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In February, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), which audits and evaluates government activities on behalf of the US Congress, published a study examining the Department of Defense’s approach to developing and deploying artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities in weapon systems and assessing the current status of ‘war-fighting’ AI in the US military.  The GAO report gives an important insight into how the world’s most powerful military plans to use AI in combat.  It also raises a number of important ethical issues which our own Parliament should also be investigating in relation to the UK’s own military AI programmes.

The GAO study concludes that although the US Department of Defense (DoD) is “actively pursuing AI capabilities,” the majority of AI activities supporting warfighting (as opposed to undertaking business and maintenance tasks) remain at the research and development stage as DoD attempts to address the differences between ‘AI’ and traditional computer aplikasi.  Research efforts are currently focused on developing autonomy for drones and other uncrewed systems, recognizing targets, and providing recommendations to commanders on the battlefield.  Reflecting the US’ interest in military AI, the budget for the DOD’s Joint AI Center has increased dramatically from $89 million in 2019 to $278 million in 2021.  In total the Joint AI Center has spent approximately $610 million on AI programmes over the past three years, although the GAO considers that it is too soon to assess the effectiveness of this spending. Read more →

Drone Wars appeared in court yesterday to appeal the refusal of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to give basic details of UK Reaper operations outside of its campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Judgement in the case is due to be given in around six weeks’ time.

In January 2020 the MoD refused to answer a TV Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Drone Wars UK seeking the number of UK Reaper flights that had taken place outside of Operation Shader during 2019 and their location. The request was refused both on national security and international relations grounds. Subsequently, Ministers refused to answer questions both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords about the sorties, claiming that Reaper was an ‘intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform’ and that Ministers “do not comment on intelligence matters.”

Labour MP Clive Lewis wrote directly to the Secretary of State, Ben Wallace, about the matter and was told in response:

“REAPER is not conducting strike operations outside those theatres for which Parliament has approved the deployment of UK Armed Forces. The vast majority of REAPER missions are reconnaissance and surveillance operations and as I am sure you can understand, to reveal where it is conducting those missions would provide valuable information to our adversaries.”

Clive Lewis and crossbench Peer, Baroness Viviane Stern, member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and Modern Conflict submitted written statements to the Tribunal urging the need for transparency. Mr Lewis argued that  the refusal to answer questions about the deployment of Reaper is “a serious backward step in terms of transparency and accountability.”

Baroness Stern stated:

“Despite repeated attempts by myself and colleagues to attain even the most basic information about the UK’s drone deployments, policy, and commitments, Parliament has not been provided with the accurate and timely information needed to meaningfully carry out its constitutional scrutiny role. Whilst certain details must be kept secret in order to ensure operational and national security, the current trend of withholding information about the use of drones purely because it is seen as an “intelligence” asset, as well as withholding penting information on the UK’s growing military capabilities and commitments is deeply concerning and unjustified.”

In court, the MoD argued against the release of the information on two grounds.  Firstly, that the information was exempt from release under Section 26 of the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that the information would prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of relevant forces.  Secondly, it argued that release of the information was exempt under Section 27 of the Act, in that its release would prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other State and/or the interests of the United Kingdom abroad. Read more →UK Reaper drone ZZ209, damaged in a December 2021 accident, seen here being delivered to the RAF in Afghanistan in 2014.

A British Reaper drone crashed after landing on 1st December 2021 the MoD has revealed in a Freedom of Information response to Drone Wars UK.

The crash is the sixth ‘mishap’ that has occurred to the UK’s armed Reaper UAV fleet since the system came into service in 2008. At least 20 large (Class II and III) military drones operated by UK armed forces have crashed in the last 15 years. The latest accident came less than a month after a newly purchased Reaper came into service to  with the intention of bringing the UK’s fleet back up to its full strength of ten.

While the MoD is refusing to disclose the location of the accident for national security reasons, unless it was an improvised or emergency landing – of if UK Reapers have been deployed to an additional location for operations outside of Iraq and Syria – it is likely to have been at the Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait where the UK’s Reapers are believed to be based.

The MoD state that the accident was caused by the “failure of the nose wheel steering on landing.”  This indicates that the drone likely ran off the runway. The status of the drone, whether it is repairable, and, if so, how long it will be out of service, is still “under investigation”. Read more →In Sept 2021 the prototype of the UK’s new armed drone flew from Scotland to undertake a mission involving a search pattern over the Channel.

Boris Johnson announced in mid-January that the armed forces was to take charge of limiting migrants crossing the English Channel. The announcement was described by The Times as one of a series of populist announcements by the embattled PM to save his premiership.

Soon after, the Defence Select Committee announced that it was to scrutinize the decision and sought submissions from interested parties:

“The Government’s decision that the Royal Navy should take over operations in the Channel has taken Parliament (and it seems the MOD) by surprise.  There are significant strategic and operational implications surrounding this commitment which need to be explored.”

Shockingly, both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office refused to submit evidence or send ministers to answer questions from the Committee.

Our full submission to the Committee on this issue – looking in particular at how drones are often seen as a ‘solution’ – is available on their website, while here we offer a short summary. Drone Wars argues that the military should not be involved in day-to-day border control operations in the absence of any threat of military invasion. This role is primarily a policing and enforcement role centred on dealing with civilians which should be conducted by civilian agencies.  Military forces are not principally trained or equipped to deal with humanitarian or policing situations.  The UK borders are not a war zone, and civilians attempting to enter and leave the country are not armed combatants.

The long-delayed publication of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) accounts for 2020/21 show that the cost of UK air strikes and operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2014 has now topped £dua billion.  It should be noted that these costs are covered by the Treasury over and above the UK’s defence budget.  The UK carried out 54 air strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2021.

Published nine months after the  financial year end, the MoD’s accounts for 2020/21 detail that the ‘net additional cost’ to the UK of air operations against ISIS in the Middle East were £176m – an increase of 20% over 2019/20.  

Both the Iraq and Syrian government declared the military defeat of ISIS after its final territory was overrun in March 2019, while the death of the class’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, six months later further degraded their capability. While ISIS undoubtedly remains a serious terrorist threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, the continuing presence of US troops and on-going air strikes are also deeply resented by the people of Iraq. Read more →

Book Review: ‘War in Space – Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics’ by Bleddyn E. Bowen. Published by Edinburgh University Press, 2020

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