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.

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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

Technology and the future of UK Foreign Policy – Our submission to the Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry

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In a timely and welcome move, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee has recently launched an investigation into ‘Tech and the future of UK foreign policy‘.  Recognising that new and emerging technologies are fundamentally altering the nature of international relations and the rapidly growing influence of private technology companies, the Committee’s inquiry intends to focus on how the government, and particularly the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) should respond to the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies.

A broad selection of stakeholders have already provided written evidence to the Committee, ranging from big technology companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, and BAE Systems, to academics and industry groups with specialist interests in the field.  Non-government organisations, including ourselves, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International UK, and the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots have also provided evidence.

Not surprisingly, submissions from industry urge the government to support and push ahead with the development of new technologies, with Microsoft insisting that the UK “must move more quickly to advance broad-based technology innovation, which will require “an even closer partnership between the government and the tech sector”.  BAE Systems calls for “a united front [which] can be presented in promoting the UK’s overseas interests across both the public and private sectors”.  Both BAE and Microsoft see roles for new technology in the military: BAE point out that “technology is also reshaping national security”, while Microsoft calls for “cooperation with the private sector in the context of NATO”. Read more

MoD report urges embrace of human augmentation to fully exploit drones and AI for warfighting

Click to open report from MoD website.

The MoD’s internal think-tank, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) along with the German Bundeswehr Office for Defence Planning (BODP) has published a disturbing new report urging greater investigation of – and investment in – human augmentation for military purposes. The following is a brief summary of the 100+ page document with short comment at the end.

Human Augmentation – The Dawn of a New Paradigm’ argues that humans are the ‘weakest link’ in modern warfare, and that there is a need to exploit scientific advances to improve human capabilities.

“Increasing use of autonomous and unmanned systems – from the tactical to the strategic level – could significantly increase the combat effect that an individual can bring to bear, but to realise this potential, the interfaces between people and machines will need to be significantly enhanced. Human augmentation will play an important part in enabling this interface.”

Suggested human augmentation to explore for military purposes includes the use of brain interfaces, pharmaceuticals and gene therapy.  Humans, argues the report, should be seen as a ‘platform’ in the same way as vehicles, aircraft and ships, with three elements of ‘the human platform’ to be developed: the physical, the psychological and the social (see image below). Read more