This blog focusses on the arms trade in Canada, the UK, and Israel. Occasionally it may cover other regions or issues.
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Flight Global reports that the UK armed forces will test the Watchkeeper drone at Canadian Forces Base, Suffield, Alberta in 2014 and beyond. That the UK would test Watchkeeper there was anticipated from at least 2006 as indicated in the Environmental Assessment for that year.
British forces have long used Canadian Forces Base, Suffield for training, calling it British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS). There is already a drone test facility at Suffield. It isn’t clear whether the British drones will be tested there, or as autonomous units.
TTU Online has reported that British military officials will invite French military officers to join in the testing of Watchkeeper, as part of the ongoing effort of the British military industrial establishment to sell the French a few Watchkeeper systems.
Watchkeeper is an Anglo-Israeli-French drone, based on the Israeli Hermes 450 drone used widely in the suppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
In 2012 the French arms company Thales convinced the French government to consider purchasing the Watchkeeper drone. As the government of France changed, the incoming government was anxious to rid itself of some of the connections the previous government had had with elements of the French arms industry. So it was inclined to widen its search for drones to include what the French press sometimes calls the Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper drone.
La Tribune reported that French trials of Watchkeeper in early 2013 didn’t go very well. Other trials occured at l’Istres, presumably at Le Tubé air base, near Marseille. French Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud said that “The results are not yet those we hoped.” Only half of the flights were successful, partly due to bad British weather, and partly due to technical reasons. Yet the French military claimed to be still supportive of Watchkeeper, as the largest European drone programme. La Tribune suggested that France might purchase 15 Watchkeeper systems by 2019. And Thales ramped up its selling pitch by taking Watchkeeper to the Paris Air show, as a model with French army colours.
By November La Tribune was reporting that the head of France’s land army, General Ract-Madoux, was asking for Watchkeeper and wanted to lease two systems even before delivery of purchased systems. He wanted delivery moved forward to 2016-17 rather than 2019. Ract-Madoux said ” The drone flies and lands perfectly. However , the links between the UAV and the ground have a problem “ Ract-Madoux felt the system hadn’t reached ‘maturity’ and urged Thales to solve the problems.
Included in Anglo French cooperation was the testing of a new Thales high speed data link as an alternative to the existing data link. The TMA data link might also be used on Reaper or Heron drones being used in the French or British air forces. It isn’t clear whether this related to previous concerns with Watchkeeper data links.
The CEO of Thales, Jean-Bernard Levy tried to sell the idea of France buying Watchkeeper, on the basis of it’s being what France wanted, cheap, having a European supply chain, and would be under exclusive control of French forces.
TTU Online has reported that on 18 November 2013 four members of the French 61 Artillery Regiment will join a team from 43 battery of the British 47 Regiment on Salisbury Plain as the latter tries to ‘ramp up’ the struggling Watchkeeper program. . The purpose was to more closely integrate the two armies in their ability to operate drones (and presumably further the assessment of the Watchkeeper drone for the French).
Ract-Madoux suggested that French officers and NCO’s should go to Afghanistan in early 2014 when the British Watchkeepers would presumably be sent there, “to test the behaviour of the device in a theatre of operations.” But according to TTU Online, British officials ‘did not envisage’ French participation in British operations in Afghanistan and offered them the chance to jointly test Watchkeeper in Canada instead.
Writing in L’Enterprises, Vincent Lamigeon speculated that many French politicians would support a competing bid from Saran, the ‘Patroller’ a larger drone made almost entirely in France. He suggested that Senators might demand an open bidding process and that political campaigning had earlier resulted in France acquiring American Reaper drones, rather than the Heron drones offered by Israeli Aerospace Industries and Dassault.
Years in the making, and costing over a billion pounds, Britain’s Watchkeeper drone programme has almost dropped out of public view, on the very eve of its introduction.
