back to article Army says farewell to UK's 'bugger-off' airbag drone

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced the formal retirement of its infamous "Phoenix" reconnaissance drone, leaving at least a two-year wait before its partly-British replacement is planned to come into service. Until then, the British forces will use hastily-imported overseas equipment bought under emergency procedures …


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  1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects


    I don't know why we bother with manufacturing things here at all. Why not send it all abroad? I am sure China can supply us with all our needs. They certainly seem capable of keeping us well shod.

  2. Stephen

    Vested interests?

    Another week, another Lewis Page article slagging off Watchkeeper. You do know that these things are designed for completely different purposes don't you? Have you got share options in GAASI you should be declaring perhaps?

  3. Alan Brown
    Dead Vulture

    Quality British workmanship.....

    Were they designed/built by British Leyland^W^WRover by any chance?

  4. Graham

    I have to disagree...

    "great operational experience"

    I'm sure it did provide great experience, of what not to do; the spokesbunny never said "a great operational experience", that would have been indefensible!

  5. David Cornes
    Paris Hilton

    Make cash not war

    Y'know the more I read (in El Reg 'natch) about the fat pork wastage of the UK military, I wonder if it might actually be a lot more cost effective to just scrap ALL armed forces, keep a big pot of cash handy, and pay anyone who wants threatens us to simply go away?!

    "$100m to not attack the UK Mr. Bin Laden? Cheap at twice the price thank you very much" :-D

    Paris, 'cos I bet she'd know how to spend money better than the MoD.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    @ Stephen

    The only "vested interests" at work in the MOD are those that insist on delivering poor systems to out armed forces and even poorer value to the taxpayers.

  7. namtog

    May I ask.

    "And meanwhile, British troops - so badly paid that they are often not from Blighty at all nowadays"

    Being the ignorant American i am I'm compelled to ask.

    Where are the British troops from?

    If they are from another country do they qualify for citizenship after service?

    I would really like to send you some of our best guys. No really, our top drawer players.

    Didn't fall for that one, did you.

  8. brian

    How difficult can it be?

    About two miles up the road from is a large field where modelling enthusiasts make radio controlled aircraft, some of which have wingspans in excess of 2m. If a bunch of cardigan wearing "anoraks" (pardon the mixed metaphor) can manage with tissue paper and dope then surely the MoD can make a slightly heavier version?

    The only real expense is the instrumentation module and if that was recessed into the body instead of sticking down underneath...... or maybe, just maybe, they could try some of those new fangled "wheel" thingies....

    Mine's the one with the radio controller in the pocket!

  9. Steve

    @ namtog

    "Being the ignorant American i am I'm compelled to ask.

    Where are the British troops from?"

    Former commonwealth countries, mainly. Basically, they fight for our country for 10-20 years in some of the nailsest regiments in the world (eg Ghurkas) and at the end of that they very politely ask if it would be at all possible for them to have citizenship, please.

    Then the government sticks their fingers in their ears and says, "La, la, la. Can't hear you."

  10. Henry Lockwood
    Black Helicopters


    All well and good, but the main difficulty (I suspect) is in the remote control range. Most hobby aircraft won't have an operational range over about 1 mile (if that), and wouldn't be exactly difficult to shoot down. On the other hand, they're probably cheaper than SAMs...

  11. Anonymous Coward

    Lewis is right - they really were shit

    I was very peripherally involved with it in the early 90s, as my then company had a small contract to make a takeoff predictor tool for them.

    Basically, you fed in various parameters like wind speed and direction, takeoff weight, air pressure, temperature and so on. The software would crunch some numbers and give you a plot showing the takeoff path, which you could then use to decide whether the thing could actually get off the ground.

    The problem was that the power-to-weight ratio was so feeble, it was touch-and-go as to whether you could fly it at all. I guess that our little bit of software probably saved at least a few airframes, so perhaps we helped it to last as long as it did.

