Britain, Israel and drones

A British-Israeli Watchkeeper drone pictured during flight trials at Parc Aberporth in West Wales. Photograph: Ministry of Defence 

In the wake of the Israeli onslaught in Gaza, a dispute has broken out at the top of Britain's coalition government. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, wants a suspension of arms sales to Israel, at least temporarily, while officials check for any items that could be used for repression. David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, on the other hand, is resisting.

An article in the Financial Times discusses some of the political arguments behind this, including the possible influence of George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Michael Gove, the former education minister – both of whom are regarded as strong supporters of Israel.

By the standards of the modern arms trade, Britain's sales to Israel are tiny, amounting to only £42 million since 2010, so halting them would not in itself have much economic impact. It would, however, be an important gesture, signalling that Britain does not wish to be seen as complicit in Israeli atrocities. Suspending arms sales is also something that Britain has done from time to time in the past, even when Margaret Thatcher was in power.

Although the Iron Lady was regarded as a "steadfast friend" of Israel, she had no qualms about getting tough with the Israeli government when she considered it necessary (see articles in Haaretz and the Jewish Chronicle).

So how can we account for Cameron's attitude now? One possible explanation is that halting arms sales to Israel could hit Britain's own military supplies. For example, according to Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer, a significant portion of the UK's arms exports to Israel are components for equipment that the UK will then buy back.

But perhaps the most important factor is that halting arms sales to Israel could jeopardise British-Israeli cooperation in one of the fastest-growing fields of weapons technology – drones.

Israel has carved out a central role in the drones industry worldwide. Earlier this year, a report by Drone Wars UK said:

"According to the SIPRI arms transfers database Israel has exported unmanned drone technology to 24 out of the 76 countries known to have some form of military drone capability. However we believe that this is a serious under-calculation with our research showing that at least fifty countries have received drones or drone technology from Israel. 

"The reality is that if you scratch any military drone ... you will likely find Israeli technology underneath."

British taxpayers have forked out more than £2 billion on drone technology over the last seven years. Suppliers include the US and Norway but around half the spending has gone on contracts linked to an Israeli company, Elbit Systems.

Britain's drone partnership with Israel seems to have arisen because of problems with the Phoenix, a British-built drone which became known in military circles as the "Bugger Off" because of its propensity for not returning to base at the end of its missions. In fact, it was such a disaster that it became worthy of academic study. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism noted

"The Open University uses this particular 'dismal failure of a British-built drone' as an example of what not to do for its systems engineering students. Phoenix cost the taxpayer £345m and left service seven years early, in 2006."

Drone Wars UK continues the story:

"In July 2005 the UK government announced that it was placing an £800m contract with Israel for the development of a new unmanned drone. 'Watchkeeper' was to be a new British drone to provide surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting for the British Army’s artillery regiment. 

"Although the Watchkeeper is currently unarmed, Thales had presented 'a version of the Watchkeeper drone' armed with missiles at various global exhibitions and the Jerusalem Post reported that Thales suspended a Watchkeeper UAV from the ceiling at the DSEI Arms Fair in London in 2011, armed with two missiles hanging from its wings.

"Watchkeeper is based on Israel's Hermes 450 drone and is being built by U-TacS Limited, a joint venture company owned by Israel’s Elbit Systems and Thales UK. U-TacS had 110 British employees and 'a few Israelis' in December 2012. Elbit Systems is a privately owned Israeli company and holds 51% of U-TacS shares.

"The engines for Watchkeeper are being provided by UAV Engines of Shenstone, outside Birmingham, a wholly owned subsidiary of Elbit Systems. The Guardian reported that twenty-seven aircraft had been delivered by Thales UK by May 2013."

This was not accomplished without a few political problems. Early on in the programme, the US became reluctant to supply an innovative "electro-expulsive de-icing system" for Watchkeeper because of fears that it could fall into the wrong hands. 

According to one report, the US Defence Department was not concerned about supplying the technology to Britain but was worried about Israel's involvement in the company manufacturing Watchkeeper:

"Officials said they were unwilling to grant a licence that would potentially open the door to the technology being exported to Israel. Despite the USA’s close relationship with Israel in recent years the DoD [Department of Defense] has become careful in deciding what technology should be transferred to its ally worrying that in some cases that technology may be re-exported to other less friendly nations, such as China."

In 2008, the British government was alarmed to discover that the first Watchkeeper test flights were due to be carried out over Syrian territory, on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. After complaints from the Foreign Office, Israel then agreed to hold the test flights within its 1967 boundaries.

Drone Wars UK continues:

"The first ten Watchkeeper drones were built in Israel with the production then switching to a purpose built facility at the Thales factory in Leicester. In April 2010 the first test flights of Watchkeeper took place at the Parc Aberporth UAV Centre in West Wales.

"In June 2007 British forces began using leased Israeli Hermes 450 drones in Iraq and then Afghanistan as a stop-gap measure until Watchkeeper was ready to enter service. Under an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) the UK rents a number of the Israeli drones in an innovative 'pay by the hour' basis through Thales and Elbit Systems. Thales announced in December 2012 that the UK-hired Hermes 450 drones had flown over 70,000 hours in Afghanistan adding that 'this is more than all the other UAVs employed by other member states of the multinational force (other than the US).' 

"... In March 2012 the British government admitted in a written parliamentary answer that it had no idea when the Watchkeeper would be ready to enter service. According to the MoD the delays were because the Watchkeeper drone was 'trying to secure all the necessary airworthiness certification to fly in both a civil and a military environment' ...

"At the time of writing test flights of the Watchkeeper continue to take place at Parc Aberporth in West Wales. Residents living around Parc Aberporth in Wales complain about the noise, and they fear for their safety after the instigation of night flights in 2012. In October 2013 Watchkeeper gained a Statement of Type Design Assurance (STDA) from the UK Military Aviation Authority (MAA) but does not have a full Release to Service (RTS). 

"With the planned drawdown of British forces at the end of 2014, it is questionable whether the system will actually be deployed to Afghanistan, the purpose for which it was procured at a cost of £831 million."

Drone-testing site: the West Wales UAV Centre 

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 11 August 2014