Watchkeeper was a collaboration of France’s Thales, and Israel’s Elbit Systems. The prototype for Watchkeeper was Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone, used for many years in the suppression of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Thales became the prime contractor, from its facilities in the UK. Originally conceived as a surveillance drone for use Afghanistan, Watchkeeper took too long to produce (three years late, so far) to be very useful in Afghanistan, so the UK chose to purchase or lease alternatives from Israeli and American sources in the interim. The developing Watchkeeper has apparently been repurposed as a platform for flight and surveillance in populated areas, and Thales was required to develop systems to enable Watchkeeper to be certified to fly in civilian airspace. Thales has produced a slick video showing Watchkeeper flying over populated areas in Wales. ThinkDefence in a detailed look at Watchkeeper shows how Watchkeeper could monitor a moving target in the British countryside.
What we know from recent information in the public record:
Military Aviation Authority has approved a ‘statement of type design assurance’. (Apparently this means that Watchkeeper is nearing acceptance by the military).
Although UK involvement in Afghanistan is winding down, the UK MOD still plans to introduce Watchkeeper to Afghanistan when it is released for service.
France is still considering whether to purchase Watchkeeper, with elements of the French army pushing to purchase.
UK and French military would like to take Watchkeeper to Afghanistan to test it out in an operational situation (demonstrating that wars are often used as proving grounds for military hardware).
The UK MOD is considering arming Watchkeeper, possibly with ‘lightweight multirole missiles’. Armed with missiles and having gained civilian airspace certification it is theoretically possible that the UK could bring its assassination programme to British soil.
On 7 October Thales was given permission to fly Watchkeeper over populated areas in Britain, allowing it to be flown over its test area on the Salisbury Plain.
The owners of Sussex based arms company Manroy Engineering have apparently put the company up for sale. Manroy Engineering is the Beckley, East Sussex manufacturer of heavy machine guns and other military equipment. Manley was formerly a small engineering company that made heavy .50 calibre machine guns for the UK military. But a few years ago the company was purchased by new owners who had plans for expansion. This coincided with the policy of the new Conservative government that wanted to increase arms sales and was willing to expand its export permit system to authoritarian countries previously embargoed. This policy ran full tilt into the Arab Spring and the British public became aware that many of the intended new markets for UK arms were indeed repressive dictators. The plan to sell arms to dictators was scaled back. No doubt this revised policy also affected the growth plans of the new owners of Manroy.
Manroy was directly affected when it was revealed that Manroy and elements of the UK government had been trying to sell sniper rifles to the Qaddafi government at the time just before the dictator was deposed by his own people with the help of other elements of the UK government.
Press reports suggest that Manroy is considering takeover proposals from two companies, (US Ordnance having dropped out). Market reports suggest that the 14 million pound company hasn’t been very profitable, with losses most years since it was taken public.
Baretta is one of the named suitors. The Italian company is a major producer of small arms.
FN Herstal is the other. (Watch their bloodless machine gun video here) Herstal is Europe’s largest exporter of military arms, and owner of such American firearms brands as Winchester and Browning. Herstal already makes a heavy machine gun similar to the one made by Manroy. FN Herstal is 100% owned by the Walloon region of the Belgian government.
It isn’t clear whether a purchaser would keep the manufacturing facilities at Beckley, or whether they would be only interested in the machinery or intellectual property of the company. None of this information appears to be in the public record.
By Chris Cole
While there is rightly much media attention on the US drone war in Pakistan and Yemen, there is a very different but over-looked “drone war” taking place in Europe right now. In parliamentary committee rooms, in company boardrooms, and in packed public meetings, arguments rage about whether Europe should embrace or reject the use of armed drones.
