Typhoons scrambled against two Russian Blackjack bombers

RAF Typhoon Tu-160 BlackjackThe British newspaper The Independent has reported that the Typhoon FGR.4s were scrambled as the two bombers came in to Britain’s area-of-interest over the North Sea. The aircraft had already been tracked by NATO radar stations before that responsibility was handed over to the RAF at around 1000hrs.

The Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack” strategic bombers are reported to have flown between the Shetland and Faroe islands before transiting down the west coast of Ireland and over the Bay of Biscay. Continuing south, the responsibility for tracking the two Russian bombers then passed to the French and then the Spanish before they turned north back towards the UK as they headed for home.

An RAF Voyager tanker supported the Typhoons as they tracked the Russian planes. An RAF spokesperson was quoted as saying:

We can confirm that quick reaction alert Typhoon aircraft from RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby scrambled to monitor two Blackjack bombers while they were in the UK area of interest. At no point did the Russian aircraft enter UK territorial airspace.



Avro Lancaster PA474 KC-A “Thumper” of the BBMF

A collection of images of Avro Lancaster PA474 KC-A “Thumper” of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight taken at RAF Coningsby in July 2016. The RAF BBMF Lancaster is currently painted to represent an aircraft which served with No.617 Squadron after the famous Dams Raid.

All photos kindly contributed to Defence of the Realm by Jim Knowles.

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If you have photographs or articles you wish to contribute to Defence of the Realm than you can email them to defencerealmyt@gmail.com. If successful you will of course be given full credit for your contribution and can even promote your own website/blog/social media account.

£100k fines for “silent” airliners that cause RAF Typhoons to launch

Typhoon FGR.4 RAF

Airlines could face hefty financial penalties by the Department of Transport if one of their airliners fails to identify itself to ground controllers causing the Royal Air Force to launch Typhoon interceptors. A report published in The Times states the fine could be as high as £100,000 in order to deter such activity which happens with alarming regularity.

In the last year, the RAF has had to launch Typhoon fighters at least twice a month to investigate so-called “silent” airliners. As well as being an expensive nuisance, the fact the RAF aircraft are heavily armed and that the MoD is constantly faced with having to address the potential for terrorism adds a dangerous element to the situation.

It’s not just airlines that are guilty of failing to adhere to proper flight regulations however. Private pilots have been just as problematic for air traffic controllers when it comes to adequately identifying themselves. Earlier this year two Typhoons raced at supersonic speeds across central England and Wales to intercept a private business jet which failed to respond to radio calls and appeared to be heading out over the Irish Sea without clearance.

The Department of Transport currently imposes a £5,000 fine for airlines and pilots guilty of such acts but this has failed to be an adequate deterrence hence the plans for such a dramatic increase.


Northern Ireland air cadets building aircraft for RAF centenary

17 squadrons of the Northern Ireland Wing of the Air Training Corps are undertaking an extraordinary project – to build a Sting S4 light aircraft in time for the 2018 Farnborough Air Show. 2018 will also mark 100 years of the Royal Air Force which was formed on April 1st 1918. The project is being supported by Boeing which itself is celebrating 100 years of being in the aviation business. Sir Michael Arthur, the president of Boeing Europe and managing director of Boeing UK told the Telegraph;

It is fitting that on the day of Boeing’s centenary when we are looking ahead to the next 100 years of aerospace innovation, we announced this new educational programme to benefit ATC cadets in Northern Ireland. These young men and women are the future of our industry and I could not be more proud that we can support this engaging, hands-on STEM initiative.

The Air Training Corps (ATC) has helped foster an interest in the RAF and aviation at large in young people for 75 years. It was preceded by the Air Defence Cadet Corps which was formed in 1938 before the issue of a Royal Warrant in 1941 established the Air Training Corps as it is today. In 2015 the Duchess of Cambridge assumed the title of Honorary Air Commandant of the Air Training Corps and at present there are around 1,009 squadrons within the organisation.

The aircraft the cadets are building, the Sting S4, is a single-engine, two-seat ultralight aircraft designed in the Czech Republic which first flew in 2010 and has been delivered to the cadets in kit form. The cadet’s assembly of the aircraft will be mentored by volunteers from Boeing and the Ulster Aviation Society.

