17 October 2009
Keeping Space For Peace:
The problems with drones
By Dave Webb
For Presentation at:
"Sweden in NATO and the use of Space" Conference
Stockholm, Sweden

The Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space is a network of grass roots campaigning groups concerned with the exponentially increasing use of space by the military. Each year we coordinate a week of global actions and events that focus on this issue and this year’s Keep Space for Peace Week focuses on Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs) - or drones. These war machines are targeted and directed through space technology to conduct surveillance and deliver weapons systems to ground-based targets. They represent the latest developments in war fighting technology that separate the perpetrators of acts of violence from the consequences of their actions by as much as several thousand miles. Young airmen and women are controlling planes over Afghanistan and Pakistan from computer terminals in Nevada and California in the US. They have also been used by Israel in Palestine and are receiving increasing attention in the media as they are adding significantly to civilian death tolls in these regions.

Drones are guided by and communicate through space satellite technology and are now an integral part of what is known as “network centric warfare” – whereby information is shared and battle management conducted through computer and space technologies. Ground based stations, armed units and intelligence systems around the world are also plugged in to this system that allows the US and its allies to project power and ‘full spectrum dominance’ across the globe.

General UAVs – Pakistan Afghanistan

Drones were first used by the US in the 1950s as target practice for fighter pilots and were later used to spy over China and Vietnam in the 1960s and for surveillance in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. They were deployed in 2000 on CIA secret missions to look for Osama Bin Laden and have been used with increasing frequency ever since. In 2003 around 35,000 UAV flight-hours were logged in Iraq and Afghanistan by US forces, while last year the total increased to over 800,000 hours. The New York Times recently reported that in 2004 the CIA secretly hired Blackwater to locate and assassinate top Qaeda operatives from hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Drones come in all shapes and sizes – some are as small as toy planes and are launched by hand to spy over hills or buildings helping to identify and provide information on targets. The US has around 5,000 of these. Others are much larger and more deadly. The US Global Hawk is 44ft long with a wingspan of over 116ft (about the size of a corporate jet) and is used for high resolution radar surveillance. Northrop Grumman recently unveiled the first of a new generation of Global Hawk which can gather data on objects as small as a shoebox, through clouds, night or day, for 32 hours from 18,000 metres which is almost twice the cruising altitude of passenger jets. Following the North Korean nuclear test in June this year the US declared that it would begin replacing its manned U-2 spy planes in South Korea with Global Hawks. These big drones are very expensive, costing as much as $60m each and, although they have no-one on board, each Global Hawk requires a support team of 20-30 people.

The Predator drone (manufactured by General Atomics) is smaller, being just 27ft long with a wingspan of just less than 49ft. However, it can be armed with two Hellfire missiles. It was a Predator that was used to monitor the movements of the Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq and assist the attack on his house by US jets.

A later version of the Predator, the Reaper, is the first US hunter-killer drone. It can carry 15 times more weapons than the Predator, including up to 14 Hellfire missiles and 2 500-pound laser-guided bombs, and travel at around 300 mph – about three times the speed of its predecessor. The Reaper was also designed to spy and is fitted with an incredible array of sensors as well as three cameras, which can operate during the day or at night. A Reaper was also used to kill at least 6 senior Al-Qaeda commanders in the region of the Pakistan border.

Currently drones are being used and/or developed in over 40 countries (including Belarus, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Georgia) for a variety of activities. Some analysts have suggested that Georgian drones, obtained from Israel, outperformed Russia (who also buys Israeli drones) in aerial intelligence during the conflict in August 2008. Hundreds of people in Afghanistan have been killed by drone attacks and Israel has been accused of killing 29 Palestinian civilians with drones during the January conflict.

In addition, in their rush to deploy them, the USAF has also acknowledged numerous accidents and crashes that have resulted in a number of serious injuries and deaths. Today, US forces are flying large and heavily armed drones over Pakistan every hour of the day. Predator attacks have been responsible for the deaths of several hundreds of people, including scores of women and children. In one attack in June a Predator airstrike killed at least 60 people at a funeral in South Waziristan in Pakistan.

Just a few weeks ago, on 15th September, a report in “The Register” gave details of how a US Reaper “rebelled against its human controllers above Afghanistan” and had to be shot down by a manned US fighter jet “before it unilaterally invaded a neighbouring country”.

According to USAF Public Affairs:

“The aircraft was flying a combat mission when positive control of the MQ-9 was lost. When the aircraft remained on a course that would depart Afghanistan's airspace, a US Air Force manned aircraft took proactive measures to down the Reaper in a remote area of northern Afghanistan.”

The statement goes on to say that the killer drone "impacted the side of a mountain" and that there "were no reports of civilian injuries".

European Activity

Drones are big business and, according to Visiongain, a London based market-research firm, global sales of UAVs are expected to increase by over 10% this year to more than $4.7 billion. About 60% of this will be spent by the US and the Department of Defence says it will spend more than $22 billion between 2007 and 2013 to develop, buy and operate drones. Israel ranks second in drone development and among the European leaders of this form of technology are Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. China is also believed to possess a substantial drone fleet.