  12. Alex D
    Black Helicopters

    @Namtog, Steve

    Then the government sticks their fingers in their ears and says, "La, la, la. Can't hear you."

    Don't worry though, they do give them a pension...

    (vastly less than what the pay any British Citizen troops who have stuck around for that long though)

  13. brian
    Black Helicopters

    @Henry Lockwood

    "...the main difficulty (I suspect) is in the remote control range..."

    I don't doubt it. Most hobbyist kit couldn't support the instrumentation package's weight or battery, but at the end of the day I would expect these minor problems to be solvable. After all, a handheld satellite telephone can reach an orbiting satellite and the technology is out there for a few hundred quid. Maplin can flog a webcam and a thumb drive to support an operating system and solid state storage. I could build one of these things in my shed get change from a grand or two

    OK - so the MoD version would be fancier, but by a cost factor of several thousand times? If they're cheap enough then it doesn't matter if you trash them when you land them.

    (NOTE: the best way to make these things invisible is to light them up. Weird, but true)

  14. Will


    So the main problem is; Predators are operated by the RAF. The Royal Artillery (who Lewis Page would have you believe there is not point too...) don't want to go and ask the RAF to play with their Drones, because chiefly it would take too long, and anything would be handed over to the RAF to go bomb...

    I think we need to break down the barriers between our armed services....

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Where do the troops come from?

    Actually the vast majority of the British armed forces do come from the UK. There are some commonwealth troops there - I've served with a Canadian who had emigrated to the UK from Canada and transferred from the Royal Canadian Air Force to the RAF. You also have the Gurkha regiments. Also some regiments (like the Royal Irish Regiment) recruit from Eire as well as Northern Ireland.

    Of course, this isn't like the US army where half the force is made up of Mexicans doing their 2 years for citizenship stint...

  16. Joe Stalin
    Dead Vulture

    @ Stephen

    "The only "vested interests" at work in the MOD are those that insist on delivering poor systems to out armed forces and even poorer value to the taxpayers."

    I think you got that the wrong way round. It's the BPI (poor bloody infintry) that would appear to get the poorest value not civies, as the squadies are the ones who's life is most likely on the line.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Phoenix != remote control

    At least not in the accepted sense...

    The aircraft flies itself autonomously, doing whatever is necessary to meet the needs of the mission controller and the image analyst. There is no facility for a remote pilot to actially take control of it.

    The mission controller can plot a general course based on a series of waypoints, and the image analyst can then demand particular types of live infra-red imaging video scan - say to look at a point, or scan along a particular bearing at a particular speed etc. The aircraft flies orbit patterns to enable it to loiter in one general area for long enough. It is also possible (in theory) to hand over the air vehicle from one ground station to another to extend a missions range beyond the comms range of a single ground station.

    There is lots of quite clever stuff in there, but that is part of its problem - its a massively distributed system involving countless boxes that need to communicate and work together (IIRC, I counted over 85 processors in one complete system - only two of which were in the aircraft itself), and a comms failure in any part can break a mission (or an air vehicle!) It did not help that there was always a strong suspicion that the flight control computer used to tell the rest of the system porkies about where it actually was, which can make rather a mockery of the complex algorithms that point the comms antennae on the airframe supposedly at the ground station! Probably why a number lost contact and buggered off ;-)

  18. Nigee

    a few points

    All UK service folk get the same level of pension when they retire, this change happened some 10 years (do try and keep up) when the Gurkhas became 'UK based' after HK was surrendered. There's nothing new in assorted foreigners serving, it's being going on for ever.

    The Army has used model aircraft, during the cold war and perhaps after, they were used as targets for squaddies with machine guns called 'all arms air defence', the Falklands having revealed that some driver chappies aloft tend to get put off their stroke by the little orange golf balls coming towards them, causing them to go up a bit making themselves easier targets for the AD professionals (although at the moment a lot of these are temporarily diverted to flying UAVs due to the army not having enough operators either on paper or in actuality to meet the surging demand for UAVs, which is one of the reasons for getting rid of Phoenix). And who knows you might even get lucky with an MG and win a prize.