Army Air Corps Gazelles to soldier on through 50 years of service

Aerospatiale Westland Gazelle AH1 Helicopter British Army Air Corps

The Army Air Corps’ venerable Gazelle AH.1 is to be the subject of a life extension program that will see its out-of-service date pushed back from 2018 to 2025 which in doing so means the aircraft will have seen 50 years of service with the British armed forces. According to IHS Janes, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that they will be publishing details of a competition for a contract to support the aircraft until the new planned out-of-service date.

The winning bidder will have their contract come in to effect in 2018 when the current contracts with Cobham Aviation Services, Airbus Helicopters, Safran helicopters and Leonardo Helicopters finish. The winning bidder will likely have to encompass as much of the work carried out by these companies as possible in an effort to streamline the support infrastructure for the ageing aircraft.

The Gazelle can trace its roots back to the Aérospatiale Alouette III light helicopter, one of the most successful helicopter designs of all time. The Gazelle was intended as its replacement and the British Army became interested in it as a replacement for the American-built Sioux helicopters in the observation and light utility roles. British Gazelles were produced by Westland helicopters and they went on to serve in a variety of roles not just with the Army but with the RAF, Royal Navy and Royal Marines as well although only the Army continues to fly it. The aircraft first entered Army service in 1974.

Since no replacement for the type has yet been suggested it is likely that when these aircraft do finally bow-out gracefully they will be replaced in their observation role by UAVs. At present there are still restrictions on UAVs flying in UK airspace but these are expected to be lifted or relaxed in the coming years allowing the Army more freedom to fly drones in UK airspace.

30 Minutes Over Berlin With Guy Gibson

During the interwar years there was much discussion about the psychology of war and how the morale of the people could affect a conflict’s outcome regardless of the tactical situation on the battlefield. The Great War had shown this to good effect with the Russian Empire collapsing under the weight of a disheartened people coupled with the strains of war. The revolutions of 1917, while already being seeded long before the outbreak of war in 1914, was fuelled by the Russian’s inability to defeat German and Austro-Hungarian forces thus creating a useful distraction for the Marxists. The chaos in Russia itself saw the Russian Army retreating from the war and the Germans achieving what was effectively victory in the east.

This fact was not lost on British planners during the interwar years, particularly those who tried to envision the role of air power in the next global conflict. Much was written about how the damaging of a nation’s morale through the systematic destruction of large population centres could both crush the will to resist further and inspire dissent against the hostile nation’s government. This would destroy the enemy’s social infrastructure as well as his technical infrastructure and thus the country would be unable to function.

By the same token, it was important to keep one’s own people informed of what their armed forces were doing to destroy the enemy and win the war. The spirit of getting behind the boys at the front and not wanting to let them down at home was a vital resource to be tapped to keep up war production and the gelling of the nation towards the common goal of survival.

This was where the war correspondent came in.

For the majority of the nation the war correspondent was the only view of how the fight was progressing as they reported from the frontlines. Historically, war correspondents had often been serving officers or government officials who were assigned the role of spin doctor to put a positive twist on the truth at the front in order to keep up the morale of the people even if that meant lying. The Great War would see the pinnacle of this form of propaganda with stories of glorious actions written by respected authors such as Rudyard Kipling overshadowing the true tales of horror that returning soldiers from the front told at the local pub. The demilitarization of war correspondents and the increasing number of genuine journalists at the front did much to alleviate the growing cynicism towards the earlier let’s-go-get’em style of reporting which itself was proving counterproductive.

Richard DimblebyOne of the most influential of these new breed of war correspondents was Richard Dimbleby of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Born Frederick Richard Dimbleby in 1913, he was himself the son of a journalist and when his education was complete he went to work in the family owned Richmond and Twickenham Times before joining the BBC in 1936 as a radio broadcaster. In 1939 he was selected to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as they crossed to France and in doing so earned himself the accolade of being the BBC’s first war correspondent and he would more than live up to it.

