HC 772 Defence CommitteeWritten evidence from the Network for Social Change


The Network for Social Change is commencing a long-term project on military developments focused on the security implications of low profile deployments including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), the operation of Special Forces and privatised military and security companies.

At this early stage it is offering evidence in two areas: the manner in which UCAVs form part of the wider development of “remote control”, and the issue of the proliferation of UCAVs and its security implications.


1. The Network for Social Change (Network) will be funding a major project, running for at least three years, looking at a key aspect of the changing face of international conflict. The project will examine the move towards more “discrete” and low profile forms of military activity, including the use of Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles (UCAVs) but linked also to the expanded use of Special Forces, private military companies, rendition and cyber warfare measures. It thus places RPAS/UAV/UCAV trends in a wider context and would argue that this is an appropriate level for analysis and policy formulation that the Committee may wish to consider.

2. A pilot stage of the project commenced in January 2013 and its work has already involved meetings with many non-government organisations, universities and think tanks. It has commissioned and financed initial work on a number of themes, including the proliferation of armed drones, but the programme is still at the pilot stage. In due course it is likely to engage in a number of areas of concern to the Committee but at this stage seeks to offer the committee some initial analysis on just two aspects of remote control—the wider context of military changes within which UAVs fit and some recent evidence on the rate of proliferation of UAVs, especially armed drones, that may be of interest to the Committee. For the purpose of this note, the UAV/UCAV designations are used rather than RPAS, as this tends to be the current practice in the international aerospace literature.

The Wider UCAV Context

3. In 1993 President Clinton’s incoming Director of Central Intelligence characterised the changed post-Cold War international security environment as one in which the United States and its allies had slain the dragon but now faced a jungle full of poisonous snakes. In this more uncertain world, many of the forces relevant to the Cold War were substantially reduced, including strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, heavy armour and anti-submarine systems, while others that were appropriate to responding to a “jungle” environment were retained and even enhanced. They included expeditionary warfare forces encompassing the Marine Corps and aircraft carrier battle groups, as well as Special Forces and diverse air-delivered stand-off weapons.

4. Following President George W Bush’s election in 2000, the incoming Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, continued this trend, seeking to enhance the ability to meet security challenges with minimal deployed forces. This was known as “war lite” and was used substantially in responding to the 9/11 atrocities. Thus in Afghanistan the Taliban regime was terminated and the al-Qaida movement dispersed by the intensive use of air power, the deployment of Special Forces and the utilisation of Northern Alliance militias as surrogate ground forces. In Iraq in 2003, the forces used to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime were barely a quarter of the size of the forces deployed twelve years earlier to evict the Iraqis from Kuwait.

5. In the event, the apparent success of “war lite” was short-lived, with operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq failing. The former conflict has evolved into a 12-year war and in Iraq the war lasted eight years and left a country that was deeply insecure and prone to endemic violence. In practice, “war lite” became “war heavy”, with foreign troop deployments peaking at close to 200,000 in Iraq and 140,000 in Afghanistan. Both conflicts were also immensely costly with over 200,000 people killed, several hundred thousand injured, more than eight million refugees and costs that may eventually exceed $4 trillion.

6. The wars became highly unpopular with domestic political constituencies and many coalition partners began progressively to withdraw forces from both countries. President Obama’s election was followed by successive decisions to retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. The former withdrawal was completed by the end of 2011 and the great majority of all combat troops will have left Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Most US, UK and other forces in Afghanistan are currently engaged in the complex logistics of withdrawal, with little combat patrol activity.

The Move to Remote Control

7. However, in the wake of the failure of “boots on the ground” has come a major trend towards meeting challenges by other means, of which the use of armed drones has been the most prominent in the public eye. The Committee will no doubt have access to details of UCAV development and deployment and it is noteworthy that armed drones have been used on a large scale in Afghanistan and Pakistan and also in Yemen, Somalia and Iraq, principally by the United States but with the UK prominent with its Reaper operations in Afghanistan.

