The United Kingdom Frames a New Uncrewed Systems Strategy


Recently, the UK Ministry of Defence announced its new strategy to accelerate the development of uncrewed systems for its armed forces and to generate products for export as well.

In a 22 February 2024 press release by the UK MoD, this new strategy was introduced as follows:

A new strategy backed by at least £4.5 billion of investment over the next decade will accelerate access to uncrewed systems for the UK Armed Forces, rapidly equipping them with innovative technology across air, sea, and land. 

The UK Defence Drone Strategy, born from lessons learned in Ukraine, will harness innovative capabilities across UK defence. It will enable the rapid experimentation, testing and evaluation of uncrewed platforms, unifying the approach of the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, integrated by UK Strategic Command, while crucially working in lockstep with industry.

Drones are a game-changing technology that are constantly evolving, and it is crucial that the UK continues to invest in and maintain our position on the cutting edge of drone development to stay one step ahead of our adversaries.

The new approach will see uncrewed systems delivered at pace into the hands of the British Armed Forces, equipping personnel with critical intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, strike and logistical capabilities. This will leave behind long development timelines and lengthy requirement discussions. Once operational, the systems will be able to be developed and upgraded – or ‘spiralled’ – to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology and changing threat picture. 

Our initial priority remains the successful delivery of the Ukraine-UK uncrewed systems initiative, building on the UK’s donation of over 4,000 drones for Ukraine. The UK Defence Drone Strategy will help Armed Forces personnel meet the relentless cycle of battlefield adaptation, as has been repeatedly underpinned as Ukraine continues to successfully resist the Russian invasion. 

Minister for Defence Procurement, James Cartlidge said:

“The conflict in Ukraine has been an incubator for new ways of war and we need to learn and implement those hard-fought lessons.  

“Rapidly being able to develop and upgrade uncrewed systems will be key to gaining battlefield advantage and we must seize this opportunity to grow and sustain such skills and capabilities in the UK. 

“The strategy brings together a clear, unified focus – backed by billions in funding – while providing the flexibility to meet different requirements in the air, over land and at sea.

“Ultimately, this is about learning the lessons from the Ukrainian frontline to procure drones at scale for the UK’s Armed Forces.”

Of the £2.5 billion pounds to be spent on supporting Ukraine this coming financial year, more than £200 million will go towards supplying Ukraine with uncrewed systems. As the Defence Secretary announced last week, the UK will include work to scale up the Drone Capability Coalition’s provision of ‘first-person view’ (FPV) drones to Ukraine. This will help to scale the UK’s domestic drone industry across manufacturing and software development whilst giving Ukraine cutting-edge, battle-tested capabilities to defend their citizens and target the invading Russian forces. 

Working with international partners and leading uncrewed systems designers, the UK’s ambition to be a world-leader in uncrewed systems will enable exports in a rapidly growing global market and create onshore investment opportunities, supporting UK jobs and backing the Prime Minister’s priority to grow the economy. 

Commander of UK Strategic Command, General Jim Hockenhull said:

“This strategy, backed by significant investment, offers the opportunity to transform our approach to the acquisition, integration, and exploitation of uncrewed systems.

“The partnership with industry will be vital to ensure we harness innovation and generate world-leading capability. 

“Integrating advanced uncrewed systems into our suite of capabilities will protect the force, deter our adversaries and, when necessary, help us to fight and win.”

Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), the procurement arm of the UK MOD, has played a key role in helping develop the new UK Defence Drone Strategy and will be pivotal in ensuring its successful ongoing delivery.

Chief Executive, Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), Andy Start said:  

“DE&S has supported the rapid procurement of large numbers of uncrewed aerial systems for Ukraine, and it is clearer than ever that unhindered access to battle-winning uncrewed systems is absolutely crucial in modern day combat. 

“We are delighted to be working with frontline commands and industry partners to identify, test and deliver platforms that will give the UK Armed Forces the competitive edge they require to protect the nation and support our allies.”

A comprehensive partnership with industry is at the core of the Drone Strategy, and building on the UK’s extensive industrial, robotics and digital heritage. Through regular, clear industry engagements, we will incentivise industry to support the rapid manufacture and adaptation at a scale and capability able to deliver operational advantage for our Armed Forces.

