The UK continued to use its current drone fleet while progressing future armed drone programmes during the year. Here’s a round-up of some of the main news from 2016
UK drones in Iraq and Syria
British Reaper drones continued to operate over Iraq and Syria throughout the year as part of US-led Coalition to defeat ISIS. However we are not allowed to know exactly how many of Britain’s fleet are deployed there, or indeed, if any have been deployed elsewhere. In spring 2016 there was a noticeable decline in Reaper missions in Iraq and Syria which could indicate that some of the drones had been deployed elsewhere (perhaps for operations over Libya for example) although this remains speculation without further information. Read more →
In a briefing for selected journalists on its military drone projects, BAE Systems revealed that it is pushing ahead with work on allowing future armed drones to undertake autonomous targeting.
While current British rules of engagement mean that a human must individually authorise targets, company executives told journalists that “the rules of engagement could change.” The Times reported that the company was ‘proceeding on the basis that an autonomous strike capability could be required in the future.’ Read more →
For the past two years the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) has been looming ever larger but any questions about process or content have been impatiently batted away with the refrain that such issues were “a matter for after the General Election.”
Now the election has come and gone, the government confirmed in the Queen’s Speech that it “will undertake a full Strategic Defence and Security Review, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that our courageous armed forces can keep Britain safe.” Read more →
Palestinians gather around a taxi in which four members of the Abu Daqqa family were killed in a reported Israeli drone strike on Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on 16 July.
(Ramadan El-Agha / APA images)
Against a backdrop of horrific Israeli air strikes in Gaza as well as a US drone strike in Pakistan, the Farnborough International Air show took place this week in the UK. Although billed as an air show, the event is in reality a week-long marketing event for the world’s military (and some civil) aviation companies to show off their wares with an open-to-the-public air show tacked on at the end.
Drones are increasingly important at Farnborough with a reported 78 companies displaying unmanned drones this year. In terms of British drones the key event was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the UK and France on the £120m ($205m) agreement to study the development of the Future Combat Air System. This funding was first announced earlier this year at the Anglo-French Summit at Brize Norton.
Both BAE Systems and Dassault are independently developing their own advance combat drones – called Taranis and Neuron respectively – which will be used to ‘inform’ the FCAS programme.. Both companies have prototypes of their combat drones already flying and BAE Systems took the opportunity to promote Taranis with some details and many glossy images of flights that have taken place in ‘stealth’ mode.
Watchkeeper, the Anglo-Israeli drone which is being developed for the British army, is being offered to the French as part of the ongoing UK-French co-operation on drones. As Watchkeeper programme is now more than three years behind schedule and unlikely to be fielded in Afghanistan, reports are that around half of the UK’s order of 54 aircraft will be mothballed even before being used. Thales UK, which is developing the drone with Israeli company Elbit Systems, announced at Farnborough that it is willing to sell the drone to civil customers. Or even to lease them. Given the size and cost of Watchkeeper, and the difficulty of getting regulators to give permission to fly them, the company is looking increasing desperate to find future customers – any customers – for Watchkeeper.
This year Thales (again) with US company Textron were marketing a new small missile specifically designed for small drones. The 70cm long missile with a 6kg (13lb) warhead is called the Free Fall Lightweight Multi-role Missile (or even less snappily the FFLMM). Ricky Adair, Thales director of sales and marketing for the missiles division was happy to proclaim “There are many market opportunities for a weapon like this.”
Military companies at these marketing events speak a sanitized language of ‘kinetic events’ and “ordnance consumables” and seem obviously to the misery their products cause. Thankfully, as the latest Pew Research poll on public reaction to US drone strikes shows, (outside of the US) the world is really beginning to become aware of just what a threat drones are to global peace and security.
After the MoD’s PR push on the use of Reaper drones last month and David Cameron’s announcement last week of further funding for UK-France work on a future combat drone, this week its BAE Systems turn to push drones with a media briefing on their new Taranis drone.
As well as working on a range of technology aimed at enabling drones to fly, BAE Systems has been working over the past few years on two specific unmanned aircraft; the Reaper-class Mantis and the more advanced unmanned combat drone, Taranis. While Mantis seems to have stalled, BAE have today revealed some more details about Taranis, announcing that the first flight took place on August 10, 2013 at an undisclosed location and other flight tests, again undisclosed, have taken place since.
Taranis is another expansion in the use of armed unmanned systems. Drones like Taranis and the US X-47B are not flown by pilots on the ground but fly autonomously, taking off, flying a mission, and returning to land by themselves. BAE Systems and the UK MoD insist that there continues to be a person-in-the-loop, “overseeing” the drone, particularly if it ever comes to launching weapons, yet Taranis is undeniably one more step towards autonomous weaponry.
Chris Cole, Director of Drone Wars UK said:
“The development and deployment of ‘First Strike’ nuclear weapons brought the world to the brink of disaster during the Cold War. In a similar escalation, this new generation of autonomous, stealthy drones, designed to be used in the ever expanding global war on terror to launch armed strikes wherever ‘our interests’ are threatened, simply makes the world a more dangerous place.”
In December 2006 the MoD signed a contract for a £127m project to design and build an experimental unmanned combat drone, called Taranis. In its response to a questions from the Defence Select Committee in 2008, the government stated that
“TARANIS will address a range of technology issues including low observable signature technology integration, vehicle management (including autonomous operation), sensor and payload integration, air vehicle performance, command and control and communications integration.”
Taranis was unveiled to journalists in 2010 (although they had to stay 10 metres away!) and was due to make its first flight in 2011. This deadline was missed and it was later announced that the first flight would occur in early 2013.
Primarily BAE Systems is hoping to persuade the MoD to buy its drones to fulfil Scavenger, a programme which the MoD’s policy document on unmanned aerial vehicles states is aimed at providing UK forces with “a theatre-wide, persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability and an ability to attack land and maritime time-sensitive targets.”
The MoD estimates that the Scavenger programme (which is part of a wider intelligence gathering and analysis plan called Solomon) will cost £2 billion. It should be remembered that the UK is operating armed Reaper drones in Afghanistan under Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) rules, meaning that the cost of purchasing and operating Reaper, like the cost of all UK military operations in Afghanistan, is not funded out of the efence budget but out of the Treasury Reserve.
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).
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.
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.