Gavin Williamson CBE

UK Defence spending under Gavin Williamson

Fact or Fiction?

Is our defence secretary living in a fantasy world with his announcement of ‘swarm squadrons’ of drones; or could this actually become a reality?

The “Swarm squadrons” of drones are planned to be available to be deployed by British Armed Forces by the end of this year – with the stated overall aim of overwhelming enemy air defences. But is this at all practical, when currently there are no such drones operating within the British Armed Forces: in other words, when this has not yet even been tested as a practical application.

In the same speech, given as part of an address at the Royal United Services Institute, Mr Williamson said Britain must stand up to those who “flout international law” – however, opposition MPs have been quick to pour scorn on this, reminding us of the overall Tory budget cuts for the last 10 years and our increased level of vulnerability because of said cuts.

In response to a national outcry and continued opposition pressure over military cuts, there was an extra £1.8bn for defence in the last budget and Mr Williamson said during his address that this brought the UK its “greatest opportunity” to strengthen its global presence.

With specific reference to Mr Williamson’s promise of a ‘network’ of drones, he stated clearly that the military’s current cyber capabilities will be reinforced to both defend and launch attacks. This would include his new planned ‘attack squadrons’ of “network enabled” drones – which alone he estimated would cost around £7 million.

Without any apparent hard research or testing, is this just a waste of money that the British Armed Forces can ill afford? An extra £1.8bn sounds like enough to spend £7 million on ‘attack drones’ – until you factor in just how much our military has been defunded in the last 10 years, and add in the estimated cost of repairing our current stock of military bases and housing (to bring up to basic acceptable levels)….well then, the ‘money pit’ starts to look extremely small.

Mr Williamson talks of introducing ‘swarm squadrons’ of drones to overcome an enemy’s air defences – but nowhere in our current Armed Forces do such technologies currently exist, certainly not in a format that could be used in the manner described by the defence secretary.

Privately, it appears that the MoD believes the technology could be bought “off the shelf” but, in truth, the concept is still untried and untested; and the corporate world may not be able to produce the hardware or software envisaged – and why should it do so without development contracts in any case? The MoD still insists these plans have all been costed – however, their comments leave many to believe the MoD is positive that ‘combat ready’ drones somehow exist on the open market and can just be purchased without any of the afore mentioned development plans – but its past financial record, and the application of just a little common sense to the problem, will give many several reasons to doubt the MoDs word and to consign this announcement to the ‘fiction’ pile, rather than make any attempt to take it – or Mr Williamson – seriously.

Speaking about the seemingly far-fetched plans, Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith was scathing in her assessment. She said the “UK’s ability to play such a role has been completely undermined by eight years of Tory defence cuts”. Before adding: “The Conservatives have slashed the defence budget by over £9bn in real terms since 2010, and they are cutting armed forces numbers year after year”.

So it seems highly unlikely, without a corresponding policy change and development programme, that we’ll actually see swarms of ‘attack drones’ after all – except perhaps in a Sci-fi Movie.

 

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