Over the next six years, Dimbleby’s words would be broadcast in to every home in Britain and beyond that had a radio, narrating some of the most pivotal and often the darkest moments in the country’s history. From the first days of fighting on the western front when Hitler’s troops bypassed the Maginot Line to the evacuation of the BEF from the Normandy beaches to the battle of El Alamein, Dimbleby’s voice told the story of the fight against Nazi Germany’s lust for conquest but one feeling prevailed throughout the world during these broadcasts; Britain was on the defensive. The Army was fighting to stop Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Egypt while the Royal Navy was waging a bitter war against Dönitz’s U-boats in the North Atlantic that were close to starving Britain in to submission.

Only one force seemed to be waging a truly offensive war against Nazi Germany; RAF Bomber Command.

The fleets of aircraft and their international crews sourced from all over the Commonwealth that made up RAF Bomber Command had the potential to strike at the very heart of Germany and directly affect the country’s ability to wage war. Knowing that the RAF’s bombers were pounding Germany night after night inspired the British people in to the belief that not only was Hitler getting a bloody nose but that victory was still possible despite the sometimes dire situation the country found itself in during the early years. As long as the bombers kept going over to Europe with their deadly loads then Britain and indeed the free world itself was still in the fight.

And the grand prize of them all was Berlin.

British bombers first visited Berlin on August 25th 1940 in retaliation for Luftwaffe bombers engaged in the Battle of Britain accidentally bombing London. The target was Tempelhoff aerodrome but while the damage was light the psychological effect on Germany and Hitler was immense. The Nazis had promised that no bomb would ever fall on the capital city and now that promise was in tatters. After more visits by RAF bombers, Hitler pushed back and directed his bomber fleets away from RAF bases to retaliate against London. In doing so, the RAF was spared destruction in the Battle of Britain and as a result it became impractical for Germany to attempt an invasion.

LMF Hampden

Through 1941, Bomber Command visited Berlin time and time again but while they did wonders for the morale of the British people the raids themselves achieved little in strategic terms. Bomber Command’s aircraft such as the Vickers Wellington, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley and the Handley-Page Hampden (Above) barely had the range to reach Berlin and carried warloads too light to seriously damage the city enough to produce the desired results. If that wasn’t bad enough, navigation was a major obstacle in the early years since there were few accurate ways to navigate at night over such long distances. This, of course, was to say nothing of German defences comprising of anti-aircraft fire and radar-directed nightfighters.

As 1941 dragged on the men of RAF Bomber Command were suffering badly while trying to deliver the expected knock-out blow against the Nazi capital. Anti-aircraft fire was so dense in some places that the concentration of exploding shells created shockwaves that literally shook aircraft to pieces. Coming under increasing pressure from Whitehall, the head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Marshall Richard Peirse, ordered one of the largest raids against Berlin on the night of November 7th/8th 1941 involving 160 aircraft. By this time the crews of Bomber Command, bloodied and tired, felt an overwhelming sense of dread and despair over the news that they would be returning to Berlin. It was felt to such a degree that there were a handful of cases where crews refused to fly the mission regardless of the consequences. Nevertheless, the mission went ahead and once again Bomber Command would pay a high price. Over 12% of the total force was lost to anti-aircraft fire and nightfighters. These losses coupled with poor results saw Peirse relieved of his position and replaced by the man most associated with Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris – “Bomber Harris”.

Harris believed wholeheartedly that air power alone could smash the German infrastructure and above all the will to fight. The poor results thus far shown by Bomber Command, he attributed to inadequate equipment and the chaining of his force to attacking targets to support the Army and Royal Navy. After the disaster in November 1941, Bomber Command stopped hitting Berlin and found itself primarily trying to knock FM213 Lady Orchid, Avro Lancaster KB895 WL-O VR-A Quinte Trentonout U-Boat production and supporting facilities to ease the pressure on the Atlantic convoys. While important work, Harris wanted his men to return to the German capital and to take with them their latest four engined heavies – Short Stirling, Handley-Page Halifax and of course the superlative Avro Lancaster (Right). The change of direction for Bomber Command in 1942 did at least offer Harris the chance to sufficiently build up his forces ready to hit Berlin again and with greater devastation than ever before. In January 1943, Harris was finally granted permission to send his bomber fleets back to Berlin. It would be the first mission to the capital since the disaster of November 1941 and was intended to show the Germans (and indeed the people at home) that the tide had truly turned against the Nazis.

