Reply to comment

Campaign of the Month: Resisting the Rise of the Drones

For anyone with even just a passing interest in the military, it will have been hard to miss the recent rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) commonly known as drones. Over the past year, the Fellowship of Reconciliation England (FoR) and others have been working together to research and raise awareness of armed drones by the military, primarily the US, Israel and the UK.
Drones are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or increasingly, autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. While there are dozens of different types of drones, from small ‘micro-drones’ that weight just a couple of kilos to large fully-armed passenger aircraft sized drones, they basically fall into two basic categories: those that are just used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes and those that are also armed with missiles and bombs. The use of drones has grown quickly in recent years because unlike manned aircraft they can stay aloft for many hours (Zephyr, a British drone under development by QinetiQ has just broken the world record by flying nonstop for two weeks); they are much cheaper than military aircraft; and they are flown remotely from a few kilometres or via military satellite, thousands of kilometres away so there is no danger to the flight crew.

Grim Reaper

The main armed drones in use by British and American forces are the Predator and Reaper drones manufactured by General Atomics in the US. While the British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from Nellis and Creech USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch the drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens in specially designed trailers in the Nevada desert. One person ‘flies’ the drone, another operates and monitors the cameras and sensors, while a third person is in contact with the “customers”, ground troops and commanders in the war zone. While armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the CIA’s undeclared war in Pakistan.

Developing British Drones

While the UK currently operates the Reaper armed drone in Afghanistan, it is keen to develop its own ‘sovereign’ drones. BAE Systems are currently developing two main drones: Mantis and Taranis. Mantis was initially funded just by BAE but since July 2008, it has been jointly funded by BAE and the Ministry of Defence. Mantis is different than Reaper in that it has been designed to be much more autonomous. It is currently awaiting the outcome of the Strategic Defence and Security Review and there is speculation that the project could be merged with a French drone called Neuron. Taranis is at a much earlier stage of development. It was unveiled to journalists in July 2010. It is designed to be stealthy – low visibility to radar and its weapons will be carried internally - its also powered by jet engine which Reaper and the other BAE uavs are not.
As well as armed drones, the UK has several types of surveillance drones, most notably Watchkeeper, a drone jointly being produced by UtacS , a company jointly owned by Israeli company Ebit and Thales UK. The UK is purchasing 54 Watchkeeper drones and ground stations at a cost of £860m. The first ten will be built in Israel and then production will transfer to a specially built facility in Leicester. Testing is currently taking place at Aberporth in Wales and Watchkeeper is due to enter service in 2011.

Opposition grows

As the full extent of the development and use of drones has emerged, so too has opposition. In Pakistan, anger at the CIA’s use of drones for targeted assassination has led to large scale demonstrations and protests. In the US demonstrations against the manufacture of drones by General Atomics has been organised by CODEPINK including a protest at the home of James Neal Blue (who along with his brother, Linden Blue bought GA from Chevron Oil of $60m in 1986).
Protests at the ‘home of the drone’ Creech Air Force Base in Nevada led to 14 activists recently being tried for Criminal Trespass. Unexpectedly, the judge in the case has decided to take 3-4 months to consider the issues involved in the case and a verdict is expected in January 2011.
In a similar way that Scotland has led opposition to Trident, Wales has begun to take the lead in opposing the testing and development of drones with protests at Parc Aberporth, the testing ground for the new joint Israeli-British Watchkeeper drone led by Bro Emlyn for Peace and Justice and Fellowship of Reconciliation , Wales.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) has concentrated on raising awareness about the use of armed drones amongst the public and has played a co-ordinating role in bringing campaigners, academics and researchers together to build opposition. In September FoR published an excellent briefing on armed drones ‘Convenient Killing: Armed Drones and the ‘Playstation’ Mentality’ and organised a very successful conference on armed drones in central London (see report elsewhere]. In addition FoR has also challenged the secrecy surrounding the use of armed drones by British forces and is appealing a point blank refusal by the British Ministry of Defence to release any details about the use of British drones in Afghanistan with the Information Commissioner.
Since stepping down as Director of FoR, I continue to research and publish information about the use of drones through the Drone Wars UK blog and have a particular interest in researching and challenging the use of the Skynet military satellite system, through which the UK military controls their armed drones. Skynet is not owned by the Ministry of Defence, but by a private company called Paradigm Secure Communications. In 2003 the Ministry of Defence signed a £3.6bn deal with Paradigm Secure Communication for provision of all worldwide satellite communications services to UK Armed Forces up to 2020. This Private Finance Initiative (PFI), one of the most expensive ever signed by the MoD, is paid for in part by selling spare bandwidth to other military forces (for more details see ‘Skynet 5: Connecting the Drones’).

If you are concerned about the growing use of drones, do get in touch.

Chris Cole is former Director of Fellowship of Reconciliation and maintains the Drone Wars UK blog.

For more information:


War Resisters' International is currently in maintenance. During this maintenance it is not possible to add or edit content (like comments and pages).