8. The past decade has also seen a major expansion of the size and use of Special Forces. This developed initially from operations in Iraq and was focused on the intensive use of night raids, but also became a major if largely unreported feature of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with other engagements in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and Syria. In Afghanistan, in particular, night raids by US Special Forces have formed a significant part of military operations frequently occasioning controversy, with opposition extending to the Afghan government.

9. At the forefront of Special Force expansion has been the United States. US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was established in 1987. It brings together and integrates Special Force operations of the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and has expanded from a strength of 42,743 in 2008 to 63,650 last year with a planned further growth to 71,000 in 2015, approaching the size of the entire British Army by that time. The UK, too, has seen an expansion of Special Forces, including the establishment in 2006 of the Special Forces Support Group drawing on personnel from 2 Para, the RAF Regiment and the Royal Marines. NATO has expanded its Special Operations HQ at Mons in Belgium and it is also notable how some countries have developed particular abilities in Special Force operations within militaries that are otherwise relatively small, Australia and New Zealand being examples.

10. In parallel with armed drone and Special Force operations has come a marked increase in the use of private military and security companies. The private security industry overall is reported now to be worth over $100 billion a year and includes an estimated 20,000 personnel in Afghanistan alone. Within this wider field, the United States and the UK are reported to dominate in the area of private military companies with an estimated 70% market share.

11. The growth and increasing use of remote control as a means of responding to overseas challenges appears primarily to be a consequence of the failure of the initial responses encompassed in the “war on terror” and it raises two questions which will be explored as part of the intended work of the Network’s Remote Control Project. One will be the question of accountability, including parliamentary accountability, given the “below the radar” nature of much of the activity, and the other will be the effectiveness and possible blowback of the approach, given that the al-Qaida movement may have been much dispersed but has loosely associated but effective elements active in many countries, most notably Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Syria. Is remote control any more appropriate as a response than boots on the ground to what may primarily be a potent idea rather than an integrated revolutionary movement?


12. A specific question which the initial pilot stage of the Network project has addressed is the issue of the proliferation of UCAVs and the implications of such proliferation for regional security and also for processes of arms control. Research was commissioned from the public domain intelligence group Open Briefing, and the following comments draw on this study.

13. The main developers and users of armed U(C)AVs have been the United States and Israel, with the UK the other most significant user of UCAVs, but a number of other countries are now heavily involved in the indigenous development and deployment of armed systems. Israel is the leading exporter of all UAVs in terms of volume, variety and range of customers, with around 40% of world exports, the value over the past eight years being estimated at $4.6 billion. Israel Aerospace Industries produces three UCAVs, including the high altitude long-endurance Heron TP.

14. Israel’s defence posture is currently undergoing considerable change, the overall trend being away from substantial ground forces and towards greater use of air power with an emphasis on highly capable strike aircraft and missiles. While UCAVs may be used in Gaza and Lebanon, and there are unconfirmed reports of use against militia supply routes in Sudan, Israel is also in a position to use the Heron TP for long-range operations against Iran, should there be a war. It is likely that UCAV developments will feature markedly in Israeli defence R&D, both for export and for its own defence posture.

15. After the United States and Israel, the country that appears to be the next most important state in terms of UCAV development is China. Open Briefing has identified 46 different UAVs (plus variants) in use or under development and is in a position to develop a robust export market as it is not a signatory of the Missile Technology Control Regime or the Wassenaar Arrangement. China is also in the process of an indigenous GPS alternative, the Beidou-2 satellite network, intended to achieve global coverage by 2020. This will assist China in developing a long-range accurate UCAV strike capability which will greatly enhance export potential and be a source of UCAV proliferation.

16. While Russia has been involved in UAV developments for many years, its record is poor and it has even imported UAVs from Israel. There are strong indications that Russia is now placing far more emphasis on UAV programmes, no doubt having observed the intensity of their use by the US in South Asia and elsewhere. Open Briefing has identified 55 UAVs (and variants) with six of these being armed. Russian doctrine for UCAV operations appears to be very much a work in progress, but its counterinsurgency operations against the Caucasus Emirates may utilise them, and Russia’s much-expanded interests in the Polar regions are likely to be enhanced if robust long-endurance UAVs and UCAVs become available.

