A report into Britain’s spending on military drones over the last five years reveals the most clear evidence yet that the future of warfare is unmanned and remote-controlled.
Figures calculated by Drone Wars UK reveal that since 2007 the UK has spent more than £2bn purchasing, developing and researching drones.
This means annual spending on drones would pay the wages of nearly 30,000 new entrants to the army. The same sum is double the cost of 14 new Chinook helicopters which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) ordered from Boeing last year.
The report, titled Shelling Out, estimates that £872m has been invested in five different unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) currently in service with British forces.
This includes the MQ-9 Reaper (pictured), known as the “hunter-killer” drone, which is built for long-endurance flights and can carry up to 14 Hellfire “tank-buster” air-to-surface missiles.
The RAF has five Reapers in operation via satellite from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada by RAF 39 Squadron. At the end of 2010, David Cameron announced the purchase of a further five Reapers and ground control stations at a cost of £135m.
These extra drones are due to be operational in Afghanistan by 2013, while RAF 13 Squadron has been reformed to operate as a second Reaper drone squadron and will reportedly “stand up” at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
I’m not sure about drones replacing armies, but I can certainly imagine a future where they replace most of the human-piloted military aircraft. Matt Bennett, SkyCircuits
Despite this investment in combat drones, the MoD says the main purpose of UAV development in the UK is for “surveillance and reconnaissance”.
An MoD spokesman told Channel 4 News: “All MoD procurement is subject to tough scrutiny and is dictated by delivering what our armed forces require.
“The main contribution of Remotely Piloted Air Systems in Afghanistan is surveillance and reconnaissance, providing vital intelligence to protect our troops.
“A very small proportion of remotely piloted aircraft operations involve the use of weapons and only Reaper is armed.
“On the rare occasions where Reaper’s weapons are used, the same strict rules are followed that govern the use of weapons on manned aircraft.”
Shelling Out’s author, Chris Cole, said: “At a time of tough spending cuts it cannot be right that the UK is pouring billions of pounds into developing new drones without proper parliamentary scrutiny or debate of the serious legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of this technology.”
The report claims that the UK has spent a further £1,031m on developing new drones such as the Watchkeeper UAV and BAE Systems Taranis drone.
And it estimates that Britain has funded £120m of research within universities and British defence companies looking at unmanned systems. This included £30m funding for the Astraea programme to open up UK civil airspace to autonomous drones.
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Dr Matt Bennett runs SkyCircuits, a British firm that designs autopilot and ground station systems for unmanned aircraft. He also helped set up a drone design course for students at Southampton University.
He told Channel 4 News: “I think the fact that the military were the some of the early-adopters of UAVs has painted a rather negative image of UAVs in many people’s minds.”
He added: “I’m not sure about drones replacing armies, but I can certainly imagine a future where they replace most of the human-piloted military aircraft.
“Being able to take human life support and restrictions out of a military aircraft has a number of performance and weight advantages, but in terms of a fully autonomous military aircraft I think it’ll be a long time, if ever, before we can code an autopilot to reason as well as a human pilot.”
Imran Khan, the former cricketer, is campaigning against drone attacks on suspected militants in Waziristan in tribal, mountainous Pakistan.
Describing the programme as a “violation of human rights”, he told Channel 4 News the attacks in fact risked “pushing people towards terrorism”.
Drone Wars UK, which is a research-led campaign group, is calling for a public debate on the UK’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) before further investment in the RAF’s Scavenger programme to develop next-generation armed drones by 2015.
Download the full report here: Shelling Out - UK spending on drones