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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Brazil has bought four Hermes 450 drones for surveillance over stadiums of the FIFA World Cup football matches to commence in June, 2014. Intended to prevent terrorism during the games, no good case has been made that the Brazilian games will be targets of terrorism. Or that the drones will be useful in preventing it. Rather, the drones are more likely to be used monitoring protests that are sparked by the matches and Brazilian government policies, and building a ‘security state’. People attending the matches can expect pervasive surveillance, from drones overhead to facial recognition cameras on the ground.
As well, there may be a need to protect football fans and nearby residents from the drones themselves. Hermes 450 drones do not appear to have received widely accepted certification to fly in civilian air space,** although the Israeli government has certified them in Israel. Last year, during the Confederations Cup matches, Brazilian officials appear to have acknowledged this failing by planning to restrict civilian air traffic near the game venues.
British-Israeli Watchkeeper drones (which are based on the Hermes 450) have been recently certified by the UK to fly in civilian airspace but the technology that permitted this to occur does not appear to have been incorporated into the Hermes 450 drones sold to Brazil. There has been an effort worldwide to make drones safe to fly in populated airspace, including large European government subsidies documented by Statewatch and the Transnational Institute.
Drones in general have a much higher crash rate than piloted aircraft, and several Hermes 450 drones crashes have been recorded from a relatively small worldwide fleet.
Hermes 450 drones have been widely used by Israel for surveillance and assassinations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. So often used that Elbit Systems advertises their products as ‘conflict tested’.
Elbit Systems has a strong marketing programme in South America and has sold drones to several countries.
Brazil appears to have paid $25 million for the four drones.
**If anyone knows differently, please let me know.
Some time in the next few weeks several large crates will be unloaded from a British military aircraft at a Canadian airstrip and hauled to CFB Suffield, in Alberta. Known in the UK as BATUS (British Army Training Unit Suffield), CFB Suffield will be the site of training exercises by British army units, as it is every year. The crates will contain disassembled Watchkeeper drones, as well as the ground stations which are needed to support them. British army personnel will learn to use the drones, as they used similar Israeli-made Hermes 450 drones in Afghanistan.
The Watchkeepers are unlikely to be controlled from RAF Waddington in the UK, as are Britain’s Predator drones, because these particular drones are being used for surveillance by regular army units. It is likely that there will be French army officers observing, because the French are considering buying Watchkeeper, and the Suffield deployment is the first operational test for the drone. Also likely to be present will be officials from Thales, the French company that built the drones, and from Elbit Systems, the Israeli arms company that built Hermes 450 drone which was the prototype for Watchkeeper.
Too predictable will be the public relations events where local Alberta and Canadian media are shown the new unmanned aircraft and urged to comment on its technological marvels. Also predictable will be the close working relationship between the military and the arms company officials. The latter will use the opportunity to promote sales, and military brass will cooperate fully. This video where a active UK Colonel waxes poetic about Watchkeeper, while sitting in front of large signs advertising the prime contractor Thales, illustrates how easily the lines between public and private interests are blurred.
Finally, it is possible that Canadian government and military officials will be present at Suffield, as France’s Thales and Israel’s Elbit Systems, (the manufacturers of Watchkeeper), will be eager to use the training exercises as marketing tools for their technology. The present Canadian government is Israel’s strongest ally, and Watchkeeper might be viewed as an opportunity to support Israel while appearing to be buying a British product.
Israeli arms company Elbit Systems has won a contract that may ultimately be worth up to $1 billion worth of work on US border systems from the US Customs and Border Protection. It won the contract from out of the hands of US corporate giant like General Dynamics, Raytheon, Lockheed, etc. Another giant US arms company had lost the work after delays, according to business paper Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and huge increases in public costs. There was scathing criticism from some sources, that Elbit, a company that had been involved in the previous failed contract as a subcontractor, had been awarded the new contract.
The work is to provide a series of towers along the US-Mexico border with sensing equipment for spotting ‘illicit human crossings’, at from 5-7.5 miles away, in any weather, day or night. The system will further sterilise the border zone, preventing any unregulated movement in the area.
CBP officials wanted to hire someone who already had the technology developed. Perhaps unsurprising that they picked Elbit, whose products have been developed as part of its active role in the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Elbit Systems, which has been criticised for its work building border systems on Israel’s apartheid wall, sells a wide range of technology for border fortification.
Plans to have British-Israeli Watchkeeper drone used by British at CFB Suffield, Alberta, a step closer
Flight Global recently reported 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 the Suffield base for that year.
UK army personel are now learning to fly the Watchkeeper over the Salisbury plain in the UK, presumably in preparation for flying it elsewhere, like CFB Suffield (BATUS), or Afghanistan. No mention was made of operators being licensed pilots, despite recent comments by the same officer elsewhere that Watchkeeper would be as safe to fly as manned planes (neglecting to mention that manned aircraft are flown by licensed pilots).
British forces have long used Canadian Forces Base Suffield for training, going so far as to call it ‘British Army Training Unit Suffield’ (BATUS). There is already a private drone test facility at Suffield. It isn’t clear whether it will figure at all in the flying of the Watchkeeper drones at Suffield. (More likely not, because it is believed that the flights this summer will involve integrating Watchkeeper into British army practise, not testing the drone per se). Interviewed by a parliamentary committee in 2008, Air Vice Marshall Stuart Butler said that Watchkeeper would be flown at Suffield because of the greater ‘standoff area’ that Suffield provides, as well acknowledging that Suffield was already had a designation for dangerous flights.
TTU Online has reported that British military officials will invite French military officers to join in the flying of Watchkeeper at Suffield, as part of the ongoing effort of the British military industrial establishment (and its French and Israeli arms company friends) 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.
