HC 772 Defence CommitteeWritten evidence from Thales UK


Thales is a global technology leader in the Aerospace, Transportation and Defence & Security markets. In 2012, the company generated revenues of €14.2 billion (equivalent to £11.5 billion) with 65,000 employees in 56 countries. With its 25,000 engineers and researchers, Thales has a unique capability to design, develop and deploy equipment, systems and services that meet the most complex security requirements. Thales has an exceptional international footprint, with operations around the world working with customers and local partners.

Thales UK employs 7,500 staff based at 35 locations throughout the country. In 2012 Thales UK’s revenues were around £1.3 billion.

Key Points

The clear benefits of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to military capability across land, sea and air mean that their development and operation will be a growing part of the force mix for the foreseeable future. Their use not only spans the three environments but has already evolved at this early stage from instruments providing tactical advantage to pivotal strategic assets.

UAS are a disruptive technology that give disproportionate competitive and operational advantages to “early adopters” (in this case, nations) during the initial stages of their active life.

The UK’s current industrial position in UAS is built on core research and development over the last two decades. It is subject to erosion by both other nations and exploitation by civilian users. Maintaining the UK’s relative strength in UAS into the future depends on continued investment and innovation.

The range and capabilities of sensor payloads are the key determinant of reconnaissance UAS effectiveness. To maintain and strengthen the UK’s relative position in UAS, development of key sensor and information exploitation elements is of primary importance.


UAS are perhaps the defining, and certainly the most iconic, military technology of the 21st Century so far. Just as in previous eras, the rapid adoption and exploitation of a disruptive technology has, over the last decade, created both opportunities and challenges for the military and industry alike. Thales welcomes the Committee’s inquiry as a timely means to ensure wider understanding keeps pace with this fast growing capability.

As the Committee will no doubt note, for the UK’s military the adoption of UAS has significantly enhanced our national ability to deliver timely critical Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance outputs; thereby reducing risk to service personnel. Even at this early stage it is clear that the operational benefits UAS can bring to military capability across land, sea and air are sufficiently attractive to ensure the use and development of UAS will be part of the force mix for the foreseeable future.

This submission does not seek to give a view on the military aspects of the Committee’s enquiry, which are properly dealt with elsewhere, but to offer an industrial perspective based on Thales’ position as a global leader in the development of UAS. In the UK, Thales’ activities in this area include the provision of over 85,000 flying hours of UAS support to British troops in Afghanistan, via the Hermes 450 “ISTAR by the hour” service contract, and as the supplier of the UK Army’s WATCHKEEPER UAS programme which will shortly be accepted into service. Thales is also one of the leading industry players in the ASTREA consortium, tasked with developing the future regulatory, certification and technology roadmap for use of UAS in non-segregated airspace, with lead responsibility for “Sense and Avoid” in the UK.

This submission gives a brief overview of Thales’ views on the main areas the Committee has outlined for discussion. Thales would welcome the opportunity to elaborate further on these points, and other areas of interest, in the course of the Committee’s deliberations.

Maintaining the Technological Advantage

UAS are a classic disruptive technology, which give disproportionate competitive advantage to `early adopters’ during the initial stages of their active life.

As could be expected owing to their relative technological complexity, the early adopters of UAS have been modern Armed Forces which are active globally, mostly in the West. Their use is not yet widespread amongst second tier and regional players, including potentially less friendly nations—but not for the want of trying. UAS capabilities are amongst the most sought after industrial competences for emerging countries seeking to grow their indigenous defence base, and one of the principle areas where nations of all sizes are investing research and development funds in search of “leapfrog” technologies which effectively counter existing superiorities in military numbers or conventional firepower.

The UK’s present capability advantage is therefore welcome and valuable, but vulnerable to erosion over the coming years, without continued development of the high value elements of UAS systems. The industrial advantages domestic companies, like Thales, offer to UK and allied countries are built on core research and development activity undertaken over the last two decades—maintaining the UK’s relative advantage into the future depends on investing for success and continuing to innovate in key areas.

