West Wales drone test area to expand

John Cox urges the Welsh Government to make good on claims that civilian rather than military uses will predominate

A week ago 100 people demonstrated outside the West Wales Airport at Aberporth to oppose extending the testing of unmanned air systems – drones to you and me – that are being developed mainly for military use. On the same day a deal was struck between between Aberporth and Cornwall’s Newquay airport to create a National Aeronautical Centre to significantly extend the airspace available for testing drones.

Currently, there is a 500 square mile drone testing airspace permitted by the Civilian Aviation Authority over parts of Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Powys – together with 2,000 square miles over the sea. The multi-national arms company Qinetiq is testing ‘Watchkeeper’ drones at Aberporth for use by the British army, the Americans, the Israelis and other ‘defence’ forces.

However, because of the mounting toll of civilian casualties from US drone attacks on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen – killing 746 women and children in Pakistan alone in the past year – drones have a bad press. What was claimed to be a means of launching precise surgical strikes on identified hostile forces, is proving to cause more collateral damage than the old-style conventional bombing and missile strikes.

From a military standpoint, the big advantage of drones is to reduce the danger to the attacker – who could be sitting at a desk in North Carolina doing a 9 to 5 daytime job. Unless international pressure leads to curbs on the use of these remote-killing machines, drones are likely to replace the currently conventional means of surveillance and delivery within a few years. For instance, for the past three years Israel has maintained nightly surveillance drone patrols over Gaza. Whenever a ‘target’ is identified it deploys a killer drone to destroy it.

But drones are also big business. Previously any mention of civilian use was merely a public relations excuse to justify the technology. Some of our elected representatives in Wales have bought into this ‘peaceful’ use for the Aberporth testing facility. This is despite clear evidence, from the military and the arms manufacturers that its main purpose is to test out their use for the military. Why else are the drones that are flown from there Army drones (see a promotional video here).

Whilst military uses still remain the main reason for the development and testing of drones, it is true that civilian uses for this technology are currently the fastest growth area. This must be something of a relief to those politicians who have been persuaded to support a privately owned Aberporth testing facility for ‘Unmanned Air Systems’ believing that it was to be used solely for civilian research.

Partly in response to these claims, the Welsh Government has spent £17.5 million on the Parc Aberporth industrial estate, creating a pathetic 39 jobs. Last week this myth of predominantly peaceful uses was extended to the Llanbedr facility near Harlech. QuinetiQ, a defence and aerospace multi-national that employs 9,000 people worldwide, signed an agreement to develop its drone systems in Wales by incorporating Llanbedr Airfield as an operating centre. Announcing the deal last Wednesday Edwina Hart, Welsh Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, declared:

“The long term strategic vision for Llanbedr is linked to the Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) sector and this teaming agreement announcement today between QinetiQ and Llanbedr Airfield Estates is an important step forward in developing that vision. Llanbedr Airfield has the capacity to significantly increase Wales’ capability in the UAS arena and its strategic importance was acknowledged by the Welsh Government when it was included within the boundaries of Snowdonia Enterprise Zone”.

Of course, she made no mention that the main purpose for the drones being developed is to kill people in far off countries.

A few days earlier, in a separate but associated development, a partnership was announced between West Wales Airport at Aberporth and Newquay Airport in Cornwall to create a National Aeronautical Centre to widen the scope for testing drones.

Aberporth is the only airport in the world that has been given authorisation by a national aviation authority (the UK Civil Aviation Authority) to operate drones beyond visual line of sight. Last week’s agreement, brokered by the National Air Traffic Services with the two airports, will significantly extent the 2,500 square mile airspace available and extend the commercial and defence contracting opportunities. As Richard Deakin, National Air Traffic Services Chief Executive, said:

“We have been controlling unman aircraft systems for 40 years. We hold some of the world’s most respected experts in unmanned flight management and have been instrumental in developing and validating the procedures for unmanned flights in UK airspace. The National Aeronautical Centre is a fundamental facility for growth in this industry and NATS is delighted to be involved in this launch as well as in future projects and commercial opportunities. The value of the UAS market has been forecast to be £30 billion per year by 2020 in the military sector alone. With the creation of the NAC, the UK is currently better placed than most others to create significant and sustainable economic benefit from this new industry, both from the military and civilian marketplace.”

Again, these developments are claimed to be for both civilian and for military use. However, there is no reason to believe that the claimed civilian applications will predominate. At Aberporth the main use has been to improve the drones used by Israel to patrol the occupied zones. Nor is there any reason to suppose that an abundance of local jobs will be created – all that will happen in practice is that boffins in safe houses will direct more drones to whine over mid-and west Wales.

A saving grace for the people of west Wales annoyed by these drones is that they will live to hear them again. For hundreds and thousands of villagers in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, theirs is the last sound they will hear before the bombs explode.

In parallel with the expansion of these facilities – well-publicised at last week’s 2013 Arms Fare in London – opposition is growing to the use of Wales to test these weapons. The 100 people who demonstrated outside the Aberporth facility a week ago were four times as many as are employed inside the base at public expense. Hopefully, the Welsh Government will monitor the new developments to ensure that all future work at Aberporth and Llanbedr is for civilian use and not, as previously, mainly to terrorise the people of Gaza.

John Cox is Chair of CND Cymru

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