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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The French arms company Thales was the prime contractor and minority partner in the billion pound contract to convert the Israeli Hermes 450 drone into a British Watchkeeper drone for the UK armed forces. The project was plagued with delays. Touted as essential for the British forces in Afghanistan, Watchkeeper wasn’t ready until the UK deployment was almost at the end, in 2014. At the last minute one Watchkeeper system was sent to Afghanistan in August, 2014, for a quick fly around, more as a sales tool than a useful part of the British armed forces. Information was relayed to an armed RAF Predator drones which carried out an airstrike on the basis of that information, (leading the cynical to wonder who might have died to promote Thales latest product).
The demonstration was witnessed by a number of French military officials, who announced themselves enough pleased that they recommended to the French government that Watchkeeper drones be purchased for their own fleet. Thales is promoting Watchkeeper to the ‘Système de Drone Tactique’, a French procurement project, but no purchase has been made.
Since the project was completed, information about the Watchkeepers purchased by the UK government has mostly dried up, though it is believed that the majority of the 54 drones purchased have been mothballed into storage, as the military mostly uses Predator drones purchased from the US in its forays abroad.
Recently Thales has tried to sell Watchkeeper to other countries, as the public arm of a partnership that includes the Israeli company Elbit Systems as a majority partner. Countries that are embarrassed by interactions with companies associated with the apartheid Israeli government are able to put some distance between them and themselves by dealing with Thales. It also provides cover for the UK government, which is anxious to to sell these value-added, Israeli-based Watchkeepers, manufactured in UK factories.
Thales has offered the Polish military an armed version of Watchkeeper.
In late 2015 Thales plans to fly Watchkeeper from Parc Aberporth in public airspace over Cardiff, Wales.
Canada’s Conservative government has shown a penchant for militarist solutions to international problems, and is now focused on ramping up international arms sales and the arms industry in Canada. It’s put its attention on the Middle East, where regional tensions are encouraging several Arab dictatorships to squander their petroleum wealth on weapons.
One of their big deals was okaying a $10 billion arms deal with the Saudi Arabian dictatorship, which bought armoured vehicles from General Dynamics Canada. The deal was strongly criticised from all quarters, because of the government’s failure to provide assurances that the vehicles wouldn’t be used to repress local populations. Ceasfire.ca pointed out that it is likely that Canadian made light armoured vehicles from a previous deal were used by Saudi Arabia when it went to Bahrain to help that country’s dictatorship suppress democracy protestors.
In February 2015 TheNational reported that Canada was aiming for another $10 billion in arms sales at the IDEX arms show. The Canadian government, using the Canadian Commercial Corporation, was to spend $2.5 million to support 53 companies trying to sell their arms at the regional arms show. IDEX 2015 is a regional arms show in Abu Dhabi, UAE, the biggest in the Middle East.
TheNational reported that the Canadian Commercial Corporation and was also in negotiations with the Abu Dhabi government (another Arab dictatorship) to promote light armoured vehicles and flight simulators.
At least 30 Canadian companies were assisted to attend the Abu Dhabi show, among them Terradyne Armoured Vehicles, CAE, L3/Wescam, Ratheon Elcan, and General Dynamics Canada.
Part of IDEX is an ‘unmanned systems exhibition and conference’, featuring a purpose-built airstrip where drones can be demonstrated.
In June 2012 Drone Wars UK discussed a mysterious strike on a convoy of trucks in Northern Mali, and argued that the strikes may have been carried out using an American drone, though this was neither confirmed nor denied by US officials. (Predator drones were known to be flown in the area at that time-ed).
In October 2012 the French government announced that it planned to send unarmed reconnaissance drones, Harfangs from 1/33 Belfort squadron, to aid its military presence in Mali, as its soldiers were fighting an Al-Qaida backed insurgency. In January the government announced that the deployment of the Israeli made drones had taken place. This video of French paratroopers being deployed was taken by a Harfang drone. Harfang drones are from the Heron family of drones produced by IAI of Israel.
In early 2013 Wall Street Journal reported that some military in the US were calling for US armed drone strikes in Mali (but none seem to have happened, at least not with public knowledge-ed).
In February, Le Monde announced that American drones were being used to support French troops in Mali.
In March 2013 the Wall Street Journal reported that US Reaper drones were providing targetting information for French airstrikes against insurgent positions, as many as 60 strikes a week.