Interestingly, when flown at the Suffield base Watchkeeper will likely be flying within the view of American border patrol Predator drones (believed currently grounded because of safety concerns after a crash).
The British-Israeli ‘Watchkeeper’ drone passed another milestone this week with little fanfare, mostly press released-based articles and little critical comment. The new military drone is years late and has been restricted to flying in closed airspace in Wales, until it could be ‘certified’ to fly in civilian air space. This week the MOD was permitted to begin flights over the Salisbury Plain.
Lacking in the coverage this week has been has been any reference to the origin of most Watchkeeper technology, the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems (which advertises its drone products as ‘combat tested’ in the occupation of Palestine and the suppression of Gaza). Watchkeeper has ‘deep roots’ in the Israeli war machine and consequently in the human rights abuses that characterise that occupation. An extensive briefing paper on Israel’s role in the production and proliferation of drones has recently been released by Drone Wars UK.
Also lacking is analysis of the overall British and European drone strategy, and how Watchkeeper fits into it. Statewatch this month released a comprehensive report detailing the shocking level of European public spending on the development of drones, mostly to the benefit of domestic European arms companies and goals for research and market development.
It was hardly surprising that safety concerns were sloughed off in the press release-based coverage. Colonel Mark Thornhill of the UK MOD has downplayed safety risks, suggesting that Watchkeeper is certified the same way that manned aircraft are certified (but conveniently sidestepping the obvious difference that operators are not on board the aircraft). Drone Wars UK has documented the alarming crash rate of drones in the Drone Crash Database.
Although MOD point man Col Mark Thornhill said that Watchkeeper would be used in support of military operations within the UK, none of the media appears to have asked him what military operations in the UK he might be referring to.
Thornhill was also allowed to state without challenge that Watchkeeper would not be ‘armed’, while neglecting him to challenge him on the obvious point that ‘unarmed’ drones are part of integrated military systems for identifying and destroying ‘targets’. Laterally, British allies like the US and Israel have used drones for preemptive killings of suspects outside active war zones.
There is startlingly little fuss being made over the imminent introduction of the long delayed Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper drone expected in just a few weeks. Delayed by years, the drone has been an embarrassment to both the British military and the prime contractor Thales.
Originally touted as essential for Britain’s intervention in Afghanistan, the drone will likely never be introduced to that operational theatre, due to the delays. The army has since found that it could do just as well with armed Predator-type drones, as well as rented Israeli surveillance drones. Meanwhile, the long delays in finishing Watchkeeper have been blamed on the need for ‘civilian airspace certification’, although it hasn’t been satisfactorily explained why that is needed since UK military drones have so far operated in remote areas, where conflict with civilian air traffic is not an issue.
Perhaps the greatest reason that Watchkeeper introduction has been kept to a low profile is that the drone is primarily an Israeli creation. Watchkeeper’s earliest years coincided with the infamous Cast Lead attack on Gaza, when hundreds of Palestinians, including a very large number of women and children, were killed by Israeli forces. Drones were heavily involved in that attack, and subsequent ones.
Watchkeeper is the anglicised version of the Hermes 450 drone used throughout the Cast Lead attacks, and many times since. Its maker, Elbit Systems, brags that their drones are ‘combat tested’, and their company officials have noted that the active participation of Elbit designers in Israel’s military activities means that the Hermes 450 is constantly updated and fixed to reflect the experiences of the Israeli military (which are largely gained in attacks on Gaza and suppression of Palestinians in the West Bank).** So, Britain’s Watchkeeper drone owes a debt to Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation.
Watchkeeper’s first flights were at the Megido airfield in northern Israel. (They were originally scheduled for and airport in the occupied territories, until British officials objected to the ‘optics’ of that). There is considerable Israeli equipment and intellectual property on Watchkeeper, including the take off and landing system, the engine, and the basic design. It has never been certain what Elbit’s returns from the £1 billion contract have been, but they will have been considerable.
Britain’s embrace of the Hermes 450 model has also been good for Elbit. Britain’s rented Hermes 450′s have flown thousands of hours in Afghanistan (several have crashed). And Watchkeeper has flown countless test hour from Parc Aberporth in Wales. Those experiences have filtered back to Elbit, and no doubt been incorporated into the design of updated Hermes models, including the Hermes 900 now being sold around the world. These updated Hermes drones will eventually be used again in the suppression of the occupied Palestinians, meaning that British use of Hermes-based drones have had a direct effect on subjugated people in the Middle East.
**It’s possible that Israeli arms company employees are actually involved specifically in the deployment of Israeli drones in combat situations, although this hasn’t been confirmed directly.
Israeli arms companies are quick to point out their close association with the Israeli military, and the fact that many of their key development staff are active members of the military. Since much of the effort of the military has been the occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights, and the blockade and attacks on Gaza, it follows that many of these staff have been integrally involved in the brutal occupation of the West Bank, and many of Israel’s incursions into Gaza and Lebanon.
Elbit Systems is Israel’s largest drones manufacturer and the world’s largest drone exporter. Elbit’s Chief Financial Officer, Joseph Gasper, was recently interviewed by Financial Times, claiming that Elbit’s employees with active involvement in the Israeli military gave it “quick feedback” on whether those systems were working and whether they needed addressing. Elbit is a part of the Israeli military, and the Israeli occupation is a testing ground and feedback mechanism for the development arm of the Israeli arms industry.
In a country where military, government, and arms company roles are a virtual revolving door, it is not hard to imagine that there are strong finanical incentives to suggest military solutions to political problems. Elbit Systems not only profits from sales to the Israeli military and occupation forces, it uses the “combat proven” experience it gains from attacks on Gaza dn the surveillance of the West Bank to promote arms sales worldwide.