The House of Commons Defence Committee has just published the results of its inquiry into Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and their contribution to Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability. The report is both comprehensive and incomprehensible (to me anyway). I think it basically says that the capabilities of UAVs have increased significantly in recent years and they are collecting increasing amounts of ISTAR information for dissemination to commanders on the ground (in Iraq and Afghanistan).
- The current shortage of ground operators (48%) and specialist intelligence analysts (18%) could undermine the potential of UAVs. There are "substantial deficits in the number of UAV operators in the Army and the position may worsen when the Watchkeeper UAV system enters service at the end of the decade. .... The MoD must address the manning deficits in these areas in order to gain the maximum value from its current and future UAV systems,"
- Although UAVs are now providing British troops with "battle-winning" electronic surveillance capabilities, the MoD was slow to appreciate their potential and has had to buy in UAVs (Reapers, Desert Hawks and Hermes 450s ) as a "stop-gap filler" while it awaits the delivery of its new Watchkeeper system in 2010. That these purchases have been made through Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) underlines their unplanned nature. "The MoD must push forward with its planned improvements so that our Armed Forces can continue to achieve information superiority over the enemy."
- It also warned that the MoD needed to improve the way the material gathered by the UAVs was processed and disseminated to commanders on the ground, with one major programme already experiencing delays.
Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth said UAVs had proved to be an invaluable asset giving our forces the vital information they need to stay one step ahead of the enemy. "Whether it be targeting Taliban or supporting troops on patrol, their ability to feed back images and videos in real time, loiter over and survey an area for enemy activity means they are an invaluable asset for our ground commanders. They have a crucial role to play in future operations and we will continue to invest in them."
- Autonomous UAVs. The development of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) will provide UAVs with battlefield autonomy. "Using on and off board sensors to gain situational awareness of the local battlespace and tactical picture, the autonomous system will then prioritise the vehicle actions taking into account weapon and fuel states, target priorities and deconfliction (?) with other air operations."
- Armed UAVs. The MoD has recently used a Reaper UAV to fire weapons during current military operations in Afghanistan. DEFCOM has asked the MoD to look into the impact armed UAVs could have on future manned aircraft (Joint Strike Fighter). It also asked that the MoD sets out the broad ethical and legal issues which arise from using military UAVs and how it is seeking to address these; whether the MoD is best qualified to do this is debateable.