17. In addition to Israel, two Middle East states have substantial UAV programmes, both with UCAV elements. Open Briefing has identified Turkey as having 24 different UAVs (plus variants) in use or under development, including four UCAVs. Two of these are Israeli imports but two are under development by Turkish Aerospace Industries Inc. The deployment of substantial numbers of indigenous UCAVs is some years off, but Turkey has an active and prominent aerospace industrial base and looks to be a major regional power with strong arms export potential.

18. Perhaps least appreciated outside of specialist analysis are the activities of Iran in the UAV/UCAV field, some of them supported by reverse engineering or copying of foreign systems obtained by diverse means. Open Briefing has identified 17 different UAVs (plus variants) in use or under development, of which six are UCAVs. Since the revolution over thirty years ago Iran has had to depend for its air force largely on “legacy” aircraft that have proved difficult to maintain and may be largely obsolete. While it has been able to obtain some useful modern armaments from some states, a notable example being ground-launched anti-ship missiles from China, it still sees its indigenous UAV/UCAV programmes as being important for its defence and is proud of its achievements to date. This is an area of work on which Iran can be expected to place considerable emphasis in the coming years.

19. The Indian armed forces have operated UAVs for over a decade. Open Briefing has identified 21 different UAVs, 16 of which are indigenous and five imported from Israel, but only one of the indigenous UAVs is currently in service. India deploys two Israeli UCAVs and has started to develop its own UCAVs, two of which are reported to be under development. In August of this year, the new head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Avinash Chander, announced that the organisation would test fire precision guided munitions from UCAVs “within a couple of months”.

Proliferation Implications

20. Many aspects of UAV/UCAV developments are relatively straightforward in terms of technology, and many components are dual use and readily available on the open market. There are reported to be well over 400 companies world-wide engaged in the development and manufacture of a wide variety of drones, many of them serving civil functions. The networking of operations for military purposes may be more complex but is becoming more established as techniques and equipment are taken from civil industries. Partly because of this it is apparent from this initial research that a number of countries are actively engaged in the development and deployment of UCAVs, and importing of UCAVs will become progressively easier, especially as arms control processes are minimal.

21. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this matter is that countries such as the United States have clearly found UCAV operations very useful and that they consider such operations legally justifiable, even when undertaken in the territory of sovereign states. This effectively sets a precedent that is likely to be emulated, and numerous examples could be suggested in the years to come. For example, Russia may on some future occasion justify UCAV operations against rebels sheltering in Georgia or Azerbaijan, China may feel justified in their use in Tibet, Myanmar or Vietnam, Turkey against Kurdish separatists in Iran or Iraq, and Iran may feel justified in using UCAVs against opposition forces in Iraq. In all such cases there may be international consternation but the states concerned could readily point to US, UK or Israeli operations as showing the way.

22. Thus if the United States regards UAV use as acceptable it will be very difficult to argue against this for other states. For countries such as the US and UK, the use of UCAVs may so far seem to be highly attractive and to form a major part of the remote control response to security challenges. It is not clear that the implications of embracing such an outlook have been thought through.

13 September 2013

Note: The Network for Social Change is a group of around one hundred people, originally formed nearly thirty years ago, who work together to fund progressive social change. In addition to numerous small grants made primarily to charities engaged in social change, one of the methods of operation is to fund more substantial major projects over a period of several years. A recent example was multi-year funding for Peace Direct which supports grass roots conflict resolution initiatives in many countries, and a current example is the Great Transition project of the New Economics Foundation, concerned with the analysis, modelling and management of environmentally sustainable economies.

The Remote Control Project is overseen by a core group comprising Shalni Arora, Professor John Finney, Doro Marden, Graham Prescott and Professor Paul Rogers. Its research officer is Caroline Donnellan and the project is hosted by the Oxford Research Group. A copy of the proliferation study undertaken for the pilot project by Open Briefing, completed in early September, will be published on www.openbriefing.org by the end of September but can be made available to the Committee before publication. This evidence was drafted by Paul Rogers.

Prepared 24th March 2014