Eager to exploit the morale value of the operation it was decided that a journalist should go along as an observer to report on the operation and the ideal man for the job was Richard Dimbleby who by now had experienced as much if not more combat than most frontline servicemen. It shouldn’t be underestimated how dangerous an assignment like this was for a journalist. In the air they were at as much risk as the airmen themselves since flak and nightfighters didn’t discriminate. If proof of this were needed, then it can be found on the night of December 2nd/3rd 1943 when two journalists were killed flying in separate aircraft on the same mission over Europe.

Guy Gibson Wing Commander DambustersDimbleby was assigned to join No.106 Squadron of Bomber Command based at RAF Syerston in Nottinghamshire and equipped with the handsome-looking Avro Lancaster. While some commanding officers may have bawked at the idea of having to take a journalist along with them on an operational sortie, Dimbleby found 106’s commander to be quite enthusiastic about it hoping it would show what life was really like for the bomber crews. He was Wing Commander Guy Gibson who will forever be associated with the great Dambusters raid that would take place four months later in May 1943.

Even before he became a household name, Gibson had developed a fine reputation in the RAF as a competent leader and experienced combat pilot. In January 1943 he was serving out his third tour of operational flying having previously conducted a tour with No.83 Squadron flying Handley-Page Hampdens at the start of the war and then flying another tour with Fighter Command flying Bristol Blenheim and Beaufighter nightfighters scoring three confirmed kills on Luftwaffe bombers and a number of probables or damaged. Dimbleby was therefore in quite capable hands.

Briefings and pre-flight checks complete, Dimbleby settled in to the cramped cabin of the Avro Lancaster (although no doubt some of the older crewmembers would have pointed Lancaster_wireless_operator_WWII_IWM_CH_8790out how “luxurious” the Lanc’ was compared to the earlier aircraft) with the rest of the crew as Gibson taxied the Lancaster out. Dimbleby records that the Lancaster’s wheels left the tarmac at 1630hrs on January 16th 1943 and set off for the dark, wintery skies of occupied Europe. Dimbleby must have felt somewhat out of place amongst the well trained and experienced six-man crew who went about their duties in an almost robotic fashion but he would forever afterwards comment on their professionalism and declare that he was proud to have flown with them. The journey out proved almost mundane with very little activity but knowing that Berlin was the target ahead hung in the thoughts of all onboard especially Dimbleby for whom it was his first mission.

As they neared Berlin, the capital’s defences began to spring to life. From here on, Dimbleby took to recording the events as they happened ready for broadcast the next day. He also took a small video camera with him to record the events. In his own words Dimbleby described what he saw;

There was a complete ring of powerful searchlights, waving and crossing. Though it seemed to me that when many of our bombers were over the city, many of our lights were doused.   

Dimbleby is referring to the use of target indicator flares being used by the RAF to mark the target. Pathfinders flew ahead of the main force deploying these flares for the follow-up bomber force. Many of the bravest citizens of Berlin would rush out to try and put out the burning markers in an effort to save their city from destruction.

It was then that Dimbleby experienced what it was like to fly through anti-aircraft fire.

There was also intense flak. At first they didn’t seem to be aiming at us. It was bursting away to starboard and port in thick yellow clusters and dark smoky puffs. As we turned in for our first run across the city it closed right around us. For a moment it seemed impossible that we could miss it. And one burst lifted us in the air as if a giant hand had pushed up the belly of the machine.

Over Berlin, each bomber searched for their markers and began to unleash their loads. According to a declassified dispatch sent to Stalin by Churchill the next day regarding the raid, the RAF dropped 142 tons of high explosive bombs and 218 tons of incendiaries on the Nazi capital. Dimbleby, in Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s Lancaster had a front row seat to the devastating spectacle.

Just then another Lancaster dropped a load of incendiaries. And where before there had been a dark patch of the city, a dazzling silver pattern spread itself. A rectangle of brilliant lights, hundreds, thousands of them, winking and gleaming and lighting the outlines of the city…Score after score of these firebombs went down and all over the dark face of the German capital these great incandescent flowerbeds spread themselves. It was a fascinating sight…At last our bomb-aimer sighted his objective below and for one unpleasant minute we flew steady and straight. Then he pressed a button and the biggest bomb of the evening, our three-and-a-half tonner, fell away and down. I didn’t see it burst but I know what a giant bomb does.

