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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.
Thales is stating that the delayed Watchkeeper drone will eventually be ready for deployment in Afghanistan in 2012. These high priced drones, based on the Israeli Hermes 450 drone, are still being tested and ‘flight’ crews trained.
Thales is also promoting an armed Watchkeeper type drone at the big London arms bazaar, DSEi. Thales makes missile capable of being used on Watchkeeper, though the UK has not committed itself to an armed Watchkeeper.
The UK has been renting Hermes 450 drones for use in Afghanistan. Given that the Hermes 450 drones, (which have been field tested by the Israelis in repressing their Palestinian population), seem to have performed adequately in Afghanistan, one wonders if the billion pound Watchkeeper will provide a billion pounds of value to British forces.
Thales, of France, says it has a number of Hermes 45o drones to sell or rent, after they come back from Afghanistan. Drones operated by Thales are used by the UK in Afghanistan, and will (in theory) be replaced by the delayed Watchkeeper drone. Hermes 450’s are produced by Elbit of Israel, and are managed by Thales probably because as an Israeli company Elbit would have difficulty operating in Afghanistan or Middle Eastern countries.
Shephard News points out that this may pose a problem for Thales, since flogging the used Hermes 450s from Afghanistan would put it in direct competition with its business partner Elbit, which is continuing to market Hermes 450 drones, as well as turn key factories for producing Hermes drones in other countries.
Watchkeeper was promoted as an exportable product for the UK, but a glut of used Hermes 450 drones would probably exacerbate the dim prospects for Watchkeeper as a UK export.
Israel has had a burgeoning arms industry. The three biggest Israeli arms companies IAI, Elbit Systems, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, had orders backlogs in 2010 of $16 billion. 100,000 Israelis work in an industry that sold $7.2 billion in arms in 2010.
The World Tribune online, reports that Midroog, the Israeli credit rating industry says that international trends present challenges for the Israeli arms industry. 70% of Israelis arm production is exported.
Moog worries that with the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that orders for Israeli arms will be dropped. And that the US is encouraging US arms companies to develop new markets, in competition with Israeli companies.
(This blog post will be expanded……)