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.

UK and France Plan Joint Work on “essential” Drones

David Cameron & Nicolas Sarkozy

UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy jointly signed The Declaration on Defence and Security Co-operation yesterday at the 2010 UK-France Summit.  The treaty, dubbed by the tabloids as ‘the entente frugale’, contains two paragraphs on drones:

 Unmanned Air Systems have become essential to our armed forces. We have agreed to work together on the next generation of Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Air Surveillance Systems. Co-operation will enable the potential sharing of development, support and training costs, and ensure that our forces can work together. We will launch a jointly funded, competitive assessment phase in 2011, with a view to new equipment delivery between 2015and 2020.

In the longer term, we will jointly assess requirements and options for the next generation of Unmanned Combat Air Systems from 2030 onwards. Building on work already started under the direction of the UK-France High Level Working Group, we will develop over the next two years a joint technological and industrial roadmap. This could lead to a decision in 2012 to launch a joint Technology and Operational Demonstration programme from 2013 to 2018.

Within hours BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation had submitted a joint letter to the two leaders offering to work together to jointly develop drones.  As I have previously suggested, (‘SDSR, Drones and Autonomy) FlightGlobal is reporting that this will mean “building  on the lessons learned during Europe’s Dassault-led Neuron and BAE Systems’ Taranis technology demonstration programmes”.

BAE Systems told the Financial Times that they welcomed the proposal to develop a joint drone “Not only is this an important milestone in terms of the development of our unmanned aircraft capability, but it represents a significant investment in the future of our UK and French military aerospace capability.”

As I say far too often on this blog, meanwhile US drones strikes continue in North Waziristan with eleven people killed in three separate drones strikes today (3rd November)  and five killed in a drone strike on Monday (1st) according to the Press Association.

Addition:  BBC Report:  BAE Welcomes new alliance 

Taranis: New drone, same old protesters!

Yesterday, as BAE systems unveiled Taranis, their new unmanned combat drone technical demonstrator at their factory in Warton, near Preston we held a small protest vigil at the front gates.  According to Defence Minister Gerald Howarth speaking at the event, the combat drone “reflects the best of our nation’s advanced design and technology skills.” 

There was some grumbling amongst those present that details were scant and  and Taranis could only viewed at some distance. Indeed the drone, which was supposed to be flying this year, is already a year late.   At a cost of £143 million the demonstrator, as the Daily Mail puts it, “spearheads BAE’s drive to convince the Ministry of Defence to invest in the next generation of unmanned aircraft.”

Taranis, named after the Celtic god of thunder, is different from the UK’s current drones as it is designed not to be flown remotely from the ground via satellite, as current unmanned drones are, but rather programmed pre-flight  to carry out its mission, whether  intelligence, surveillance or armed strike.   To make the aircraft ‘more stealthy’ i.e. invisisible to radar, the drone’s bombs and missiles are carried internally.

The company and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) are at pains to point our that the ‘robotic drone’ will absolutely always be in human control.   The military are concerned that the public have the wrong attitude to drones and are planning to go to considerable length to re-educate us.  Speaking following objections to the allowing of drones to be flown at Salisbury Plain,  Lt Cdr Gerry Corbett said

 “”The public perception is either: they’re spying on us; they’re shooting at us; or they’re not safe.  We are trying to get rid of the phrase UAV. They are aircraft and they are piloted, albeit remotely.” 

Speaking up on behalf of the ‘un-reeducated’ we held a small vigil at the gates calling on BAE to work for peace and not war.  Response from the hundreds of workers we saw was mostly friendly with our banner,  ‘The only good drone is a vuvuzela – Stop Taranis’ raising smiles.

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.