Known as a “cookie” bomb to the crews, the weapon Dimbleby is referring to was one of a RAF Lancaster Avro Cookie bombs bombernumber of large conventional bombs carried by RAF bombers. Weighing 8,000lbs, the Lancaster was one of the only aircraft capable of carrying such a heavy weapon without major modifications and it was often carried in conjunction with the much smaller incendiary devices (left). Together, this weapon configuration gave a single Lancaster the capability to destroy a typically sized Berlin street. To give an idea of just how far Bomber Command had come in just three years, the 8,000lb “cookie” alone weighed twice the maximum bombload of the Handley-Page Hampden twin-engine bomber that was one of the types that took the service to war.

I couldn’t help wondering whether anywhere in [the “cookie’s”] area of devastation such a man as Hitler, Goering or Himmler or Goebbels might be cowering in a shelter. It was engrossing to realise that the Nazi leadership and their ministries were only a few feet from us. And that this shimmering mass of flares and bombs and gun flashes was their stronghold.

The last words of his narration must have reaffirmed the British people’s belief in the need to strike hard at the German capital and the other cities of Germany. Harris frequently spoke on newsreels and the radio about the necessity to wipe out the cities and in doing so crush the enemy’s ability, and of course the will, to continue the fight. There was also a certain feeling of satisfaction in British cities that had suffered under German bombardment that now it was their turn.

Dresden destroyed.jpgThose opinions would change dramatically near the end of the conflict when the true horror of Bomber Command’s war became apparent to the world. Newsreel footage of the almost annihilated German cities of Dresden, Cologne and Berlin showed that allied bombing had inflicted atrocious devastation and casualties which resulted in public opinion swinging far against Harris and his men. Bomber Command enjoyed enormous prestige and respect in the darkest days of 1940 to 1944 only to end the war as something of an ugly, almost scandalous, truth that many in British politics wanted to sweep under the carpet as quickly as possible.

Regardless of the leadership decisions in the RAF and Whitehall that sent them there, Dimbleby’s description of Gibson’s crew and by association the crews of Bomber Command as a whole during the mission reflects their bravery and dedication to their duty.

I understand their hardship now. And I am proud to have seen the stars with them.

Both Dimbleby and Gibson would find their place in the history books albeit for different reasons. Dimbleby would fly another nineteen missions with Bomber Command before the war’s end. After the war he became a famed and almost revolutionary broadcaster helping to perfect the art of live broadcasts after the war often in unusual conditions including one notable time when he recorded a program for the BBC in a deep sea diving suit! Dimbleby would also be one of the presenters to launch the long running BBC current affairs television program, Panorama. He passed away in 1965 from cancer but left an enormous legacy in British journalism.

Guy Gibson would of course become almost inseparable from his leadership of No.617 Squadron during the Dambusters operation which overshadows his already excellent career. Sadly, on September 19th 1944 he would be lost in De Havilland Mosquito B.XX KB267 over the Netherlands. The exact circumstances surrounding his death remain the source of some debate but his loss was felt deeply by the British people including Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Both Dimbleby and Gibson excelled in their respective fields and used their talents when their country needed them most. While many know of them individually, few realise that for one night in the war the two of them flew together on a mission over one of the most heavily defended targets in the world and the very heart of the Nazi machine.

Important Source: the transcript for Dimbleby’s broadcast can be found in Patrick Bishop’s excellent book “Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-45”


Should drones be allowed to carry out missions on their own?

Somewhere in the skies over Tajikistan, four of the most sophisticated US warplanes ever built are on a mission of the upmost importance; a warlord has captured some nuclear warheads and they need to be destroyed. Three of the planes are manned but one of them is an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle or UCAV; a drone! However, the pilots soon realise that if they do indeed attack then radioactive dust particles thrown in to the air from the explosion will rain down on a nearby village and then across the border in to Pakistan. The mission is scrubbed and the planes turn back to their aircraft carrier.

