British military drones in 2016: Strikes continue as future drone programmes progress

The UK continued to use its current drone fleet while progressing future armed drone programmes during the year.  Here’s a round-up of some of the main news from 2016

UK drones in Iraq and Syria

An RAF Reaper droneBritish Reaper drones continued to operate over Iraq and Syria throughout the year as part of US-led Coalition to defeat ISIS. However we are not allowed to know exactly how many of Britain’s fleet are deployed there, or indeed, if any have been deployed elsewhere. In spring 2016 there was a noticeable decline in Reaper missions in Iraq and Syria which could indicate that some of the drones had been deployed elsewhere (perhaps for operations over Libya for example) although this remains speculation without further information. Read more

Drones and the 2015 SDSR

As was the case five years ago when we looked at drones and the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), yesterday’s publication of the 2015 SDSR  brought some information, but little detail.

‘Protector’/Predator B

Mock-up of Extended Ranger Predator B
Mock-up of Extended Ranger Predator B

The headline announcement in this area – that the UK is to at least double its fleet of armed drones – was ‘pre-announced’ by the Prime Minister last month in an interview with the Sunday Times. The SDSR adds little new information, stating simply that the UK will have “more than 20 new Protector armed remotely piloted aircraft, more than doubling the number of the Reaper aircraft which they replace.” (Para 4.49) Read more

Drones and the Farnborough ‘airshow’

There has been much drone news over the past ten days, much of it generated by the Farnborough ‘airshow – in truth more of an arms/aerospace fair-  so I thought I would do a quick round-up.  

General Atomics Avenger

General Atomics, maker of the Predator and Reaper drone were much in evidence at Farnborough and received lots of press coverage, including a profile piece on General Atomics owner, Neal Blue, in the FT.  At the airshow, General Atomics revealed that they had won approve from US regulators to export the unarmed version of Predator to Saudi Arabia,  Egypt, U.A.E. and Morocco, and had applied for a license to sell to Pakistan.    How long they will stay unarmed is anyones guess. 

General Atomics though were in town mainly to pitch  their new drone, Avenger, an upgrade of the Predator and Reaper to the RAF.    Avenger had its first flight in April 2010 and is now in flight testing.  Aviation Week revealed more detail about Avenger including that it will be produced in different variants.

Drone downed by Laser

Farnborough was also the setting for the news that Raytheon had downed a drone (four actually) by laser.  This also gained much coverage (including this wonderfully daft article in the Sun). “This was a bad day for UAVs, and a good one for laser technology,” said Raytheon Missile Systems’ vice-president, Mike Booen in the Guardian.

CIA Drone Guy Becomes New Top Spy

was how Wired News reported that John Bennett was to be the next chief of the National Clandestine Service, the operations side of the CIA.    Bennett, according AFP, oversaw the Predator drone ‘program’ in Pakistan.

Zephyr – the eternal drone

Zephyr, the Qinetiq developed solar unmanned drone completed its record breaking 14 day flight on 22nd July.  Launched by hand, the 22 metre wingspan aircraft flies by day on solar power which is then used to recharge the lithium-sulphur batteries, which are used to power the aircraft by night.   Although Qinetiq is a British company, the flight trial took place at a US military range in Arizona as the US military are very interested in the aircraft that can provide low-cost, non-stop surveillance over months rather than days.

Speaking to the BBC about Zephyr, which has been dubbed the ‘eternal drone’, project manager Jon Slatmarsh cut to the chase: “Qinetiq is now looking to the Ministry of Defence and the DoD (US Department of Defense) to put a system into service.”

Footprints….

A briefing by Thales UK business manager at the Airshow led to the Telegraph headline ‘’Watchkeeper drone can detect footprints from above clouds’.   The reality is as the Register reported, the Anglo-French I-MASTER radar on Watchkeeper “allows images of the same piece of ground from different times to be compared – detecting vehicle tracks and even footprints which may have been left since the first image was taken.”