The MoD and Department for Transport have responded to recent FoI requests helping us to shine some light on use of drones in Afghanistan and plans for drone use in the UK.
The UK MoD released figures for UK Reaper drone strikes in Afghanistan for the first quarter of 2014 (below) in response to an FoI request (we have updated our overall statistics on UK use of Reaper in Afghanistan here). For the first time the figures have been broken down between weapons launched from British Reapers and those launched when RAF was “utilizing” US Reapers. The figures show that the number of weapons released remain roughly on par for this time of year despite the number of UK soldiers on the ground rapidly declining and British bases in Helmand closing.
Last month the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reported that the additional five Reapers – ordered by David Cameron in December 2010 and finally deployed to Afghanistan in February 2014 – were still not in operation. The MoD confirmed on 20 June 2014 that this was still the case with the additional Reapers “still completing integration testing.” Chair of the Drones APPG Tom Watson told the Bureau:
“‘Urgent Operational Requirements’ are meant to be used for emergencies in combat zones. This revelation, that approximately £100m of taxpayers’ money used has been used to purchase equipment that may never be used in Afghanistan, is a scandal at a time when service personnel are being made redundant.”
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones is also calling on the government to ensure that there is “a reasonable opportunity for debate and scrutiny” of plans to relocate the UK’s Reaper drones if they are to be redeployed as many suspect at the end of combat operations in Afghanistan.. We are urging people to get their MP’s to sign a related Early Day Motion (a kind of parliamentary petition), EDM 136 which:
“…notes in particular the emerging convention that the House should have an opportunity to debate military action abroad; and calls on the Government to clarify that the convention will be applied to use of drones outside Afghanistan, whether or not they are operated from the UK and to publish a statement of criteria articulating the legal basis and circumstances in which the UK may commit to military intervention of any sort.”
Meanwhile, we and others are repeatedly told by the MoD when we ask for details of actual UK drone operation in Afghanistan that they cannot be released as such details would endanger the lives of UK and allied forces. Curiously the MoD seems to have no such worries in releasing details of these two UK drone operations earlier this month.
Drones in UK skies
Last month the MoD revealed that a giant US Global Hawk drone had flown through UK airspace three times as part of a NATO trial, called Unified Vision, aimed at testing NATO’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability. The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) put in place temporary segregated airspace to allow the flights to take place and we are investigating whether these flights actually took place over land,and if so, where.
Opening up UK airspace to large drones is the holy grail of the UK drone industry which met together at the Royal Aeronautical Society for the ‘RPAS Today’ conference in early June. The Chair of the newly created Government Working Group on RPAS, Paul Cremin, gave a presentation on the work that the group aims to undertake and we have obtained the presentation under FoI.
Obtaining the text of his speech is proving a little more difficult but perhaps can be summed up by this tweet from a freelance journalist attending the event:
UK Govt to embark on a major initiative from October to try to show the public that UAS means more than missiles and spying. #RPASToday
– Angus Batey (@angusbatey) June 10, 2014
While British Army units have begun to train with the UK’s new Watchkeeper drone over Salisbury Plain, the MoD is desperate to deploy at least some systems to Afghanistan to avoid political embarrassment and to get the ‘combat proved’ tag. However it increasingly looks like the unarmed drones, built by Thales UK and Elbit Systems at a cost of almost £850 and now three years late, will not be ready in time.
Last month Aviation Week reported that once accepted into service the Watchkeepers will be pooled between the 32 and 47 Regiments of Royal Artillery, each with five flights using five systems each. Both units are based at Larkhill and the Watchkeeper drones will now be based there as confirmed recently in parliament by an MoD Minister. However Thales UK’s Matt Moore revealed to Defence News this week the startling news that on acceptance into service almost half of the Watchkeeper fleet will be immediately mothballed!
In order to try to salvage something from this procurement disaster the UK is desperate to gain some export sales for the Watchkeeper. As the only prospective buyer at the moment, France must be under some pressure from the UK to purchase the systems.
UK-US drone intelligence connections
As regular readers will know human rights organization Reprieve has focused public and media attention on the links between CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere and UK intelligence agencies. In addition last year Reprieve exposed that UK telecoms giant BT had installed a data link between US drone base Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti and ‘RAF’ Croughton in Northamptonshire. Note that although called an RAF base, Croughton is completely operated by US personnel.
Over the past month UK journalist Mark Ballard has expanded on this connection and published several pieces at Computer Weekly investigating and explaining the links between US bases in the UK and the US use of drones (see here, and here and here). All three pieces are well worth reading.