MoD to hold ‘duel of drones’ to choose new armed unmanned system

Artist conception of Loyal Wingman drones

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) will launch a series of competitions this autumn to progress the selection of an armed loyal wingman drone culminating in a duel between the two finalist – “an operational fly-off” as Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of Air Staff described it.  The initiative comes after the abrupt cancellation of Project Mosquito (to develop a loyal wingman drone technology demonstrator for the RAF)  earlier this summer.  The RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) will run the new process, open to both UK and international industry , and aimed at acquiring a “Mosquito type autonomous combat vehicle” after the Mosquito project itself was cancelled as it was not  thought able to achieve an operational drone within the desired timeframe.

Loyal Wingman

The concept of loyal wingman drones is for one or more to fly alongside, or in the vicinity of, a piloted military aircraft  – currently for the UK that would be  Typhoon and F-35, but in the future, Tempest – with the drones carrying out specific tasks such as surveillance, electronic warfare (i.e. radar jamming), laser guiding weapons onto targets, or air-to-air or air-to-ground strikes.   Rather than being directly controlled by an individual pilot on the ground as the UK’s current fleet of Reaper drones are, these drone fly autonomously, sharing data and information with commanders on the ground via the main aircraft.

In addition, loyal wingman drones are supposed to be cheap enough that they can be either entirely expendable or ‘attritable’ (that is not quite expendable, but cheap enough so that it is not a significant event if it is shot down or crashes).  However, Aviation International News, who spoke to an RCO insider, said that the focus would now centre on exploring a drone that fits somewhere between Category 1 (expendable airframes) and Category 2 (attritable airframes). According to the source, there is also a Category 3, which is survivable, indicating a larger airframe with stealth and other advanced technology and no doubt much more expensive.

Which drones will win out to take part in the ‘fly-off’ and come out on top as the UK’s loyal wingman drone is hard to predict, not least because the MoD’s criteria appears yet to be fixed.  However a few of the likely competitors are already emerging:  Read more

Webinar: ‘For Heaven’s Sake: Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space’

Click to open

Tuesday 23rd August 2022, 7pm.

Drone Wars UK and CND are co-hosting a webinar to examine the UK’s militarisation of space.  The webinar builds on the briefing the organisations co-published in June (right).

 Speakers

Dr Jill Stuart is an academic based at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is an expert in the politics, ethics and law of outer space exploration and exploitation. She is a frequent presence in the global media on the issue and regularly gives lectures around the world.

Dave Webb is former Chair of CND and long-time peace campaigner. He has played a leading role in CND’s work on missile defence. He is a member of the Drone Wars Steering Committee and co-author of the new report ‘Heavens Above: Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space.

Bruce Gagnon is founder and Coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He is author of numerous  articles on the issue as well as a regular speaker at conferences and meetings. He is an active member of Veterans for Peace.

Chair

Dr Kate Hudson is General Secretary of CND. She has held that post since September 2010, having previously been Chair of the campaign since 2003. She is a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner and author of CND at 60: Britain’s Most Enduring Mass Movement.

 

Although the UK’s space programme began in 1952, until recently it has had very limited impact. However, as the commercial space sector has expanded and the cost of launches has decreased, the UK government is now treating space as an area of serious interest. Over the past two years we have seen the setting up of UK Space Command, the publication of a Defence Space Strategy outlining how the MoD will “protect the UK’s national interests in space” and the announcement of a portfolio of programmes for developing space assets and infrastructure. Over the summer of 2022, the UK MoD plans its first UK space launch from the UK.

Concerns include a spiralling space ‘arms race’; the environmental impact both on earth and in space, and the risk of  an accident sparking an armed confrontation.

Tickets for the webinar are free and can be booked at the Eventbrite page here.

 

 

British Reaper drone crashed after landing at undisclosed location in December 2021

UK Reaper drone ZZ209, damaged in a December 2021 accident, seen here being delivered to the RAF in Afghanistan in 2014.

A British Reaper drone crashed after landing on 1st December 2021 the MoD has revealed in a Freedom of Information response to Drone Wars UK.

The crash is the sixth ‘mishap’ that has occurred to the UK’s armed Reaper UAV fleet since the system came into service in 2008. At least 20 large (Class II and III) military drones operated by UK armed forces have crashed in the last 15 years. The latest accident came less than a month after a newly purchased Reaper came into service to  with the intention of bringing the UK’s fleet back up to its full strength of ten.

While the MoD is refusing to disclose the location of the accident for national security reasons, unless it was an improvised or emergency landing – of if UK Reapers have been deployed to an additional location for operations outside of Iraq and Syria – it is likely to have been at the Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait where the UK’s Reapers are believed to be based.