Critical Elements of UAS Capability

One major industrial lesson from UK UAS operations thus far has been the relative roles played by the different elements of the system. Whilst the aeronautical elements of the system are amongst its most visible, outside of navigation and sense and avoid technologies it is the quality of sensors and information analysis and exploitation that generate a battle-winning edge. Whether in the context of current operations with relatively uncontested airspace, or in other non-permissive environments less amenable to physical incursion by an air vehicle, the range and capabilities of UAS sensor payloads are the key determinant of how and where it can be used. Likewise the ability to interpret and disseminate the output of sophisticated UAS sensors is the difference between obtaining a mountain of data and actioning effective intelligence.

As this market develops this is likely to continue to be the case given that, owing to the cost and effort required for platform certification and accreditation, much future platform development may be focused on dual-use in both military and civil markets. As a result the primary differentiators between military and civilian non-weaponised applications will be the comparative sophistication of the sensor systems, cryptography and data fusion suites—as is often the case in satellite systems, for example.

As the UK considers how to strengthen its military UAS capabilities relative to other countries, one of the principal areas of focus must, therefore, be the continuing development of the key sensor and information management elements.

UAS as an Economic and Trade Growth Sector

As the economics of defence shift, and national budgets fall behind the cost of development for highly sophisticated new capabilities, international trade and collaboration continue to become more important as a means to make development affordable and attractive. The UAS sector is projected to be one of the major growth areas in the global defence market over the coming decade, and the UK should seek to capture a major share of this business.

The UK’s significant experience in UAS operation on allied operations, its existing procurement programmes and suitable relationships with key allies make it an attractive partner for UAS collaboration, and indeed much of the competitive advantage enjoyed by the UK military has been made possible through agreements with key partners including the US and France. In the broader global market, relatively few countries have the global profile, military UAS expertise and experience, industrial competences and proven product offerings, and the familiarity with the reality of major defence export business to successfully approach this market.

The Committee will be familiar with the particular challenges and traits of the defence export market, including the need for significant Government support and strong references in domestic procurement programmes. As in other sectors it is vital that, as plans for future UAS capability move forward in the UK, both Government and suppliers are alive to the capability and affordability benefits which will be generated if domestic, international cooperation and export activities are aligned and mutually supportive. In addition, the diplomatic and economic benefits generated by a strong “market position” for the UK in this area would be significant.

Awareness and Misconceptions

One currently prevalent misconception arises from the fear that either a lack of human intervention in UAS “decision making” or the remote nature of UAS in some way reduces the quality or gravity of military decision making.

To the former, the periodic confluence of the concepts of “unmanned” and “autonomous” in uninformed media and commentary is the source of constant frustration for those versed in the realities of UAS use. By design, the autonomous elements of UAS systems in use by the UK are those which are required to ensure, for example, safe flight operations with appropriate contingent systems, and never those involved in the deployment of lethal force, which requires without question the involvement of a human operator.

Misconceptions and concerns around UAS compare starkly with high levels of public confidence in the autonomous elements of seemingly more pedestrian areas such as civil aircraft and railway networks, which are nonetheless responsible for the safety of large groups of people. In general neither the military nor industry are incentivised to push for autonomy as an end in itself—rather being incentivised on ensuring the lowest risk possible in the control and use of military technologies.

In common with other long-established decision makers at some remove from the battlefield—for example strategic commanders, air controllers, naval battle group commanders and those leading cruise missile or some air strike missions—UAS operators are held to the same standards and doctrinal principles as any other military personnel. Likewise, these existing roles illustrate that there are benefits arising from the remote use of UAS, not least ensuring decision making is less vulnerable to the intense emotional and psychological pressures of a battlefield and avoiding the risk of “handing off” targets to separate weapons platforms. There is of course also the eminently straightforward benefit of increasing the real-time intelligence available to commanders and key staff (such as legal advisers, targeting and intelligence personnel) who would in any instance be away from the front line.

Comments on Specific Questions


Thales is content with the terms and definitions as articulated within the Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 “The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems”. This provides a clear set of guidelines for use in describing unmanned vehicles in any environment; aerial unmanned vehicles are a subset of a much wider group of unmanned vehicles and capabilities, such as submersibles, surface vessels, and land vehicles. Based on this doctrine, the term “UAS” is used throughout this note.

Of particular importance to the discussion on nomenclature is to recognise that the use of phrases such as “drones” and “autonomy” can be highly emotive, often arising from a lack of knowledge as to how human decisions are incorporated within UAS missions. The HCDC’s enquiry should seek to ensure that there is greater public understanding as to the role of humans within the operation and conduct of UAS missions.

