As we reported, in December the MoD began a PR offensive on the UK’s use of drones by inviting selected members of the press to RAF Waddington in order that the MoD could correct the “wild misrepresentations” about drones put about by drone activists.
Drone Wars UK is today publishing a report that shows the UK Government has already spent over £2 billion purchasing, developing and researching drones and unmanned systems since 2007.
The report, Shelling Out: UK Government Spending on Unmanned drones, finds that the UK has spent £872m on five different drones that are currently in service with British forces, including £506m on the armed MQ-9 Reaper drone. The UK has committed a further £1,031m to developing new drones such as the Watchkeeper UAV and BAE Systems Taranis drone. Finally the UK has funded £120m of research within UK universities and British defence companies looking at unmanned systems. This included £30m funding for the ASTRAEA programme to open up UK civil airspace to autonomous drones. Read more →
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.
Last month the UK MoD’s Air Warfare Centre held a symposium on drones at the Shrivenham Defence Academy. While the overall theme of the symposium was how drones could help ‘UK Resilience Operations’, attendees were also given updates by senior military officials on the progress of the UK’s major drone programmes: Reaper and Watchkeeper (see our story here from last month). We applied to the MoD for copies of the presentations under Freedom of Information (FoI) Act and received them yesterday. To view the presentations simply click on the images.
The briefing on the Reaper drone, entitled ‘RAF Reaper MALE RPAS [‘Medium Altitude Long Endurance Remotely Piloted Air System] capability/Lessons’ covers the armed capability of Reaper; the ‘Reaper Roadmap’ as well as lessons identified from operations. Although the civil use of drones is refered to, there is little no information on this in presentation.
Slide eight of the presentation shows the ‘Reaper Roadmap. The Reapers currently on operation and those planned to come into service in 2012/13 have an ‘out service date’ of 2015 and there is a three year gap before the planned new drone capability ‘Scavenger’ will be available in 2018. This ‘gap’ is highlighted in the roadmap and may mean that additional Reapers will be procured.
Most interesting in the presentation are the nine slides covering ‘lessons identified’ covering operations, impact on personnel, safety, training and procurement. While the presentation only gives the headlines with the detail no doubt covered in the accompanying talk by Wing Commander Gary Coleman, from the presentation we learn that:
From mid-2012 there will be 44 Reaper crews operating UK Reapers with three Reapers constantly flying 24/7
There have now been over 190 drone strikes in Afghanistan by British Reaper crews
Hellfire missiles are three times more likely to be uses than the 500lb bomb
If “lower yield weapons” had been available more strikes would have been undertaken
Reaper “mishaps” (i.e. crashes) happen approximately every 10,000 hours of flying
There are ‘Fatigue and Psychological stressors’ on personnel operating Reaper
The briefing on Watchkeeper entitled ‘Watchkeeper and Land Forces Operational UAS’ is much more technical and focuses on how Watchkeeper will fit in with other smaller drones such as the Desert Hawk and T-Hawk.
From the presentation it appears that the Watchkeeper in-service date has slipped again (or as the briefing tactfully puts it, the ‘schedule re-programmed to meet current operational requirements’. Watchkeepers will now be deployed to Afghanistan sometime during the first quarter of 2012. While early flight testing of Watchkeeper took place in Israel, there have now been 230 flight of Watchkeeper in the UK, with the longest test flight being 14 hours.
Drones were big news at this year’s DSEi arms fair, with many of the smaller ‘niche’ players launching new product and the ‘big boys’ showing off their wares and engaging in verbal fisticuffs about whose drone was biggest/ brightest/best.
established in the market, winning funds to develop a future European combat drone is vital for these military corporations. Many, not least the UK’s Defence Minister Peter Luff, has predicted that there will be no more ‘manned’ aircraft developed after this current generation of fighters; the future they suggest is drone.
The platform can go ‘from box to launch in under five minutes’ and the only time-consuming thing during a mission is ‘waiting for the GPS’. [It] has a ‘shake and start’ engine, a 40 minute endurance, and folded wings for easy carriage. It is derived from the company’s larger Black Star, of which the UK MoD is a customer. It was developed in 18 months with police input, and is ultimately designed for special forces operations, [Company spokesperson] Williams-Wynn said.
Thales, joint manufacturer of the new Watchkeeper drone along with Israeli company Elbit, were also at the arms fair and promoting Watchkeeper . Below you can watch a short clip of Nick Miller – Thales business director for UAVs – promoting Watchkeeper during the DSEI fair (clip from flightglobal.com)
Meanwhile, Qinetiq, were promoting their ‘West Wales UAV Centre’ – where the Watchkeeper drone is currently being tested – at DSEi. The owners of the centre at Parc Aberporth, site of a number of protests against drones already , are keen to attract more drone manufacturers. While each individual Watchkeeper drone will undergo testing at Parc Aberporth until at least 2014, it appears there is still plenty of room for more drones – and no doubt more protests.
Speaking of which, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and SPEAK organised a protest outside General Atomics’ London office during the DSEi arms fair. The manufacturers of the Predator and Reaper drone were curiously absent from DSEi this year – so protesters went to visit them. Below you can seen Amy Hailwood of FoR speaking about drones against the background of the protest.