As we saw in the last issue, drones are the hot
new weapons of the 21st century. While drones have been around for
decades, mostly as small, short-range and unreliable surveillance
planes, a convergence of technological factors in the last decade have
taken them to the forefront of the arms race.
With the rapid emergence of sophisticated drones in the last few
years, Britain was caught flat-footed without a capable domestic drone
system. The response was two-fold. Firstly, Britain bought US Predator
drones and rented Israeli drones for use in Britain’s wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Secondly, the government poured resources into expanding
the domestic drones industry.
While there are many British companies undertaking research and
development work in this area, there are two major domestic
programmes: the Watchkeeper system for surveillance, and two separate
BAE armed drones. Watchkeeper developed out of a contract awarded to
UtacS, a consortium of Elbit Systems of Israel, and Thales UK, to
adapt Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone into a domestic UK surveillance drone.
Watchkeeper is now undergoing final testing in Wales, to be ready in
early 2010 (see below for more details).
BAE Systems are developing and testing two armed drones; Taranis and
Mantis. Mantis will probably be armed with four Paveway 500lb
laser-guided bombs and two Brimstone anti-tank missiles. Mantis flew
succesfully for the first time in November 2009. It’s designed to fly
as autonomously as possible to “reduce the risk of accidents due to
human error”. Taranis has grown out of a four-year, £124m MoD
programme called Project Morrigan, and is undergoing development at
BAE’s factory in Warton.
Drones, even unarmed versions, enhance the capacity to carry out
extra-judicial assassinations. Small, manoeuvrable and unmanned,
drones can go where no soldier could go. They can operate unseen,
unheard and often unidentified. No assassin risks their life when a
drone is used. Either by marking locations or by directly attacking
targets, drones have revolutionised assassination.
Israel has used drones to assassinate Palestinians in the West Bank
and Gaza, and the US has used them in Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan.
Who determines who gets assassinated? Who is accountable for the
hundreds of noncombatants killed by drones? Who keeps records of the
attacks made by machines that can barely be detected? Drones are going
to proliferate as the newest addition to the arms race, a relatively
cheap technology available even to small countries. Many drone
companies operate low-cost turn-key drone rental programmes, even
providing or training operators if required. Georgia used Israeli
drones recently in its dangerous conflict with Russia.
With their covert capacity and ability to stay in the air for many
hours at little cost, drones are ideal for domestic surveillance. With
peaceful protest now often rebranded as “domestic extremism”, it is
easy to see why this development represents a threat to democracy.
The Guardian recently reported that British police wanted to use
drones for routine monitoring of “antisocial motorists, protesters,
agricultural thieves, and fly-tippers”.
Already Essex authorities are negotiating for drones to carry out
police work. Merseyside police have been illegally using a small drone
for months, and it is believed that the UK government wishes to use
drones for surveillance during the Olympics. Civil aviation
regulations, which currently forbid use of drones in civilian areas,
are being changed.
Future drones may be armed with Tasers and other “non-lethal” weapons
for crowd control, including small remotely controlled helicopters
that can herd crowds.
The Israeli connection
Even as it was admonishing Israel over its attack on Gaza in January
2009, Britain was in the final stages of a contract to purchase £850m
of Israeli drone technology under the Watchkeeper program. Based on
the Hermes 450 drone, battle-tested in the West Bank and Gaza, the
Watchkeeper already has a long association with death and repression
The source of Watchkeeper technology, Elbit Systems, is a major
Israeli arms company, selling arms to many countries around the world.
The money spent by the UK goes not only to supporting the Israeli
military economy, it goes toward the research and development of new
weapons. Leaders in the Israeli arms industry are recycled back and
forth between the Israeli military and the Israeli government. Elbit
Systems has become a target of the pro-Palestinian BDS (“boycott,
divestment, sanctions”) movement, not only because of the use of its
Hermes drones in action over the occupied territories of West Bank and
Gaza, but because its subsidiaries provide security equipment for the
separation wall and for illegal West Bank settlements.
In September 2009, the Watchkeeper drone was test flown at Parc
Aberporth, in Wales. One of the purposes of the flight was to help to
help clear the way for large drones to use civilian air space. However
sophisticated the technology, the use of unmanned aircraft in civilian
airspace poses an increased hazard to people on the ground. Both
government and the arms industry are rushing to have UAVs (“Unmanned
Aerial Vehicles”) certified safe for civil airspace to capture the
huge market in remote sensing and civil surveillance.
Grounding the drones
It may be too late to stop the UK Watchkeeper contract, but it’s not
too late to ask your MP why the UK has relations with Elbit, a company
so linked to the repression of Palestinians. We can also support the
BDS campaign against Elbit. We can also support BEPJ (Bro Emlyn for
Peace and Justice), the local peace group which monitors Parc
Aberporth in west Wales, the Welsh government-sponsored site where
many drone models are tested.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation continues to investigate Britain’s
use of armed drones. Through a Freedom of Information Act request we
have discovered that UK drones have been used in 84 attacks over the
past 18 months. We have appealed against a refusal by the MoD to
disclose other information about Britain’s drones.
Chris Cole is Director of
the Fellowship of Reconciliation. FoR will be launching a campaign on
drones in the spring.
Jim Wright is an anti-war activist living in Sussex and Canada.
Next issue: the Israeli connection; BAE and drones; drones and direct
energy weapons; grounding the drones.