Two different agreement were reached about drones. Firstly a relatively small contract (€13 million) was signed to undertake further basic research work on a future combat drone preliminary dubbed the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) intended for use between 2030 and 2040. Secondly France agreed to evaluate the British-Israeli Watchkeeper drone. According to DefenseNews “France is acquiring one system from the U.K. to conduct tests and operational studies, expected to last to mid-2013, which may lead to a future French Army acquisition.”
The new centre, which will be run in conjunction with defence giant QinetiQ, aims to develop new drone programmes “from concept to deployment” as well as “facilitate engagement between industry and the MoD to make the best use of collective expertise and facilities.” Although there is as little public information available as yet, some slides about the new centre were included as part of a recent general presentation to industry by the MoD.
It was also announced that the new Unmanned Systems Centre will join with ADS, the UK Aerospace, Defence and Security trade association, and Farnborough Airshow to hold a new ‘expo’ on autonomous unmanned systems at Farnborough in July 2013. Although shy of using the word ‘autonomous’ (substituting the more acceptable phrase ‘intelligent systems’, the week-long event is clearly focused on autonomy as ADS Director, Kevin Jones states in a filmed interview (below) “Yes…. we are talking about systems that have the technology and the capability to make their own decisions…” The event planned for 2013, is a “precursor to a complete Intelligent Systems Air and Ground Expo that will occur at the Farnborough International Airshow 2014 where, as a show-within-a-show, this event will have command of the global aerospace stage.”
Meanwhile Raytheon announced that its new purpose-built bomb for small tactical drones, (imaginatively called the Small Tactical Munition) may, following more live testing, enter service within a few months . Raytheon recently issued this video showing the bomb being test launched from a small drone.
Another example of the growing proliferation of drone technology can be seen in the Israeli company IAI’s announcement that it was in discussions with a number of organisations and academic institutions around the world to set up drone training academies. The academies will offer training on IAI’s own UAVs including Heron, Panther and Hunter which can serve as training for pilots going on to fly those drones or as a generic training course. According to Defense News:
“IAI has been training customers at a campus in Israel for nearly 40 years but only recently started referring to the site — which the company refers to only as “a secure location near Tel Aviv” — as an academy. It also conducts UAV training flights from Ein Shemer, an army airfield in northern Israel.”
Meanwhile the political case for drones continues to be made in the US as well as the UK. Two articles extolling the virtues of drones – and challenging those who are critical of them – appeared over the past few days few days. First Washington think-tank the American Security Project argued that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere were perfectly legal and rather than not having a legal argument, the US was deliberately not explaining its legal position:
“It is of strategic value for the US to refrain from providing justification [for the drone strikes] because to acknowledge any legal framework is to implicitly agree to be bound by its terms. By remaining formally unaccountable to international frameworks, the US can operate unimpeded by the red tape of the international legal community. From any angle, such a strategy is in the best interest of US national security. It is also important to note that a lack of public justification does not mean the US is not acting in accordance with international legal frameworks.”
Many might say that operating purely in your own national security interests and regarding international law as mere ‘red tape’ would put you in the same class of rogue state as Syria, for example, but obviously the American Security Project does not agree
In the same vein, a New York Times op-ed tried to make the moral case for drones arguing that not only was using drones ethically permissible, but it also might be ethically obligatory due to their advantage in identifying targets and striking with precision. In a quick and strong rebuttal Jeremy Hammond of the Foreign Policy Journal demonstrated that it was in fact making the immoral argument for drones. Rather than summarise his piece I’d really recommend you read the whole article.
Despite ongoing serious moral and legal doubts, behind the scenes the development of armed drones and unmanned systems by the military and the defence industry is proceeding at a frightening pace. As always there is need for more transparency, accountability and a proper public debate.