But the UCAV refuses the order and decides the mission is too important to be abandoned.

Going against its instructions the UCAV attacks the target thus destroying the warlord’s nuclear weapons but also irradiating hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not finished yet however and decides to attack another target. This time in Russia…

RAF Reaper drone UAV

An RAF Reaper Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) (www.raf.mod.uk)

So goes the story in the 2005 action and science-fiction movie, Stealth. The film was a box office flop that was dismissed by critics but to many military observers around the world it did raise a question that had been largely dismissed except of course in science-fiction. Could we really develop weapon systems that can in-theory identify and attack a target without any human intervention and if so, should we?

The answer to the first question is undeniably, yes. The most cutting edge combat aircraft such as the US Army’s AH-64E Guardian attack helicopter or the RAF’s Typhoon FGR.4 have sensors so advanced that they can detect and identify a hostile target such as an enemy vehicle or aircraft from great distances and present the information to the pilot. The pilot then has to select what he deems to be the appropriate weapon to prosecute the target and can essentially allow the aircraft’s computers to carry out the attack. It would not be difficult therefore to design computer software to take over the decision-making process on how to attack what the aircraft’s sensors have detected.

But here’s the catch!

The aircraft’s computer systems identify a target by looking at the sensor data and trying to match that data with whatever information exists in its own digital memory. It knows what a T-55 tank is supposed to look like and if, for example, an infra-red image returns a similar vehicle then it will reason it is a T-55. A pilot however can look at the image and determine exactly what it is through logic and reasoning rather than relying solely on the data from the onboard sensors. It may very well be a T-55 tank but it could also be a truck whose image is distorted by it being crammed full of refugees. The drone maybe programmed to attack anything that looks like a T-55 but the pilot can take in to account the fact that the vehicle is travelling in a convoy of refugee vehicles and therefore less likely to be a tank or at the very least this warrants further investigation. Even if it is proven to be a tank the pilot can decide that attacking it is not worth the civilian loss of life and abort. Such an attack by an automatic drone where there would be heavy loss of civilian life by mistake would be a political and human disaster.

It is for fear of that very mistake being made by an autonomous drone that groups demanding greater international laws preventing fully autonomous weapon systems comes in to play. This movement flourished in the early 2000s as drones took centre stage in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq and in 2009 the quite science-fiction sounding organisation, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) was founded. The committee is composed of experts in the fields of robotics and international law and aims to address what they view as the growing dangers of increased autonomous weapon systems.

In 2010, the committee issued a statement in Berlin, Germany outlining many of its recommendations on the restrictions of autonomous weapon systems such as UCAVs. These restrictions included limiting unmanned weapons’ ability to make any of the following decisions independently of human control;

  • The decision to kill or use lethal force against a human being.
  • The decision to use injurious or incapacitating force against a human being.
  • The decision to initiate combat or violent engagement between military units.
  • The decision to initiate war or warfare between states or against non-state actors.

In 2014, supporters of the committee’s Berlin statement felt they had won their biggest victory to date when on February 27th of that year the European Parliament voted 534-49 to ban the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons which enables attacks to be carried out without human intervention. The committee had wanted the restrictions to go further including limiting range and payload of all drones, even those under human control from the ground, but to this there was much stronger opposition from European governments many of whom such as France and the UK place great emphasis on them.

MQ-9 Reaper RAF Brimstone Hellfire missile UAV UCAV RPV

The MQ-9 Reaper RPV has carried out the bulk of RAF drone strikes in Iraq and Syria

Proponents of more sophisticated drones however, argue that no drone regardless of its sophistication is truly autonomous. A human decision has already been made to launch the drone against enemy forces and therefore the intention for the drone to kill has already been displayed before it even takes off. The autonomous drone would carry out the mission on behalf of its human commanders purely within the confines of its programming in the same way that a human can decide to fire a bullet at an enemy soldier; it’s true the human has no further control over the bullet but it is carrying out the human’s intent to kill. They also argue that a manned aircraft is theoretically a more unstable option because the human occupant is just as if not more fallible than an automated weapon system. A pilot can be prone to moral or psychological factors that may inhibit them from carrying out the mission even if the attack on the target is justified. Alternatively, a psychologically unbalanced pilot may have no regard for civilian lives whatsoever increasing the death toll on the ground.