    The hand launched mini UAVs are not too different to model aircraft and have short range and short endurance, their sensor fit is also fairly limited. Bigger birds fly longer (Hermes several times the duration of Phoenix), but range from the ground station is a function of flight altitude, and flying higher means more powerful sensors in some cases (= bigger, = bigger bird, etc, etc).

    For the record the Royal Artillery has operated UAVs continuously since 1961 (this makes them the longest users of tactical UAVs in the world), Phoenix was their third generation system (the name comes from it replacing the Westland gen 3 disaster 'Mr Rastus' that was cancelled by the general most concerned when Westland pissed him off once too often). It's the RAF who are the new players, as for arming UAVs the gunners are rushing ahead on this but cunningly calling it a 'loitering munition'.

  19. Adam Ward
    IT Angle

    Foreign soliders in British Army

    Its little noted how many non-UK soldiers are serving in the British Army these days, beyond the famous Gurkhas. Mostly this is because the army is overstretched and UK teenagers have far better things to do than play cannon fodder in Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite massive cuts in battalion numbers, and further cuts in battalion strengths, the UK army is still 10% understrength. We need the foreigners to fight the war in Iraq, without them, we are boned.

    In 2006 the percentage went past 10% foreign personnel, with people from 57 nations. These nations are often Commonwealth, but also include places such as the Ukraine. There are, ballpark, around 3,000 Ghurkhas, and around 7,000 others currently in the army. Fiji is the largest provider, with around 2,000. Jamaica and South Africa are next, each with around 1,000 soldiers. After that its Zimbabwe with around 500.

    We don't make an issue of but former British Army soldiers from Fiji have been responsible for much of the internal political troubles of Fiji as former SAS men have been involved in every coup attempt to date.

    Joe Stalin,

    You're arguing that the poor bloody infantry get bad value, which is probably true, but they're volunteers and work directly for the MOD bosses. Taxpayers hardly volunteer and get no say in how inept the MOD is. You'll forgive the taxpayer if we look at the amount that the MOD spends (we're now 2nd on the planet) and say hang on a minute, where did the money go? Or more accurately, in the case of Phoenix, which wall was it pissed against?

  20. Chris Coles

    Competing designs are the only way forward.

    Competition between many suppliers is the only way to address the problems of such equipment. The overall problem is that we do not promote enough competition for the supply.

    Without competition you do not have any chance of ever getting the best solution for the needs of the soldier on the ground.

  21. C Greenock


    @David Cornes

    "I wonder if it might actually be a lot more cost effective to just scrap ALL armed forces, keep a big pot of cash handy, and pay anyone who wants threatens us to simply go away?!"

    Been tried already. It was called Danegeld. A bloke called Alf tried it, got burned a couple of times then decided he'd had enough. It didn't work out exactly the way he wanted - why do you think they're all so strange in the Eastern counties? - but it did turn out cheaper over the long haul.

  22. Paul
    Black Helicopters

    @ namtog

    "Foreign" troops are also a safer bet if they need to be deployed against the indigenous population.

  23. Mister_C

    TV commercial

    Will the army also be "retireing" that commercial featuring video gaming squaddies overflying a foot patrol then?

    Mines the one that isn't camouflaged

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    re. Competing designs are the only way forward.

    Unfortunately the R&D costs are so high that companies won't take part in a competition unless the MOD will foot the bill (i.e. the taxpayer pays for two designs to get one solution).

    Like IT systems, the "problem" is defining the problem; once you know what to solve the solution is easy! With military kit the problem definition usually takes so long the problem has changed and the solution doesn't solve it!

  25. Demian Phillips

    @Adam Ward

    On the topic of Fiji, maybe they were upset about the failure of the farm plans they had? I mean one can only try so many times to breed horses from a sheep and a cow.

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