Campaign against military drones

IssueMarch 2010
Feature by Jim Wright, Chris Cole

As we saw in the last issue, drones are the hot new weapons of the 21st century. While drones have been around for decades, mostly as small, short-range and unreliable surveillance planes, a convergence of technological factors in the last decade have taken them to the forefront of the arms race.

With the rapid emergence of sophisticated drones in the last few years, Britain was caught flat-footed without a capable domestic drone system. The response was two-fold. Firstly, Britain bought US Predator drones and rented Israeli drones for use in Britain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secondly, the government poured resources into expanding the domestic drones industry.

Home-grown drones

While there are many British companies undertaking research and development work in this area, there are two major domestic programmes: the Watchkeeper system for surveillance, and two separate BAE armed drones. Watchkeeper developed out of a contract awarded to UtacS, a consortium of Elbit Systems of Israel, and Thales UK, to adapt Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone into a domestic UK surveillance drone. Watchkeeper is now undergoing final testing in Wales, to be ready in early 2010 (see below for more details).

BAE Systems are developing and testing two armed drones; Taranis and Mantis. Mantis will probably be armed with four Paveway 500lb laser-guided bombs and two Brimstone anti-tank missiles. Mantis flew succesfully for the first time in November 2009. It’s designed to fly as autonomously as possible to “reduce the risk of accidents due to human error”. Taranis has grown out of a four-year, £124m MoD programme called Project Morrigan, and is undergoing development at BAE’s factory in Warton.

The challenge

Drones, even unarmed versions, enhance the capacity to carry out extra-judicial assassinations. Small, manoeuvrable and unmanned, drones can go where no soldier could go. They can operate unseen, unheard and often unidentified. No assassin risks their life when a drone is used. Either by marking locations or by directly attacking targets, drones have revolutionised assassination.

Israel has used drones to assassinate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and the US has used them in Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan.

Who determines who gets assassinated? Who is accountable for the hundreds of non-combatants killed by drones? Who keeps records of the attacks made by machines that can barely be detected? Drones are going to proliferate as the newest addition to the arms race, a relatively cheap technology available even to small countries. Many drone companies operate low-cost turn-key drone rental programmes, even providing or training operators if required. Georgia used Israeli drones recently in its dangerous conflict with Russia.


With their covert capacity and ability to stay in the air for many hours at little cost, drones are ideal for domestic surveillance. With peaceful protest now often rebranded as “domestic extremism”, it is easy to see why this development represents a threat to democracy.

The Guardian recently reported that British police wanted to use drones for routine monitoring of “antisocial motorists, protesters, agricultural thieves, and fly-tippers”.

Already Essex authorities are negotiating for drones to carry out police work. Merseyside police have been illegally using a small drone for months, and it is believed that the UK government wishes to use drones for surveillance during the Olympics. Civil aviation regulations, which currently forbid use of drones in civilian areas, are being changed.

Future drones may be armed with Tasers and other “non-lethal” weapons for crowd control, including small remotely controlled helicopters that can herd crowds.

The Israeli connection

Even as it was admonishing Israel over its attack on Gaza in January 2009, Britain was in the final stages of a contract to purchase £850m of Israeli drone technology under the Watchkeeper program. Based on the Hermes 450 drone, battle-tested in the West Bank and Gaza, the Watchkeeper already has a long association with death and repression in Palestine.

The source of Watchkeeper technology, Elbit Systems, is a major Israeli arms company, selling arms to many countries around the world. The money spent by the UK goes not only to supporting the Israeli military economy, it goes toward the research and development of new weapons. Leaders in the Israeli arms industry are recycled back and forth between the Israeli military and the Israeli government. Elbit Systems has become a target of the pro-Palestinian BDS (“boycott, divestment, sanctions”) movement, not only because of the use of its Hermes drones in action over the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza, but because its subsidiaries provide security equipment for the separation wall and for illegal West Bank settlements.

New hazards

In September 2009, the Watchkeeper drone was test flown at Parc Aberporth, in Wales. One of the purposes of the flight was to help to help clear the way for large drones to use civilian air space. However sophisticated the technology, the use of unmanned aircraft in civilian airspace poses an increased hazard to people on the ground. Both government and the arms industry are rushing to have UAVs (“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”) certified safe for civil airspace to capture the huge market in remote sensing and civil surveillance.

Grounding the drones

It may be too late to stop the UK Watchkeeper contract, but it’s not too late to ask your MP why the UK has relations with Elbit, a company so linked to the repression of Palestinians. We can also support the BDS campaign against Elbit. We can also support BEPJ (Bro Emlyn for Peace and Justice), the local peace group which monitors Parc Aberporth in west Wales, the Welsh government-sponsored site where many drone models are tested.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation continues to investigate Britain’s use of armed drones. Through a Freedom of Information Act request we have discovered that UK drones have been used in 84 attacks over the past 18 months. We have appealed against a refusal by the MoD to disclose other information about Britain’s drones.