This week’s Farnborough Airshow – with its dedicated unmanned systems showcase – will no doubt generate more media stories on the growing use of both civil and military drones. Indeed BAE Systems has hinted that there will be further contracts signed at Farnborough to take forward the joint UK-French Telemos drone and the companies are also looking to the UK and French governments to fund further drone work. Tom Fillingham of BAE Systems told journalists at recent briefing for journalists:
“At Farnborough we will also look for a positive indication from the governments that they are willing to allow BAE, Dassault and engine suppliers [Rolls-Royce and Snecma] to work on an 18-month FCAS [Future Combat Air System] demonstrator preparation programme.”
Coincidentally this week the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, is also due to appear before the Defence Select Committee (12 July) for a session examining “topical issues affecting the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces” and may well say something either about the Telemos programme specifically or the development of unmanned systems more generally.
While the Defence Committee will no doubt raise some questions about the costs and affordability of specific programmes, what is really required from MPs on the committee is that they grasp their public accountability role with both hands and investigate whether the growing use of armed drones is making the UK – and the world – less safe. While it is important that the committee discusses technical and financial questions about the progress of specific drone programmes, it is equally important that the wider ethical and philosophical questions are addressed. Perhaps, as some are suggesting, its time to bring the philosophical big guns to bear on the issue of drones?
In a recent Financial Times opinion piece, Michael Ignatieff quotes Immanuel Kant’s argument from 1795 that “if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game”. The problem now, as Ignatieff points out, (and the Defence Committee needs to explore) is that new technology such as drones and cyberwarfare, “make it easier for democracies to wage war because they eliminate the risk of blood sacrifice that once forced democratic peoples to be prudent.”
And if it is easier to wage war with drones – what could the global implications be? According to Sigmund Freud, another 18th Century philosopher – Rousseau – can provide a clue:
“In his essay ‘Reflections on War and Death’ French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau “asks the reader what he would do if without leaving Paris he could kill, with great profit to himself, an old mandarin in Peking by a mere act of his will. Rousseau implies that he would not give much for the life of the dignitary.” Imagine if great numbers could so exercise their will. What violence would be unleashed, how many prostrate bodies around the globe who never knew what hit them.
Imagine indeed. It’s not too difficult to see Rousseau’s nightmare already enfleshed in Warizistan and Yemen.
The ongoing questions over physical and psychological distance between those who are targeted by drones and the drone operator also needs to be explored. Twentieth century philosopher Heidegger grappled with the concept that modern technology helps us distance ourselves from the reality of the world and, as has already been pointed out, this analysis too should also be brought to bear on the issue.
This week at Farnborough, the defence companies will no doubt promise us once more that their new military technology will make the world a safer place. While it’s easy for the press and politicians to be impressed by shiny new weapons technology, we need to think deeply and carefully about the moral, ethical and global implications of the drone wars and remote warfare. As Michael Ignatieff said in his piece quoted earlier “These new technologies promise harm without consequence. Kant tells us there is no such thing.”
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.
Unmanned air systems are crucial to success in the battlefield, as the Libya and Afghanistan campaigns have shown. We have agreed today to take forward our planned cooperation on UAS within a long term strategic partnership framework aimed at building a sovereign capability shared by our two countries. This framework will encompass the different levels from tactical to MALE in the mid term and UCAS in the long term:
Medium Altitude Longue Endurance (MALE) Drone: The Joint Program Office was launched in 2011. We will shortly place with BAES and Dassault a jointly funded contract to study the technical risks associated with the MALE UAV. We look forward to taking further decisions jointly in the light of the outcomes of this risk reduction phase to ensure that our respective sovereign requirements will be met in a cost effective manner.
– Watchkeeper drone: France confirms its interest for the Watchkeeper system recognising the opportunities this would create for cooperation on technical, support, operational and development of doctrine and concepts. An evaluation of the system by France will begin in 2012, in the framework of its national procurement process, and conclude in 2013.
– We affirm our common will to undertake in 2013 a joint Future Combat Air System Demonstration Programme that will set up a co-operation of strategic importance for the future of the European Combat Air Sector. This work will provide a framework to mature the relevant technologies and operational concepts for a UCAS operating in a high threat environment. We will begin as soon as 2012 the specification of this demonstrator with a jointly funded contract under the industrial leadership of our national fighter aircraft industries (Dassault-Aviation in France and BAE Systems in the UK).