Europe 1 reported that a dozen Al Qaeda in Maghreb fighters had been killed by French forces with the help of a surveillance drone on the night of March 4. It was claimed that the strikes killed prominent insurgent Oumar Ould Hamaha.
In April 2013 an American Reaper drone crashed in Mali, due to ‘mechanical failure’. The drone had been one of two based in Niger to provide drone surveillance to support French forces on the ground. These in turn had replaced Predator drones deployed earlier.
In April France said it would buy 12 US Reaper drones to replace its Harfang drones. Reuters reported that the French had found that they had a shortage of drones suited to the conditions and had been using camera-equipped Cessna airplanes for surveillance, which had proved inadequate. (Apparently the US had flown reconnaissance piloted airplanes over Northern Mali for several years previously).
Reuters reported that France had eventually received delivery of two Reaper drones and that those would be operating in Mali by the end of 2013. The Hill reported that the two Reapers were the first of 12 acquired in a deal done with US based General Atomics in June and, incorrectly it seems, that the drones would be armed with US Hellfire missiles. The Hill also reported that the initial two drones, at least, would be operating from a site in Niger. Defence Web reported that the sale of Reaper drones to France had been approved in August 2013, and that a total of 12 drone with four ground stations would be delivered by 2015 or 2016.
In early 2014 the Medium.com published photos of a joint drone base operated by the US and France, located near Niamey, the capital of Niger. The Medium speculated about whether drones from the base would conduct armed attacks, and whether the unarmed French Reapers would be eventually armed. Defense News reported that the first French Reaper flight occurred, in early January, 2014 from the base in Niamey, using US-equipped sensors.
In the first week of March, 2014, France claimed to have killed Omar Ould Hamaha, insurgent leader, using information supplied by a Reaper drones. The same week it was claimed that French forces attacked and killed insurgents at a rocket cache in Mali, with the help of drones.
In July 2014, French President Francois Hollande visited Niamey, and was greeted with a fly-over by French Reaper drone. Later the French military showed off footage of the visit to Hollande, who could pick out members of his entourage. At this point France continued to have two Reapers and one Harfang drone based at their Niamey base. (Three Mirage jets were based in Niger and three Rafale jets in Chad, but it isn’t clear whether the Mirage jets were bases at Niamey). The Bloomberg article detailed some of the business interests that France has in Niger and the region.
Also in July, a French Reaper was the first to spot an Algerian passenger plane that had crashed in Mali.
In September 2014 an article in the Washington Post reported that the US was building another drone base in Niger, at Agadey. The article speculated that the US would discontinue using the joint US-France base at Niamey, though it didn’t say what would happen with the more than 100 US troops deployed there to protect the base.
By late 2014 concerns were being raised about the US base in Agadey, because of local resentment and fears that the based would draw extremist attacks on the town. Concerns were also raised that France and the US were more concerned with securing mineral resources in the region than in fighting terrorism. An FT article also noted growing instability in the region and noted the difficult of France to monitor the situation.
French, Malian, and UN troops were still being attacked and in October French forces intercepted an arms shipment from Libya bound for Malian insurgents.
In early October 2014 French forces destroyed an arms convoy from southeast Libya being sent to insurgents in Niger. The convoy had been followed from Libya by a French Reaper drone. Fox News also reported that French troops supported by US intelligence planned to move north toward the Libyan border. Voice of America reported that both the US and France were marshalling forces further north to cut off growing insurgency in southern Libya.
This article is incomplete, particularly with respect to the large number of airstrikes know to have been carried out in Mali against insurgents, with the help of drones. Any further information or direction to sources gratefully received.
Dr Ann Rogers has argued that rather than reducing civilian casualties (due to their ‘precision’ targeting and comprehensive imaging capabilities) the use of drones actually increases total civilian deaths. She states that the belief that drones are ‘more accurate and therefore less damaging’ leads military planners to carry out many more attacks than they would with conventional weaponry.
Certainly this is borne out by the evidence. Thousands of attacks involving drones have been carried out on a variety of fronts, from Iraq, to Gaza, to Yemen, to Afghanistan, by the US, UK and Israel, without leaving the impression that major warfare has been engaged in. The main quality that supports these drone encounters is high quality imaging and persistence. Rogers points out that these capabilities also lead to identifying a very large number of targets, and therefore causing many more deaths.