In June 2005 a full-scale demonstration model of a Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, called the Neuron, was unveiled in Paris. Dassault Aviation is the lead in a 400 million euro programme, which is managed by the French armaments agency DGA. France will provide about 50% of total funding but Italy has also entered the program, with a 22% share and Sweden is the third largest stakeholder. The other partners are Switzerland, Spain and Greece. In fact Sweden is the third largest stakeholder with Saab overseeing the overall design of the fuselage, avionics, fuel system and part of the flight testing. Hellenic Aerospace Industry (HAI) is responsible for the UCAV’s rear fuselage, exhaust pipe and test rig. The European Aeronautics Defence and Space (EADS) will provide expertise in wing design, groundstations and datalink integration. Wind tunnel testing and the weapon interface will be carried out by RUAG Aerospace, Switzerland. Alenia Aeronautica of Italy will design the weapons bay, the electrical power system and the airborne data system and will contribute to part of the flight tests. Dassault, will be responsible for the general design and architecture, the flight control system, final assembly, ground tests and flight tests.

Italy is in fact already using the Reaper and has expressed interest in buying four more along with three ground control stations for some $330 million. Germany has made a request to purchase 5 Reapers and four mobile ground stations for $205 million although the German Reapers will not be armed as that step is not currently deemed to be acceptable in Germany.

Although the Ministry of Defence in the UK did not join the Neuron programme in March 2005 it did announce a strategic unmanned air vehicle (experiment) SUAV(E) programme, scheduled for completion in 2009. The aim of this programme is to assemble evidence to inform a decision on the UK’s future use of UAVs.

In the meantime, the RAF has conducted over 400 drone missions since its first operation in October 2007. It operates 2 Reapers for surveillance, reconnaissance and the delivery of weapons and has expressed an interest in purchasing 10 more. They are flown by 12 two-man British crews every day of the year from a control room in Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert in the US - some 8,000 miles from their targets. The pilot and the sensor operator are supported by intelligence specialists, signallers and meteorologists and 10 computer screens which provide high-resolution, real-time video imagery of the ground and other information. The crews can talk to Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTacs) – the troops on the ground – who see the same images through a laptop computer known as a "Rover". The Reaper take-off and landings are controlled by crews on the ground but the Creech pilots take over when they become airborne.

In the UK - UAV Engines (UEL) based in Staffordshire is one of the leading manufacturers of drone engines.  The company is owned by the Israeli drone specialists Silver Arrow which is a subsidiary of the Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems.  One of its engines is used in Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone.  A version of the 450 is part of the squadron of the Israeli air force and was seen over Palestine during January’s conflict.

In Wales, ParcAberporth in Ceredigion is the centre of excellence for drone development by QintetiQ who (among other things) are helping to develop a £899 million Watchkeeper UAV as an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) system for the Army (Thales is the prime contractor). Plans are currently being discussed to create an overland zone for tests.

The RAF has also taken the first step towards developing its own pilotless combat aircraft with Project “Taranis”. The MoD announced a £124 million joint programme led by BAE Systems in December 2006. A fully developed Taranis air vehicle will be capable of delivering weapons to a battlefield in another continent with a high level of autonomy. An indication of how the industry views the future for drones is that BAE Systems has funded its own UAV research for the last 10 years and has developed a number of programmes for surveillance and reconnaissance drones – such as the Kestrel, Raven, Corax and Herti (High-Endurance Rapid Technology Insertion).

Another MOD and BAE Systems project developed from Herti is the Mantis. This project was kept under wraps for some time and the budget is not being disclosed but its first flight was scheduled for 2009. Plans are for the Mantis to eventually be able to fly continuously for 24hours with a payload capability equivalent to 12 Brimstone missiles or six Raytheon Paveway bombs.


Last August Saab conducted a series of flights of its family of vertical take-off and landing UAVs in Switzerland in collaboration with Swiss UAV. The effort involved their Koax, Neo and Skeldar air vehicles, and employed a common ground control station developed by Saab for its 200kg (441lb) Skeldar unmanned helicopter.

Sweden is also currently in discussions with Germany and Italy about the possible launch of a multinational advanced unmanned air vehicle that would be a competitor to the European Neuron Project. The plan is for a four-year “Agile UAV in a network-centric environment” project focused on multi-role, high-speed drones based on the German EADS Barracuda UAV which has been developed for reconnaissance and combat. Sweden would participate with the Saab Filur or “Flying Innovative Low-observable Unmanned Research” demonstrator. Tests were held in May at the Vidsel test range and the UAV flew at 425km/h  and an altitude of 10,000ft (3,000m).

Vidsel Test Range and Esrange Space Center are part of the North European Aerospace Testrange (NEAT) located in northern Sweden. The testing of drones and the Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile or AMRAAM (which could be carried by drones) is a regular occurrence. at the is a key role for Sweden.

