The Royal Navy is to start trialling unmanned drones launched from aircraft carriers, Defence Minister Philip Dunne says.
Drones are only used by the RAF in Afghanistan at present but Mr Dunne said they will be tested on aircraft carriers from next year.
Initially the drones will be tested for surveillance use by the navy, such as searching for pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Mr Dunne said: “We are about to embark on a concept of use demonstration trial to see whether for surveillance purposes a maritime system could be deployed in the future. It is not presently anything past a demonstration phase. I think it is perhaps not a surprise that we are thinking of some trialling, some capability for future use.”
Mr Dunne’s comments follow reports the UK’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) programme was being jeopardised because many operators were poorly trained. According to a report by the Military Aviation Authority, a soldier with no past experience could take charge of operating a spy drone with only 25 hours of flying practice.
Meanwhile, shadow defence minister Kevan Jones said the Government needed a new code of conduct detailing the exact circumstances in which armed drones can be used. He said there was a fear amongst the public the weapons were being used indiscriminately.
Mr Dunne’s comments raise the possibility that the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers may have drones operating off their decks before any manned aircraft. This is because the first carrier is due to come into service in 2019 before the new joint strike fighters become available. There have been rumours the Government was thinking of introducing unmanned drones at sea. But it presents a number of difficulties such as landing the aircraft on a moving deck.
Mr Dunne said that drones would become more advanced, but added the Government had no intention of developing systems that did not require some form of human control. He said the Government had no intention of using drones for surveillance use outside of the military, such as keeping tabs on illegal fishing. The minister added: “There is a system that will be going through a concept demonstration next year. The uses of that will be for the Royal Navy to decide if they decide to procure a system in due course.”
But Mr Jones said the Government needed to introduce some guidelines about how drones were used. He said: “I believe that it is important that the United Kingdom should examine whether or not we should have a code. In that code would be the context, limitations of use, process of internal oversight of deployments, the command and control structures and the accepted level of atomisation.”
But Mr Dunne said the Government had no plans to introduce a code of conduct as it could jeopardise operational security as it would have to fit with the Government’s rules of engagement.