TECHINT Outdragon revealed: UK secretly using US signal intelligence pod on drone operations

Bogeyman 

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Drone Wars UK can reveal that British armed Reaper drones have secretly been equipped with a US intelligence gathering capability called ‘Outdragon’ since around 2019.

Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) pods on US Reaper and Predator drones have been used to geolocate, track and kill individuals via signals from mobile phones, wireless routers or other communication devices using a variety of systems developed by intelligence agencies with codenames such as Airhandler and Gilgamesh.

In response to our FoI requests on the capability, the Ministry of Defence is refusing to confirm or deny any information other than the existence of a 2019 contract to integrate it with UK Reaper drones.

The existence of Outdragon and its use by the UK was confirmed by the (possibly mistaken) publication online of a series of MoD maintenance forms relating to the UK’s new MQ-9 ‘Protector’ drone.

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Documents released by Edward Snowden show that UK AIRHANDLER missions are developed and controlled from the UK’s Joint Service Signals Unit (JSSU) at RAF Digby, which is the nearest military base to the home of UK drone warfare, RAF Waddington. A 2017 Intercept article, based on documents from Snowden, showed that US and British intelligence officials worked “side by side” at the base using AIRHANDLER with UK Reaper drones to gather data and develop near real-time intelligence for military and intelligence operations.

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Images from catalogue of US government surveillance devices leaked to The Intercept in 2015


More recently, General Atomics has begun to advertise the availability of other Reaper pods which carry payloads to undertake electronic warfare, maritime surveillance and tactical and strategic communications. None of these, however, are called ‘Outdragon’.

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What is Outdragon?

There is currently very little reference to Outdragon in the public domain. A 2019 US Defence Department report to congress on the MQ-9 Reaper programme contains a list of Foreign Military Sales (FMS) including to the UK. One entry on the list, dated April 2018 and for a total cost of $5 million, states: “FMS UK-D-ODG provides funding for Outdragon software and associated equipment.”

Separately, a US Federal Award Notification dated 9 April 2019 states that a contract of $2, 254,888 was awarded to General Atomics for “Modification of the United Kingdom MQ-9 Reaper system to modify and integrate the Outdragon capability.” This is the contract that the MoD has now publicly acknowleged.

In late 2023, a few months after the MoD revealed that the first ‘Protector Technicians’ (RAF mechanics being trained to maintain the UK’s new armed drone) had graduated, a number of documents relating to maintenance procedures for the new drone appeared online. These included details of different loads to be carried by the new drone for a variety of missions. Both the ‘armed surveillance’ mission set and ‘surveillance only’ mission set includes the loading of Outdragon

As far as we are aware, there are no images of RAF Reapers carrying a pod in the public domain although there are a few images of US Reaper drones doing so. A US Reaper flying in Poland (see image at top) was pictured carrying a pod which was, aviation journalists at the time suggested was likely to be the ‘SOAR’ pod (details here) advertised by General Atomics and developed in conjunction with L3 Harris.

More recently a US Reaper drone, pictured in Japan in January 2023, carried a pod that aviation experts could not identify although open source intelligence analyst Amelia Heart identified it as similar to mysterious pods that had previously been seen in the wreckage of US drone crashes in Syria in 2020 and Romania in 2022.

Could this mysterious pod by Outdragon? Its possible, but hard to say at this point. It is conceivable, but unlikely, that Outdragon is one of the pods advertised by General Atomics but simply using a different name. Alternatively, Outdragon could be an unknown UK developed capability. Outdragon is also clearly different from Gorgon Stare, which uses two pods (one under each wing) to capture wide area images. Nor does Outdragon appear to be related to the AI system Agile Condor, which was only being test flown as Outdragon was being integrated onto UK drones.

In April 2023, the MoD released new images of the UK’s Reaper to mark the 10th anniversary of remote operations. As aviation journalist Gareth Jennings noted at the time, the images included details that had been blurred out of previous released images or video, including the use of a ‘fin’ which, appears, from the maintenance forms, to be used in conjunction with Outdragon pod.

If you have any information about Outdragon that you would like to share, please get in touch.

UK ‘Intelligence-led’ Targeted Killings

The MoD has grown increasingly reticent to discuss the use of armed drones – even refusing to release statistical information that it had regularly provided in the past. This may in part be due to the fact that Reaper pilots are being re-trained to use Protector and therefore the MoD doesn’t want to reveal that they are fewer Reaper missions. At the same time however, UK armed drones are no longer primarily engaged in on-going armed conflicts as they were in Afghanistan between 2007-2014 (Operation Herrick) and Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2020 (Operation Shader) but rather for “intelligence operations”. MPs and Peers are now rebuffed when asking questions about the deployment of Reaper, with government ministers insisting that Reaper is an intelligence asset and arguing that “we do not comment on intelligence matters.”

At least twice these ‘intelligence operations’ have led to UK drone targeted killings. Firstly in Oct 2021 when the UK targeted and killed Abu Hamza al-Shuhail an alleged arms dealer in northern Syria, with some reports suggested that two or three civilians were also killed alongside al-Shuhail.

Just over a year later, in December 2022, a UK Reaper drone targeted and killed an alleged ISIS leader known as Abu Yasser al-Yemeni, in al Bab, Northern Syria. It took then Defence Secretary Ben Wallace three months before he told the House of Commons that a UK Reaper had conducted a strike against an individual whose “activity was related to chemical and biological weapons.” Again, local reports suggested that at least two civilians were injured in the strike.

The revelation that British armed drones have secretly been using a US SIGINT pod associated with tracking and killing individuals whilst ministers have drawn an even greater veil of secrecy over UK drone operations is a cause for serious concern.

The use of these systems to hunt and execute individuals who have been put on a kill list is one of the worst excesses of the so-call war on terror. British politicians and military officials insisted when armed drones were first acquired that the UK would not follow the US down such a path. Those assurance now look very hollow.

Ministers must explain the use of Outdragon and other such capabilities and ensure proper public and parliamentary oversight over the use of armed drones.

 

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