MoD’s drones PR offensive continues as UK commits to a drone filled future

Armed Forces Minister Mark Francois speaks to Reaper pilots at RAF Waddington
Armed Forces Minister Mark Francois speaks to Reaper pilots at RAF Waddington

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.

As part of this initiative, UK Defence Secretary wrote an op-ed piece in the Guardian to which a former US intelligence analyst, Heather Linebaugh scathingly responded  “few of these politicians who so brazenly proclaim the benefits of drones have a real clue of what actually goes on.” Read more

Afghans launch legal action over British drone strike as experts suggest British drones heading to Africa

Haji Abdullah, 56, and his son Habibullah, 18, who were both killed by a drone in Helmand province in October 2011
Haji Abdullah, 56, and his son Habibullah, 18, who were both killed by a drone in Helmand province in October 2011

Legal action has been launched against the UK following the deaths of two men in an alleged British drone strike in Afghanistan.  The family of Haji Abdullah (56), and his son Habibullah  (18), say the two men were killed by a drone strike as they drove a tractor on their farm in Nawzad province, Helmand. According to The Times, their relatives watched as a high altitude drone launched a missile which struck the tractor, killing Habibullah almost instantly and leaving his father fatally wounded.  The family also said that they had registered the case with local officials without any response. Read more

Shelling Out: New Reports Shows UK Has Spent £2bn on Drones

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

Latest news on British drones

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).

Picture of Taranis at Warton, released by BAE Systems.

According to the report by Defense News the first flight of BAE’s Taranis drone has been put back yet again until 2013.  Originally due to make its maiden flight in 2011, it was first delayed until early 2012 for “technical and other reasons” but now won’t fly at all this year.  Little has been heard about Taranis since it was unveiled to journalists (and protestors) in July  2010.  At the briefing journalists were allowed a distant peak at the drone as it sat in its hangar.  The UK government gave BAE Systems £40m of funding to develop unmanned combat systems in January 2012.

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.

BAE also said it hoped it would sign contracts with the UK and French government to further develop the Telemos drone  at the Farnborough airshow next month.  Telemos is BAE and Dassault’s offering to fill the UK-French ‘requirement’ for a new armed drone. However the change of administration in France has created uncertainty about the proposal as the newly appointed French defence minister announced in May that he was going back to “square one” on the plan to build a joint military drone.  

Elsewhere BAE continues to undertake work to in order to allow unmanned aircraft to fly within UK airspace.  As part of the ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme, BAE will begin undertaking a series of test flights using a converted Jestream aircraft that can fly autonomously as an unmanned aircraft.   At least twenty test flights will take place over the Irish sea over the next six months.  BAE issued a glossy diagram to explain the work that they will be undertaking (large pdf here). 

The other main ‘British’ drone, Watchkeeper – which is being jointly developed by Israeli company Elbit Systems and Thales UK – seems to have missed out on being chosen by the French army as their new drone.  As part of the Anglo-French defence treaty, France was supposed to consider Watchkeeper for the contract but it was announced this week that they have instead bought further Sperwer MKII drones from French company, Sagem. Given this new contract and the fact that France have announced they are withdrawing early from Afghanistan it is unlikely that the French will want Watchkeeper as well.   For more info on Watchkeeper follow Wandering Raven’s blog and see this recent comprehensive article.

Finally, I can’t finish a post about British drones without mentioning the Reaper.  The Guardian reports this week that British reapers have now fired 281 weapons in Afghanistan up until the end of May 2012 and rightly points out that MoD continues to insist that only four civilians have been killed in these British drone strikes whilst at the same times maintaining that they cannot know how many people have been killed.  

 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.

UK MoD release presentations on Reaper and Watchkeeper drones to Drone Wars UK under FoI

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.

MoD presentation on Reaper - click to view

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.

MoD presentation on Watchkeeper - click to view

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 at DSEi 2011

BAE Sytems Mantis drone at DSEi 2011

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.

BAE Systems displayed their Mantis drone at the fair and were reportedly “confident” that their proposed new drone, dubbed Telemos (to be developed jointly with Dassault) would win the contract for the UK’s next generation drone.  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  between £1bn -£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

iStart mini-drone from Blue Bear Ltd

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.

Increasingly it is not just the large military companies involved in the drone wars.  Smaller companies are also seeking to get their foot in the door.  For example Blue Bear, a Bedford-based company launched a new ‘man-portable’ drone called iStart at DSEi.  As reported in Shephard News:

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.

An excellent article on other small drones on show at DSEi this year, including Spy Arrow, Shirk and Switchblade can be read here at the National Defense Magazine blog.

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)

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The much delayed Watchkeepers  are (finally) due to come into service by the end of 2011 and will gradually  replace the Hermes 450 drones that the UK has been renting from Israel for the past four years.  This of course creates  a business ‘opportunity’ – anybody want to buy a squadron of second-hand, slightly used Israeli drones?  Elbit, it seems are open to offers.

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.