone strikes appear to be no different from those undertaken by manned aircraft, the devil, as they say is in the detail.  And there is a lot of detail missing.

UK Reapers notch up 20,000 flying hours

The UK MoD have announced today that UK  Reaper drones have now notched up over 20,000 hours flying over Afghanistan since they were first deployed in October 2007. 

In the self-congratulatory announcement Air Vice-Marshal Phil Osborn makes the point that by flying over Afghanistan,  the Reaper drone  is “saving lives” and “making a real difference.”  He is, of course, lest there be any confusion, referring to the lives of British troops, not ordinary Afghans : 

“The real-time, day and night video coverage of the battle space, combined with the extensive use of onboard radar, provides a unique, cost effective and sustained capability that enhances the safety of troops on the ground. This cutting-edge remotely-piloted aircraft provides an impressive range of capabilities that are saving lives and making a real difference to the troops in Afghanistan.”

Not a word, of course, about the casualties of Britain’s drone wars, whether civilian or ‘militants’.  The only indication that there have been victims came from David Cameron’s boast to journalists in December that more than 124 insurgents had been killed in British drone attacks.  All questions about these 124 ‘insurgents’  – and whether there have been any other civilian casualties – have simply gone answered…..  

Meanwhile, the RAF’s Project Daedalus, to investigate if non-pilots could be trained to fly unmanned aerial systems as well as fully trained pilots has been ‘completed’.   According to the RAF, the programme

“has successfully demonstrated that selection and training can generate remote pilots who, despite undergoing a different sort of training, are as highly trained and equally skilled as traditional pilots in that field.”

This could have far-reaching implications given that both in the US and the UK current drone pilots are only drawn from those with previous fast-jet flying experience.    An interview, from April 2010, with those involved in the training can be read here.

Must mention, finally,  Steve Bell’s wonderful cartoon comment on David Cameron’s trip this week to Pakistan:

@Steve Bell

Newsweek: Inside the Killing Machine

by Tara McKelvey

Don’t normally repost other people’s articles here but this is an illuminating piece from Newsweek on how, as it says in the article “the formal process of determining who should be hunted down and “blown to bits” by a drone  is undertaken.

It was an ordinary-looking room located in an office building in northern Virginia. The place was filled with computer monitors, keyboards, and maps. Someone sat at a desk with his hand on a joystick. John A. Rizzo, who was serving as the CIA’s acting general counsel, hovered nearby, along with other people from the agency. Together they watched images on a screen that showed a man and his family traveling down a road thousands of miles away. The vehicle slowed down, and the man climbed out.

A moment later, an explosion filled the screen, and the man was dead. “It was very businesslike,” says Rizzo. An aerial drone had killed the man, a high-level terrorism suspect, after he had gotten out of the vehicle, while members of his family were spared. “The agency was very punctilious about this,” Rizzo says. “They tried to minimize collateral damage, especially women and children.”

The broad outlines of the CIA’s operations to kill suspected terrorists have been known to the public for some time—including how the United States kills Qaeda and Taliban militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan. But the formal process of determining who should be hunted down and “blown to bits,” as Rizzo puts it, has not been previously reported. A look at the bureaucracy behind the operations reveals that it is multilayered and methodical, run by a corps of civil servants who carry out their duties in a professional manner. Still, the fact that Rizzo was involved in “murder,” as he sometimes puts it, and that operations are planned in advance in a legalistic fashion, raises questions.   [[Article continues on Newsweek site here]]