Current Utility and Dispersal

There has been significant growth in the military use of UAS over the past decade and, more recently, in their use in novel ways by civilian operators.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, UAS have provided an increasingly sophisticated level of ISTAR support to armed forces, as well as tactical strike and tactical lift in non-permissive environments. On the battlefield and more widely, UAS have been used for radio communication nodes and to provide BLOS (Beyond Line Of Sight) communications networks. UAS can also carry payloads which enable remote hyperspectral analysis, including chemical fingerprinting. By comparison, the use of UAS in civil markets is in its infancy, and significant market and structural barriers remain before widespread use of UAS becomes the norm in other sectors. As the cost of ownership of UAS has decreased, early examples of civil application have emerged, including mapping and surveying, agriculture monitoring, poaching prevention, power line survey and environmental damage assessments.

Lessons Learnt from Operations in Afghanistan

Thales are proud to have provided the LYDIAN service to the UK Armed Forces in support of operations in Afghanistan. Thales have maintained and operated in-theatre a fleet of HERMES 450 UAS, delivering over 85,000 hours of service.

From the feedback Thales has received from military users of UAS, it is clear that UAS in an ISTAR capacity are a force multiplier providing intelligence to commanders to allow accurate and timely decisions making for mission objectives and providing ground forces with real time information to limit exposure to unnecessary risk. Over time, commanders in Afghanistan have become increasingly reliant on the situational awareness provided by UAS ISTAR assets to maximise mission success and minimise casualties. There was a time when patrols in Afghanistan were conducted in relative ignorance of what potential enemy action they might face; now it is unlikely that any ground forces would patrol without an ISTAR asset providing real time intelligence in support.

Tomorrow’s potential—What additional capabilities will the UK seek to develop from now until 2020?

UAS technology and capabilities have matured significantly since their first deployment with UK forces in the Balkans (PHOENIX). Much of their use has been shaped by the changing nature of combat, with ill-defined battlefields and dispersed combatants. This has required increasingly agile, adaptable and flexible armed forces requiring detailed, current intelligence and improved battlefield awareness. UAS have been part of this revolution and their future use will continue to be shaped by these changing requirements. The level of incorporation of UAS will only be limited by the rate at which information from them can be collected, collated and delivered in an intelligible fashion to decision makers to enable them to respond intelligently and effectively to changing situations.

In the military space, future developments as well as the move to support contingency operations will involve increased utilisation of UAS in the littoral and maritime environments. This will require the development of suitable radars and navigation suites, engines developed for endurance and BLOS communication suites.

UAS have a significant role to play in ensuring national security, whether for law enforcement or disaster management. Ultimately, this may mean the routine operation of UAS in civilian airspace—in effect “over back gardens”—with the consequent demands on safety and certification, sense and avoid technologies and pilot standards.

Constraints on the use of RPAS in the UK and Overseas

There are primarily two causes of constraint on the operation of UAS, both within the UK and Overseas:

1.Availability of Airspace

Availability to airspace can be limited either because of access issues (in essence the ability to operate outside of military/controlled airspace within a civil environment such as in the UK) or because of the prevailing level of permissiveness (in a military context). In the former, certification and acceptance of the use of UAS in uncontrolled airspace will be key. In the latter, the development of sense and avoid and UAS-specific Defensive Aid Suites will increase survivability. The future government development of UAS air traffic insertion technology and the appropriate engagement with CAA and global civil and military regulators (based on the success of the government supported ASTRAEA programme) is key for UK MOD and homeland security operations of UAS.

2.Access to Electromagnetic Spectrum

A key limiting factor at present in the free operation of UAS globally is the requirement for access to spectrum, both for flight control and data transfer. These additional demands for bandwidth will need to be factored into future military electromagnetic spectrum requirements.

Ethical and Legal Issues arising from the use of RPAS

Like all military actions, the use of UAS should be subject to the same consideration as all military activities under the Law of Armed Conflict, that is no different to the consideration of legality of use given to the use of ground forces or manned aircraft for example.

The primary legal consideration for the future of UAS is the efficacy of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in controlling UAS technology, in particular whether the control of UAS technology alongside that of ballistic missile technology remains a credible and manageable method in preventing the proliferation of technologies necessary to produce long range missiles, whilst allowing the legitimate globalisation of UAS capabilities.

18 September 2013

Prepared 24th March 2014