New UK Drone Strategy to Invest Billions in Unmanned Systems

U.K. MP James Cartlidge introduces the new Ministry of Defence drone investment strategy during an appearance and tour of a Malloy Aeronautics facility in Maidenhead. (Image: Ministry of Defence)

The U.K. Ministry of Defence (MOD) published a new 12-page defense drone strategy last week that will see the agency invest £4.5 billion into the purchase of new unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technologies over the next decade.

Under the new strategy, the U.K. aims to accelerate access to UAS for its armed forces across air, land and sea. An introductory note from Minister for Defence Procurement James Cartlidge notes that the strategy is driven by lessons learned from the war in Ukraine, where British defense officials have observed how the game-changing use of low-cost drones equipped with powerful weapons and advanced surveillance technology on both sides of the conflict.

"This will require changes in our processes, culture and relationship with industry. We will need to foster a culture of delivery-focused innovation across Defence, able to rapidly pull research & development (R&D) breakthroughs into the frontline," Cartlidge writes.

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 ‘spiraled’ - to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology and changing threat picture.

While the new strategy focuses on investing, developing and operating new drone technologies for British soldiers in the future, the agency states that it remains committed to their ongoing Ukraine-U.K. uncrewed systems initiative, building on their previous donation of more than 4,000 drones to Ukraine.

Of the £2.5 billion 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 U.K. 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 U.K.’s domestic drone industry across manufacturing and software development whilst giving Ukraine cutting-edge, battle-tested capabilities.

A comprehensive partnership with industry is at the core of the new strategy, and building on the U.K.’s extensive number of companies developing new robotics and digital technologies. Through regular, clear industry engagements, MOD seeks to incentivize industry to support the rapid manufacture and adaptation of new uncrewed systems at scale.

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

The new strategy builds on the U.K.’s history of developing and operating uncrewed systems, including the use of Reaper MQ-9s by the Royal Air Force, and small to medium drones by the Army and particularly the Royal Navy who have developed a growing array of surface and sub-surface capabilities, including autonomous minehunters.