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“Extremely successful event” … “world firsts” … “unprecedented” … “ground-breaking”. It’s safe to say that, judging from the string of superlatives, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was pleased with Unmanned Warrior 16, last year’s demonstration of the potential for maritime autonomous systems to undertake military tasks. Unmanned Warrior took place off the west coast of Scotland as part of the Joint Warrior NATO naval training exercise which is hosted by the Royal Navy every autumn, and the post-event report for the activity has recently been published in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. But was the Unmanned Warrior demonstration really as innovative as the MoD would like to think it was?
Publicised as the biggest ever military exercise involving unmanned systems, Unmanned Warrior 16 brought together over 40 participants from industry, government, and academic organisations to demonstrate unmanned systems operating in the air, on the surface…
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Regular readers of the Drone Wars blog will be aware that in 2016 a US State department initiative led to a political declaration endorsed by 53 states on the export and use of armed drones. However as we detailed at time, this process had a number of problematic aspects, including the weakness and vagueness of the principles it articulated.
Work is now being undertaken by a group of states led by the US to draft more detailed politically binding international standards, building on the declaration. In this context, a group of civil society organisations have set out in an open statement, reproduced below, a range of concerns about the limitations of this initiative – given the harm caused by and risks around drone technology – and made a set of recommendations for the process.
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The development of international standards on the export and subsequent use of…
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(This is my first blog post after a couple of years of minimal activity. It is mostly an attempt to catch up on events during that period).
Project JUSTAS is the Joint Unmanned Surveillance and Target Acquisition System of the Canadian military. Translated: the programme of the Canadian military to acquire a medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone system to be used by all branches of the military. In the many years since Project JUSTAS was initiated in 2000 drone systems have changed a great deal, and dozens of countries (actually 126) have acquired drone systems from the big suppliers (generally Israel and the United States) or developed their own.
Project JUSTAS received a scathing audit in 2014, though it is hard to sort out the analysis written in much-redacted multi-syllabic bafflegab. As near as I can tell:
- The project is years behind shedule (It’s been going for 16 years with no results).
- One reason the project has floundered is that the military couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted and/or wanted so many features that no drone system could meet expectations.
- Another reason is that the drones industry provided inadequate information: either couldn’t figure out what the Canadian military wanted or couldn’t be bothered to provide the information needed (probably because they didn’t take the procurement plan seriously).
It isn’t clear whether the project suffered because the Harper government lowered its priority in its effort to create balanced budgets leading up to the 2015 federal election.
In 2015 Danny Garrett-Rempel produced a readable, mostly uncritical summary of Canadian drone development and acquisition.
In April 2016 the Canadian government issued a call for help in the much delayed drone programme, but the list of interested suppliers doesn’t tell us much about what sort of information it was seeking.
Until now drones used by Canada have been smaller surveillane drones or larger MALE drones leased from an Israeli company. Heron drones used in Afghanistan had only surveilance capabilities. But the ‘big boys’ use armed drones, and in 2016 Canada’s top general Jonathan Vance told the media that he wanted Canada to have armed drones, to strike targets like ISIS. This contradicted Liberal election policy which called for unarmed drones only. (Both are somewhat disingenuous as unarmed surveillance drones can be coupled to other weapons systems to make them capable of an attack, without the need for a weapon on the drone itself). Most of the drone uses Vance advanced were for domestic surveillance and do not need to be armed.
By June 2017 it appeared that the hawks in the defence ministry had won the armed drones argument as the Liberal government announced a defence policy that included the purchase of armed drones. Critics noted that the policy was unfunded, with no sign where the money would come from. However drones are relatively inexpensive compared to other weapons systems, and are often used to substitute for more expensive weapons systems for that reason, so it doesn’t seem likely that the estimated $1,000,000,000 cost will be an impediment. It remains to be seen whether the military can make up its mind, now that yet another criterion has be added to the list of requirements.
Defence reporter David Pugliese has noted that Canada may have trouble acquiring armed drones from the US (many in the military wanted to acquire US Predator drones) due to that country’s efforts to retain armed drone technology. But this blog has often noted to the willingness of Israeli drone companies to proliferate drone technology, combat tested on the unwilling residents of Gaza and the West Bank. So Canada will not remain unable to buy armed drone technology, if it decides what it wants.
Next topics: Who is trying to sell Canada drones?
Canada’s increased emphasis on ‘Special Ops’.
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 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.
It is completely predictable that Thales is touting its Watchkeeper drone for roles in `Homeland Security`. (Which essentially means population surveillance, and attacks on domestic dissidents).
Watchkeeper is being introduced three years late, after the UK Military Aviation Authority took extra time to certify the drone to fly in civilian airspace. Since the drone was unnecessary for military purposes, being less versatile than the cheaper and more flexible Predator family of drones, it was clear that the contractor and the government would try to find a new role for the costly new technology.
It is not the physical drone aircraft that is being touted, since the basic aircraft is similar to the Israeli Hermes 450 drone on which it is based, and to other medium altitude, long endurance drones. But, as reported by Anthony Osborne in Aviation Week, Thales believes that it could put the Watchkeeper guidance technology and certification into other aircraft, even the A400M military transport aircraft, just introduced by Airbus. This would make any aircraft into an unmanned air platform useful for many ‘homeland security’ missions. Thales clearly envisions a range of unmanned military and homeland security aircraft flying in civilian airspace, not just surveillance drones.
Approvals received within the last few days should make it possible for Thales and the military to soon achieve certification to operate the drones in Britain’s Salisbury Plains testing area, in the same airspace as manned flights. If they are lucky enough to operate in a mixed flying environment without too many crashes or mishaps (drones crash at an alarming rate), UK military drones may be operating in British of foreign skies in the near future. Political dissidents may soon have the experience of hearing the characteristic sound of drones above them at political demonstrations, just like the occupied people of the West Bank and Gaza.
Project Justas, the plan to acquire drones for Canada, is now in the ‘options and analysis’ phase.
JUSTAS stands for ‘Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System’. Which is a euphemism for ‘drone’, or ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’. The programme has been running for several years, and is slated to produce the acquisition of a medium altitude long endurance drone for Canada in 2014-2017.
The Canadian Defense Department as usual is keeping under wraps the planning for this drone programme, which is certain to result in a well spring of controversy when the decision to acquire a particular drone is presented to the Canadian public in the next couple of years.
The Canadian government would like to have a single operation centre contolling multiple UAV’s doing surveillance in Canada.
Not only will there be considerable controversy about the operational requirements of drones to be used domestically, but there will be controversy about the range of suppliers chosen. The Canadian government has shown a past bias toward Israeli suppliers. Most Israeli companies supplying drones have a history of participation in Israel’s ongoing illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestine. Furthermore, they have a history of proliferation of drone technology to unstable and possibly hostile governments, for example Russia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. At least one potential Israeli supplier is actively promoting drone sales to various countries in Latin America, which is certain to provoke more border incidents in a region that doesn’t need arms proliferation.