If we were to consider a scenario whereby an air strike has been ordered on a terrorist weapons factory in Syria but from two perspectives; one of a manned aircraft and one of an autonomous drone. Both drone and pilot would carry out a risk assessment before deploying weapons which would look at potential threats to the aircraft and potential collateral damage to civilians. Once this assessment is complete the appropriate weapon would be selected and the attack carried out. Proponents of autonomous systems argue that the drone is safer because no attack would be carried out if the drone detected what it determined as civilians in the blast zone and being unable to violate its mission parameters would abort the mission. The human pilot on the other hand can still drop the weapon if he so chooses as could a human-controlled drone. Also, the more obvious concern with a manned aircraft is the risk to the pilot from enemy defences.

The problem of course is that a lot depends on the quality of the programming of the drone and its sensors. Just what kind of parameters should be programmed in to the drone to define civilians? There is even the risk that the drone could misinterpret hostile forces for civilians and not carry out the attack the result of which could be that weapons developed in the factory could be used against allied forces or even civilian targets in western cities. There are more basic moral concerns as well such as war appearing to become cleaner and therefore less repulsive – at least to the country that’s operating the autonomous drones – since bombing missions can be carried out without the risk of losing sons and daughters to enemy forces.

No one would argue that being able to defend your own country without the risk of losing the lives of your troops is attractive. Many of us in the UK remember the scenes of C-17s landing at RAF Brize Norton and coffins draped in the British flag being unloaded live on the BBC during the years of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and no one wants to see that again. The political fallout of heavy casualties can affect an early withdrawal of troops even if the military objective has not yet been completed regardless of the wider consequences but could this bloodless type of war actually increase the chances of military conflict? The ICRAC argues that autonomous drones are taking away the human decision to initiate armed conflict because they operate on a set of restrictions limited to their own situation and ignorant of the wider scenario but most importantly are free of the implications of their actions unlike a human who could be prosecuted for illegally initiating combat. In this regard there is indeed a higher chance of conflict being unintentionally initiated with autonomous, weaponised drones and if this were to occur between two technologically sophisticated nations then it would only be a matter of time before the drones were defeated and lives would be lost as troops and manned aircraft/ships go in to battle.

Taranis UCAV UAV RPVIt’s the nightmare scenario that is driving the campaign to restrict truly autonomous drones. One of the most advanced drones currently in development is the UK’s BAE Systems Taranis (left); a high performance warplane that when development is complete will be able to conduct air defence and strike missions with equal prowess to that of a manned aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II but even this is semi-autonomous. It still requires human intervention to make decisions but beyond that the drone carries out the mission itself in the same way that an Air Marshall at a command centre has passed instructions to pilots in combat in the past. This balance of man and machine would appear to offer the best of both worlds; all the advantages of unmanned aircraft but retaining the human factor.

There is still one problem however.

The operation of even a semi-autonomous drone relies on communication between the drone and the command centre. Any wireless signal can be broken either through malfunction or enemy interruption. If a semi-autonomous drone was to lose contact with its command centre should it then be allowed carry out the mission on its own or should it be programmed to return to base? The latter would of course best appease the current international feelings on the subject but what of the aforementioned terrorist weapons factory scenario whereby a Taranis aborting the mission would result in civilian deaths in the UK from terrorist actions?

The fact of the matter is that as free-thinking human beings we are naturally suspicious of entirely automated weapon systems. No matter how well programmed or advanced a drone is there will always be a question hanging over whether or not we can trust it to carry out our military intentions exactly. It is also important that someone be accountable for the use of military force otherwise human life on the whole is devalued which would only lead to more suffering. One final point to make however is that human beings armed with guns have been responsible for more unintentional deaths in combat than any other weapon and for that fact alone we shouldn’t completely dismiss the advantages technology offers us in the decision making process. They have the potential, if the programming is sophisticated enough, to significantly reduce collateral damage in combat. One thing is for sure; drones/UCAVs/RPVs use by western forces will only increase in the years to come and consequently so will the debate.