It was revealed in July that in 2012 the UK has granted licences for export of £7.7 billion worth of cryptographic technology to Israel. (That’s almost 200 times the typical level of exports) By virtue of the government’s secretive arms trade policies the sale was not revealed until long after it was being processed. Little is known what this massive sale was comprised of. In July, the Independent reported that the UK had issued a wide variety of export licences to repressive countries, including many on it human rights list, often in direct violation of its own policy. Britain also exported to Israel ‘..vehicles with ballistic protection, body armour, military helmets, components for pistols, components for assault rifles, military support vehicles, and …ammunition. In total there were 381 licences for export of arms to Israel. ‘
“Many of the countries on the list are in the Middle East and North Africa. But what is most striking is that over half of the total (£7,878,776,714) is going to “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Look a little closer and you see that almost all of those exports are going to Israel with only £5539 going to the Occupied Territories. Look closer still and you see something utterly astonishing. 380 different licences have been granted for exports of arms and military equipment to Israel. However, £7,765,450,000 of the £7.8 billion worth of equipment exported to Israel is covered by just one licence approval – for equipment employing cryptography and software for equipment employing cryptography. This is bizarre, particularly as there are scores of other licences granted for export of cryptography equipment and software which have a substantial value –but still only add up to a tiny fraction of this amount. I am tabling questions to Minister today to find out just what this licence was all about. Is just one company involved? Why does the scale of this licence dwarf all others with similar titles? What does the contact actually involve? Quite apart from all the questions that this particular licence approval raises, there has to be real concern that the arms trade with Israel dominates the list produced by UK Government to this extent. Britain has long standing rules that arms and military equipment should not be exported to countries where they are likely to be used for either internal repression or external aggression, a principle that the Foreign Secretary affirmed to the Committee.
That being the case, you cannot ignore that the West Bank remains illegally occupied by Israel and that there is growing international concern about Israel’s treatment of Palestinian child prisoners. You cannot ignore the Israel’s military blockade of Gaza, or the regular shootings of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces which has been systematically documented by the United Nations.
Against a background of international concern about Israel, we need to know why inventory of equipment the UK is supplying ranges from components for assault rifles and arms to military communications equipment and intelligence software. The UK Government regularly expresses concern about Israel’s breaches of international law and human rights abuses. So just what are we doing supplying Israel with the military equipment that helps it carrying on such violations?
The UK Government has some serious questions to answer here on its arms exports to Israel and to the other countries of concern.”
In September, in response to a question by Mr. Burden, the Minister of State for Business and Enterprise Michael Fallun stated that the export was “of equipment and softward for building public mobile phone networks”
However no details of the exact nature of the equipment, the seller, or the buyer, were forthcoming. It isn’t possible to assess to what extent the technology will prop up the apartheid state’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, though it is impossible to imagine that this mobile phone technology will not be used in some way in the conduct of the occupation.
David Cronin, writing in Electronic Intifada, has suggested that both Conservative and Labour governments have systematically undervalued the amount of British exports to Israel.
In line with its Conservative cousins in the UK, Canada’s government has moved to increase arms sales by removing some restrictions on exports. Diane Finley, the Minister of Public Works tasked with managing a review of the items that can be exported, announced recently that more than half the items would be taken off the list. (In other words, items deemed too dangerous to export in 2002, are now considered safe). In keeping with this governments habit of secrecy, the review was announced with little fanfare.
According to Finley’s statement, reported by Lee Berthiaume in the Ottawa citizen, the purpose of the review was to align Canada’s policies with that of the US.
Arms sold by Canada to the Saudi dictatorship were recently used to suppress democracy demonstrations in nearby Bahrain. Bahrain is home of the US Fifth Fleet, and the US has been reluctant to support democratic movements which could destabilise the ruling dictators who gave them permission to be there. Likewise Canada’s foreign affairs Minister John Baird has given support to the Bahrain dictators, over democracy protesters.
Lee Berthiaume reported that Canada would like to widen exports to countries like Chile, Peru, South Korea and Brazil. (Brazil may not be so keen after recent allegations of Canadian industrial spying). Whether the list will be expanded to a longer list of autocratic countries isn’t clear. But if the government is willing to export arms to the Saudi dictatorship, one assumes that our government will have few limitations on who it sells to.
When the UK Conservative government greatly expanded the list of export targets, they were quickly stung by the Arab Spring, which revealed them in numerous arms trade transactions with Colonel Qadaffi of Libya.