‘An Unmanned Combat Air Systems Concept of Use’ : A case study in drone secrecy

Click image to download document

A little over a year ago I discovered someone in the MoD had written a document called ‘An Unmanned Combat Air Systems Concept of Use’. It was mentioned in Defence Reporter, a useful bi-annual bulletin on research being carried out by the MoD’s science and technology labs. The summary said the document:

“aims to provide a broad outline of how it is envisioned that an Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) will be employed both in preparation for, and when operationally deployed from 2020 and beyond. It provides a vision of a potential UCAS, from which questions will naturally be generated, possibilities assessed and conclusions drawn. These questions, analysis and conclusions will help build the UK’s knowledge of a UCAS and therefore enhance our aptitude towards making future procurement decisions with regard to the utility of UCAS in any future force mix.”

Naturally as someone very interested in the development of British combat drones it is a document I would find extremely useful. As the bulletin is aimed at journalists and academics as well as the defence industry I duly applied to the MoD’s Knowledge and Information Services unit for a copy. After a couple of months back and forth about why I wanted the document, my request was refused.

I requested a copy of the document under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) last summer and was again refused. I appealed this refusal (a process that is suppose to take no more than 40 days at the extreme) and now almost seven months later, have received a heavily redacted copy of the document (click image above) together with a long letter setting out all the reasons it has been so heavily redacted.

The letter acknowledges that “disclosure of information from the UCAS CONUSE document would demonstrate openness and improve public understanding on the development and employment of a potential UAS … would also increase confidence in the military’s responsible current and future use of UAS, in particular help to allay concerns that the deployment of UAS are carried out in accordance with International Law…” Release of the full document however has been refused as it would “increase the security threat to our own forces and those of our allies.” (The full letter is here.)

Apart from one or two paragraphs the document is almost entirely redacted. Information that ‘would increase our confidence about current and future use’ of drones has been removed along with almost everything else.

A couple of days ago someone commented here on the blog to the effect that the public has no right to comment on or have oversight of the development of new weapon systems as they do not know enough about it. Only the professionals and experts with inside knowledge are capable of having oversight and control it seems. Alas, of course the same was said about the banking/financial system until its recent virtual collapse…

It is imperative that there is proper, public accountability and control over the actions of our armed forces and the development of new weapon systems. We will continue to challenge the secrecy that surrounds the development and use of British drones.

New “cool” armed drone for US special forces in Afghanistan

The Grey Eagle Drone

US Special Forces in Afghanistan are now operating their own armed drones Defence News has recently reported.  Four Grey Eagle UAV’s armed with Hellfire missiles are now with special units in Afghanistan.  We reported on the drone, previously known as Sky Warrior, in early August (US Army Special Forces Unit Gets New Drone ) but it has since had its name changed from Sky Warrior to Grey Eagle to avoid confusion and to give it a “cool name”.  The drone is from the same family as the Predator and Reaper drone and unarmed versions have been operating for some time in Iraq.    

Meanwhile the drone industry continues to develop.   A new production facility for the Orion drone, which is designed to remain in flight for five days at 20,000 feet and is capable of carrying a payload of 1,000 pounds, has been opened in Mississippi  and military labs continue to churn out new surveillance devices as the drone electronics industry revenue is expected to double to $6 billion in the next eight years.

PS.    I’m speaking about drones in Bristol tonight – if you are in the area come along!

Drone wars: As the lawyers argue, manufacturers get on with it

Reaper drone loaded with missiles

The growing use of unmanned drones in armed conflicts around the world seems set to continue into the future despite calls for restraint and regulation.  As legal groups in the US file lawsuits to try to prevent the drone assassination of a US citizen in Yemen, arguing that the US must stick to international law, weapons manufacturers like Raytheon are pressing ahead and designing new lighter weapons specifically for drones use.  Robert Francois, vice president of advanced missile systems and unmanned systems at Raytheon told Flight Global, for example, that they are developing three new missiles specifically for drone use: 

The Small Tactical Munition is about 10cm (4 inches) in diameter, 61cm long and weighs in at 5.9kg (13lbs) with GPS/inertial navigational system (INS) and a semi-active laser (SAL) seeker for targeting personnel and light vehicles.              

The 15kg Griffin is a short-range, air-to-surface missile is tube launched, also featuring GPS/INS and SAL guidance and is smaller and lighter than the Hellfire. 

Filling in the 45kg gap is Monsoon, for targeting buildings, trucks and personnel, with GPS/INS, otnal SAL and an 18kg warhead.

Meanwhile at the USAF Academy in Colorado,  cadets are also being encouraged to design weapons for future drone wars.  Ideas that have been presented to a recent gathering of UAV experts in Denver include drones spraying each other with acid and drones shooting nets to try to capture and down other drones.     

Far from being a future phenomenon, however, drone proliferation continues apace.  Just this week, the UK placing a further $5m order with Lockheed Martin for additional Desert Hawk III surveillance drones for use in Afghanistan.   A condition of the order is that the drones must be delivered in the Autumn.

But many would argue that the proliferation of drone wars urgently needs to be stopped.  A recent article in Foreign Policy Journal makes the interesting point that Mossad (and others of the ilk) cannot have failed to contrast the international furore around the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel with the virtual silence that surround the US drone assassinations and drawn the conclusion that if the US can do it silently with drones, so can they.  The FPJ article  goes on to call for a debate on drones that

“should engage authoritative policymakers scholars, legal experts and other people with knowledge and understanding relevant to carry out an informed and beneficial discussion aimed at the introduction of international rules that would identify constraints, introduce a well-thought out supervision, and define sanctions helpful in dealing with uncontrolled proliferation of this new form of warfare.”

The US lawsuit launched yesterday  (31st August) in the US by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) argues that the US does not have the authority under international law or the constitution to carry out extrajudicial killings outside declared wars.  They also reiterate the well made point that

“targeting individuals for execution by drone who are suspected of terrorism but have not been convicted or even charged – without oversight, judicial process or disclosed standards for placement on kill lists – poses the risk that the government will erroneously target the wrong people. In recent years, the U.S. government has detained many men as terrorists, only for courts or the government itself to discover later that the evidence was wrong or unreliable.”

 

Current lawsuits not withstanding, it is highly likely that drone wars and drone assassinations will continue until public opposition grows, and they are specifically outlawed.  In the recent past anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs have been outlawed despite the best efforts of, and huge oppostion from, military planners and the defence industry.    For campaigners, it’s time to get back in the saddle.