Rogers’ conclusion can be supported from a different perspective. Many claim that Israel has ‘the world’s most moral army’. The Israeli government claims to seek to avoid civilian casualties, and goes to extreme lengths to deflect blame for civilian deaths onto Israel’s enemies. Yet the civilian death rate from Israel’s successive attacks on Gaza is roughly the same, or higher, than the civilian death rate from Syrian President Assad’s attacks on Syrian rebels.** (Shouldn’t the world’s most moral army have a lower civilian casualty rate?) Israel has lauded the heavy use of drones for surveillance and targeting in Operation Protective Edge, its most recent incursion into Gaza. But it is clear that Protective Edge ended only when the number of civilian deaths and destruction of civilian infrastructure had reached the saturation level, and more killing would have ended support from many of Israel’s key allies. Using drones in this case saved no civilian lives. Although it is perhaps unfair to compare the conflicts directly, it may nevertheless be instructive that the conflict involving heavy use of drones (Operation Protective Edge) had a roughly equivalent or higher civilian death rate than the conflict (Syria) in which persistent drones are not a significant factor.
Brian Mersereau, Chief Negotiator for the Canadian Patrol Frigate Project has made some very good points in this article in the Ottawa Citizen.
In many arms purchase projects the contractor maintains control of a large portion of the intellectual property, putting it out of reach of the buyer in supporting the project a few years down the road. As bad, the contractor benefits from research paid for by the buyer, generally the taxpayers of the country purchasing. When individual employees invent a product or idea at work, this intellectual property is normally owned by the employer. It is difficult to see why the relationship between government and an arms contract should be any different.
The American Department for Homeland Security has been using Predator B drones to patrol its frontiers with Mexico and Canada. However its Office for Inspector General has done an audit that showed that it does not achieve intended results and that it dramatically underestimates the cost of the operation (by as much as 5X). While program proponents claimed the hourly cost of the programme was $2,468,the auditors found the real cost is $12,255 when all relevant costs are included.
The audit found that the drones did not help catch illegal border crossers (being involved in only 2% of captures) and operators flew only 20% of the intended sorties, mostly because of weather. Federal Times reported that the Office for the Inspector General had recommended not approving an addition $443 million for more drones to expand the programme.
American Homeland Security has also been operating a limited drone patrol programme along the Canadian border, with little effect. Lothar Eckardt, Executive Director of national air security operations, defended the programme, essentially saying that having drones patrolling areas where there was no illegal activity freed up resources where there was a greater problem.
It isn’t clear whether Homeland Security has the same problem with retaining drone operators as the military does. Drone operation is increasingly viewed as a dead-end job. If the programme is ineffective on the busy Mexican-American frontier, the drone patrols along the Canadian border must be particularly purposeless.
Israel as been somewhat circumspect with respect to its use of drones in a number of attacks on its neighbours, though most people know that drones have been a significant part of its armed forces. Israeli drone companies have bragged about their drones being ‘combat tested’, without specifying in exactly which combat.
This changed with Operation Protective Edge, the brutal and murderous campaign against Gaza in the summer of 2014. In Protective edge 2192 Palestinians died at the hands of Israeli attackers, 504 of them children. Since then there have been many official acknowledgements of drone use.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced that the Israeli military had been restructured to add more unmanned systems (drones). The Israel military has always been integrated with its arms industry, both supporting each other. After Protective Edge, the newspaper Ha’aretz reported that the ‘operation had offered the opportunity to showcase some of Israel’s technological advancements’. Ha’aetz reported that both Hermes 900 and Hermes 450 drones were used in Protective Edge.
Defense News reported Israeli commanders praising the Hermes 900 as an improvement over the Hermes 450. Though Hermes 450 and Hermes 900 drones are widely believed to be armed, Israeli commanders didn’t confirm that. They did, however, praise the smaller Skylark drones, which streamed target acquisition information to ‘a myriad of shooters on the ground’.
i-HLS has reported that both Hermes 900 and Hermes 450 drones were flown from Palmachim air base and were used round the clock in operations against Gaza. Hermes 900 also has a marine surveillance version that may be used in the ongoing campaign of harassment against Gaza fishermen.
Most of the drones (85%) used by the Israeli military are provided by Elbit Systems, according to IsraelDefense.