Summary: Drones are the latest ‘must have’ weapon systems and the big military companies are desperate to be part of what is beginning to be called ‘the drones gold-rush’. While Cameron is keen to emphasize that only a ‘few tens of millions of Euros’ are being spent at this time, early figures from the MoD indicate that the new drone could cost the UK around £2 billion with other estimates much higher. The wider legal and ethical questions about the growing use of armed drones are simply being ignored.
Today’s announcement that the UK and France will jointly develop a new armed unmanned drone is seen by many commentators as inevitable. Drones are the latest ‘must have’ weapon system and it is important they say, that the UK keeps up with the US and Israel in this key market. In corporate speak, the ‘direction of travel’ is clear; while companies may squabble over particular contracts and deals it is important that the UK is part of what is beginning to be call ‘the drones gold-rush’.
Behind this ‘gold-rush’ however are many serious legal, ethical and moral questions which are not being properly addressed. And it is not just us who are saying so.
Last April the Ministry of Defence (MoD) published a Joint Doctrine Note examining the technological and scientific issues related to current and future use of armed and unarmed drones. The document agreed that there were significant moral, legal and ethical issues involved, and in a key passage (517) considers whether unmanned systems will make war more likely:
“It is essential that, before unmanned systems become ubiquitous (if it is not already too late) that we consider this issue and ensure that, by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, that we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”
The passage concludes “What is needed is a clear understanding of the issues involved so that informed decisions can be made.”
Unfortunately, the last thing that the MoD or the drone industry wants at the moment is a public debate about the growing use of drones. The report when publicised by Drone Wars UK and the Guardian was withdrawn from the MoD website (although it did quietly return months later) and the authors were dispatched to Afghanistan. Instead the MoD decided to launch a “communication strategy” to win over public opinion in support of armed drones with the key message being to “stress the equivalence of RPAS [drones] to traditional combat aircraft.”
However there are clear differences between drones and manned aircraft, in particular the way there are being used to loiter over particular areas to seek ‘targets of opportunity’ and their increasing use in targeted killing away from any battlefield. Some of the questions that need to be asked are:
Does the geographic and psychological distance between the operator and target make a positive or negative difference?
Does using unmanned systems mean attacks happen more often?
Does faith in the supposed accuracy of drone sensors and cameras mean that commanders are more willing to undertake ‘riskier’ strikes (in terms of possible civilian casualties) than they would previously have undertaken?
All of these questions and many more need to be debated openly and honesty and require careful analysis and clear-headed judgment based on the available evidence. Unfortunately, that evidence, is being kept strictly under wraps by the Ministry of Defence and they are refusing to engage in a debate on these issues.
While David Cameron is keen to stress that at this stage only (only!) ‘a few tens of millions of Euros’ are being allocated towards developing this new drone the costs will soon soar. Early figures from the MoD indicate that the new drone could cost the UK around £2 billion but other estimates are much higher.
In November 2010 the UK and France signed a defence and security cooperation treaty which included a commitment to work together on nuclear issues and armed drones. The two countries have agreed to build a new armed drone and BAE Systems and Dassault have joined together to offer the proposed Telemos drone to fulfill this ‘need’. All indications are that the new drone will be based on BAE’s Mantis drone, although Dassault have also been working on a drone called ‘Neuron’.
EADS, meanwhile, the other giant of the European military industry is fighting its corner for its own drone; Talarion. Fox News reported that the EADS CEO was “furious” that France is apparently going to choose the BAE Systems/Dassault proposal.
EADS reaction is so strong because they do not want to be left out of what many see as the key market in the global arms trade over the next few years. While the new UK-France drone contract is estimated to be worth around £2bn, the global drone market over the next three years alone has recently been predicted to be worth around $14bn. With Israel companies and US drone giant General Atomics already firmly established in the market, winning funds to develop a future European combat drone is vital for these military corporations.