The MoD state that the accident was caused by the “failure of the nose wheel steering on landing.”  This indicates that the drone likely ran off the runway. The status of the drone, whether it is repairable, and, if so, how long it will be out of service, is still “under investigation”.  Read more

Drone Wars Select Committee submission on use of the military drones in countering migrant crossings

In Sept 2021 the prototype of the UK’s new armed drone flew from Scotland to undertake a mission involving a search pattern over the Channel.

Boris Johnson announced in mid-January that the armed forces was to take charge of limiting migrants crossing the English Channel. The announcement was described by The Times as one of a series of populist announcements by the embattled PM to save his premiership.

Soon after, the Defence Select Committee announced that it was to scrutinize the decision and sought submissions from interested parties:

“The Government’s decision that the Royal Navy should take over operations in the Channel has taken Parliament (and it seems the MOD) by surprise.  There are significant strategic and operational implications surrounding this commitment which need to be explored.”

Shockingly, both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office refused to submit evidence or send ministers to answer questions from the Committee.

Our full submission to the Committee on this issue – looking in particular at how drones are often seen as a ‘solution’ – is available on their website, while here we offer a short summary.

  • Drone Wars argues that the military should not be involved in day-to-day border control operations in the absence of any threat of military invasion. This role is primarily a policing and enforcement role centred on dealing with civilians which should be conducted by civilian agencies.  Military forces are not principally trained or equipped to deal with humanitarian or policing situations.  The UK borders are not a war zone, and civilians attempting to enter and leave the country are not armed combatants.

Read more

None too clever? Military applications of artificial intelligence

Drone Wars UK’s latest briefing looks at where and how artificial intelligence is currently being applied in the military context and considers the legal and ethical, operational and strategic risks posed.

Click to open

Artificial Intelligence (AI), automated decision making, and autonomous technologies have already become common in everyday life and offer immense opportunities to dramatically improve society.  Smartphones, internet search engines, AI personal assistants, and self-driving cars are among the many products and services that rely on AI to function.  However, like all technologies, AI also poses risks if it is poorly understood, unregulated, or used in inappropriate or dangerous ways.

In current AI applications, machines perform a specific task for a specific purpose.  The umbrella term ‘computational methods’ may be a better way of describing such systems, which fall far short of human intelligence but have wider problem-solving capabilities than conventional software.  Hypothetically, AI may eventually be able to perform a range of cognitive functions, respond to a wide variety of input data, and understand and solve any problem that a human brain can.  Although this is a goal of some AI research programmes, it remains a distant  prospect.

AI does not operate in isolation, but functions as a ‘backbone’ in a broader system to help the system achieve its purpose.  Users do not ‘buy’ the AI itself; they buy products and services that use AI or upgrade a legacy system with new AI technology.  Autonomous systems, which are machines able to execute a task without human input, rely on artificial intelligence computing systems to interpret information from sensors and then signal actuators, such as motors, pumps, or weapons, to cause an impact on the environment around the machine.  Read more

Military applications at centre of Britain’s plans to be AI superpower

The UK government published its National AI Strategy in mid-September, billed as a “ten-year plan to make Britain a global AI superpower”.  Despite the hype, the strategy has so far attracted curiously little comment and interest from the mainstream media.  This is a cause for concern  because if the government’s proposals bear fruit, they will dramatically change UK society and the lives of UK Citizens.  They will also place military applications of AI at the centre of the UK’s AI sector.

The Strategy sets out the government’s ambitions to bring about a transition to an “AI-enabled economy” and develop the UK’s AI industry, building on a number of previously published documents – the 2017 Industrial Strategy and 2018 AI Sector Deal, and the ‘AI Roadmap‘ published by the AI Council earlier this year.  It sets out a ten year plan based around three ‘pillars’: investing in the UK’s AI sector, placing AI at the mainstream of the UK’s economy by introducing it across all economic sectors and regions of the UK, and governing the use of AI effectively.

Unsurprisingly, in promoting the Strategy the government makes much of the potential of AI technologies to improve people’s lives and solve global challenges such as climate change and public health crises – although making no concrete commitments in this respect.  Equally unsurprisingly it has far less to say up front about the military uses of AI.  However, the small print of the document states that “defence should be a natural partner for the UK AI sector” and reveals that the Ministry of Defence is planning to establishment a new Defence AI Centre, which will be “a keystone piece of the modernisation of Defence”, to champion military AI development and use and enable the rapid development of AI projects.  A Defence AI Strategy, expected to be published imminently, will outline how to “galvanise a stronger relationship between industry and defence”.  Read more