NEAT consists of an area 360 by 100 km of restricted air space and 1,650 sq km of restricted land area (expandable to 3,000sq km) and is Europe’s largest overland test range and is a cooperation of the Swedish organisations FMV (the Swedish Defence Material Administration which operates the Vidsel Test range) and SSC (the Swedish Space Corporation which operates the Esrange Space Center). It has been used for over 50 years for testing missiles and aircraft and for unmanned vehicle operations and weapon integration. Another European UAV test range has been established at Kemijarvi by the Finnish company Robonic. It was originally allocated 1,000-1,500 sq km of airspace and uses a 1,200m long runway to test commercial and military drones.

The Dissent

There has been widespread condemnation of the use of drones as weapons systems. Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups reported a total of 42 drone attacks that killed 87 civilians during the fighting in December 2008 and January 2009. In June 2009 the New York based Human Rights Watch issued a 39 page report detailing 6 incidents of the use of drones by Israel in Gaza that resulted in 29 civilian deaths, including 8 children. They found that Israeli drone operators “failed to exercise proper caution” in determining whether their targets were civilians. Their findings were primarily based on debris from Israeli made Spike missiles which are fired from drones. 

In April this year Dr David Kilcullen, a former Australian soldier who served in Iraq as a top advisor to the US Commander General David Petraeus, called on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee to stop drone attacks over Pakistan, saying they are counterproductive.  He argued that they are “deeply aggravating to the population” leading to increased support for extremism. Professor Paul Rogers of Bradford University’s Department of Peace Studies agrees that drone attacks in western Pakistan are adding ‘fuel and succour’ to Al Qaeda’s efforts of radicalisation and believes that drone deployments would be better termed as ‘air-raids’.  Lord Bingham, until last year the senior law lord in the UK, has also condemned the use of drones.  He has compared them to cluster bombs and landmines saying that some weapons were “so cruel to be beyond the pale of human tolerance”.

International lawyers have also called drone attacks “state-sanctioned assassinations’ where the targeted suspect has no opportunity to defend themselves.  Drone operators are far away from the target, there is no connection with the victim if they are an enemy or innocent civilian. In August last year CBS News reported that Predator pilots in Southern California operating drones 7,000 miles away over Iraq were suffering similar psychological stresses as that seen on the battlefield. They can see the results of their real life video game playing actions on their computer screens via the UAV cameras. The military want them to assess the damage they have caused and the cameras beam back vivid and stark pictures of the death and destruction that they have been responsible for. Ordinary bombers and fighter pilots don’t usually get to see the effects of their actions in such detail and Predator operators are not in the war-zone – they leave their shifts and go home to their families, picking their children up from school, going out to dinner.

And … the Future?

US drones, such as the Predator and Reaper, are being armed with cluster bombs and missiles and robot tanks such as the Talon Sword are armed with machine guns and grenade launchers. Last July the US Air Force unveiled a UAV System Flight Plan outlined drone development until 2047. The report describes the possible future development of larger drones to replace bombers (even nuclear bombers) and fighter planes and of smaller surveillance and/or attack drones that could be deployed in swarms to infiltrate every corner of a building or even be given the ability to decide when, who and how to attack by the use of artificial intelligence computer technology. In 2008, the British aerospace company BAE Systems carried out a flying trial with swarms of drone planes that could communicate with each other and select their own targets.

Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Sheffield in the UK, believes that drones could soon be deciding when and who to kill and that this would lead to a rapid rise in civilian casualties and that the increased deployment of automated military technology was already creating a culture of armchair warfare. He thinks that there should be international discussion and arms control on these weapons. Perhaps the greatest concern is that because most of the systems identify people just by using heat sensors, they are unable to tell the difference between civilians and combatants.

Automated fighters may also remove a sense of responsibility from their controllers. As Professor Sharkey has put it:

“The further you are away, the easier it is to kill. They sit there all day, can get up to go to the toilet, can go home and have dinner with their wife and kids. It’s changing the nature of war dramatically.”

In Britain, only RAF pilots with combat experience are allowed to control drones but in the US soldiers who have never seen combat are being given short training courses to identify those who have quick reactions and the military are recruiting young people who are good at computer games.

The Israeli Harpy robotic aircraft gets close to removing human control from the loop. It flies around searching for enemy radar signals and if it identifies one from its database it homes in on the source. Professor Sharkey points out that the role of the human controller is increasingly being phased out by a move towards just one person monitoring a large number of drone craft, with little power to intervene. “The next thing that’s coming, that really scares me is totally autonomous robots. It could happen now. The technology is there,” he said.

And let us not forget why we are here. All of these operations, the remote control of robots and the integration with other war-fighting systems to provide a global reach of power and devastation – these are all made possible through satellite communication technology. We are here to remind ourselves and others of what the future that can develop into.  We must not allow these things to go ahead unchallenged. Indeed we must do all we can to stop the spread and rule of violence and destruction. We need to explore other ways of resolving our differences. At a time when we face global challenges of climate change, mass poverty and starvation – we need to work more closely together on alternatives not find new ways of conducting war and violence without even having to think about it. We must keep the heavens free of war and work together to “Keep Space for Peace”.

More information is available from the Global Network website – www.space4peace.org/uav.htm

Global Network