As part of the Strategy, we will work across government to make the UK more competitive in the global export market for uncrewed systems and their development. 

Today’s Strategy builds on the UK’s rich history of developing and operating uncrewed systems, including the use of Reaper MQ-9s by the Royal Air Force, and small to medium uncrewed aerial systems by the Army and particularly the Royal Navy who have developed a growing array of surface and sub-surface capabilities, including autonomous minehunters.

The significance of the experience in the war in Ukraine is highlighted a driver of change in the report: “The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the ubiquity of uncrewed systems in contemporary conflict – initially focused on UAS and rapidly expanding to all forms of uncrewed systems. The frontline operational environment is the most challenging for operating these types of logistic, find, and strike systems, with previously unseen levels of Electronic Warfare (EW). High equipment attrition rates have demanded new types of capabilities, utilising technologies developed at scale for the commercial sector to enable a different cost model to deliver capability.”

But what systems to leverage in the near terms as a building block to the way ahead in introducing uncrewed systems into the force?

In the introduction to the strategy document, the UK Minister of Defence Procurement, James Cartlidge, highlights the initial focus for UK purposes of the following uncrewed systems: “We are harnessing this new approach for use in naval mine clearance; one way attack; heavy lift and Intelligence/Surveillance. Meanwhile, concerted focus is underway to ensure we can counter such threats and provide the protection from uncrewed vehicles that our forces require.”

With regard to maritime uncrewed systems the report highlights the experience of the UK to date as follows: “The Royal Navy has developed the use of Remus 100 and 300 Uncrewed Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) for mine detection, and M500 underwater Remote operated Vehicles for seabed operations; Learning the lessons from the Black Sea and our leadership of experimentation in the Maritime Coalition, UAS are deployed onto Royal Navy frigates, increasingly integrated into ship Combat Management Systems; and . HMS Prince of Wales has conducted a number of ‘firsts’, launching and landing a 9 metre long Mojave RPAS and the UK produced Windracer heavy lift logistic drone.”

Not surprisingly, BAE Systems has announced that they have acquired a company to enhance their involvement in drones and be better positioned to support this new UK strategy.

This February 22, 2024 announcement by them highlights their moves in this domain. “The UK Defence Drone Strategy will create a unified approach across all three military services and industry to enable the rapid experimentation, testing, evaluation and procurement of uncrewed platforms. BAE Systems who recently announced the acquisition of Malloy Aeronautics have invested in uncrewed systems across land, sea and air domains for many years and the new strategy is an important next step.
The strategy will help academia and industry to build on the UK’s already world-renowned leadership in this technology and increase the pace at which we can identify opportunities and collaborate to deliver new capabilities across all domains.”

One assessment of the strategy was published by Openshaw and Co on February 28, 2024, and it highlighted the importance of the ecosystem for such a strategy, not just the platforms.

Uncrewed systems are not limited to a single domain – such systems represent a cross-cutting technology area that extends across Air, Sea, Land and Space.  Often, we embody an uncrewed system as the delivery platform itself, such as the Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) or Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) or Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV).  However, this ignores the wider software, supporting networks, integration, manufacturing, robotics, and digital capabilities that underpin the operational capability itself.  It was pleasing to see the broader ‘system’ aspects referred to in the Defence Drone Strategy.

As this company is focused on intellectual property issues, it is not surprising they raise this aspect of the challenge to innovate in this domain. They highlight the challenge as follows:

The strategic intent to innovate, as presented in the Defence Drone Strategy, would certainly appear to be in place.  What I wonder, is how the strategic intent transitions to a culture and environment where, commercially, it is ‘safe’ to innovate, and where you are incentivised to innovate.

Intellectual Property and Intellectual Property Rights such as patents, can have a role to play in a “culture of delivery-focused innovation”.   A patent application filed for an invention can de-risk future collaboration by giving reassurance to the owner that the associated intellectual property is protected.  Patents can also make smaller businesses more attractive to investors and collaborators, and even provide a mechanism for recognising and rewarding inventors.

Ensuring sufficient IP protections are secured is one thing, but then understanding how best to realise their full potential through the successful navigation of the complex world of Defence contracts is quite another.

What is apparent, the future requirement for drone-based innovation and technology is of very high importance in the wider Defence realm, and one that should inspire the use of patents to protect and future-proof any potential wider commercial applications and revenue streams.