Thursday, 22 October 2009

'For those interested in bombs'

I couldn't embed this BBC video but here's a link to the Newsnight clip. Reporter Mark Urban visits the The IEDD Felix Centre at DM Kineton, Warwickshire. The clip is called 'Learning to be a bomb disposal operator'.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

IVSA conference, Carlisle

'The production of micro-time'.

Returned recently from the International Visual Sociology Association conference at the University of Cumbria, Carlisle. I was on a panel focusing on military landscapes led by Rachel Woodward and Neil Jenkins from Newcastle University. Other panelist included Ed Walley (Leeds Metropolitan University) and Gair Dunlop (University of Dundee). Both gave fine papers: Ed focused on the visibility/invisibility of the military presence in Yorkshire with an emphasis on the Cold War, while Gair's paper, Regimes of Time and the Militarised 20th Century, explored what he called the 'production of micro-time' (issues relating to nuclear detonation) through to the 'extended' time of obsolescence and entropy. Gair also produced this astounding image from Operation Tumbler-Snapper. I nearly fell off my chair. It still gives me the shivers today. I subsequently learned that the image, of a 'rope trick fireball' was taken one millisecond after detonation.

Monday, 6 July 2009

‘Dare to dream...'

The 4th of July celebrations kicked off at RAF Feltwell with a rousing speech by the director of ‘Tops in Blue’ USAF performance troop, in which we were encouraged to ‘dare to dream’ - about what, however, wasn’t all that clear. It seemed less about the possibility of a change in American foreign policy and more about shoring up those ‘values’ which are apparently so crucial to life in a democratic society. Anyway, this all took place in one of the remaining American military enclaves in East Anglia. Lakenheath and Mildenhall are close by but are possibly too sensitive to host an event which is open to local civilians or interested party crashers like yours truly. Feltwell, it seems is no longer the home of the 5th Space Surveillance Squadron (departed in 2003) which, according to Global Security was ‘responsible for detecting, tracking and identifying the status of satellites orbiting Earth’ using ‘the Deep Space Tracking System (DSTS) and low altitude satellites using the Low Altitude Space Surveillance (LASS) system’. That would account for the unavoidable presence of four unique radomes, one of which was used as an improvised projection screen for a vast image of the Statue of Liberty. The 48th Fighter Wing, our host, (also known as the Statue of Liberty Wing) is also based at RAF Lakenheath where, two days earlier, Joe Biden flew in on a ‘unspecified mission’. I didn’t see him here, anyway…

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Whatever happened to Greenham Common?

Image from the Greenham Common Trust, 1996

Greenham Common: 'Scheduled Ancient Monument'.

Despite being no longer in use, the GAMA cruise missile silos at Greenham Common are still surrounded by three rings of steel fencing. Behind them the 'Scheduled Ancient Monument' still looks pretty forbidding though. Curious to know what plans English Heritage have for the site. I'm particularly looking forward to the 'Cold War Experience' (or some such enterprise), and the chance to part with a tenner for a look inside. Currently, however, the Greenham Common trust owns the area of the original base and have sensibly returned most of it to heathland and installed a memorial to the 1980's women's peace campaign. The trust also encouraged small businesses to settle in the old 'domestic' section of the site.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Airspace Models

This images is a Google Earth model of the airspace over the island of Foulness on the Thames estuary. I built it recently as a means of visualising the following Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Danger Areas: D136 (alt 10,000 ft), D138 (alt 35,000 ft), D138A (alt 35,000 ft), D138B (alt 5,000ft). The image also accompanied a paper presentation titled, The Shoeburyness Complex, at the Miltarized Landscapes conference, Bristol University on the 6th September 2008.

Saturday, 13 June 2009


Model of a Watchkeeper UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle)
taken at the Salisbury Plain Airspace Change public consultation drop-in session at the Bowman Centre, Amesbury on Thursday 11 June, 2009.

Domestic Drone Space

Domestic Drone Space.

In a move away from the complex questions surrounding the application of UAVs within the battle space, it is worth addressing their integration into training exercises in domestic airspace. For me this raises a whole new set of problems that relate to a continued blurring of the distinction between military and civil space.

The land owned by the Ministry of Defence for training and defence in the United Kingdom has remained steady for the last ten years at around 1% of the countries total landmass (with another ½ % being leased to them more or less whenever they need it). In most cases this land is relatively clearly defined but where ownership and use is more ambiguous there are the familiar flags, temporary barriers and stop gates employed to restrict entry to these flexible zones. In addition to this, however, are the intangible and barely quantifiable spaces such as transit routes, three dimensional ballistics hazards, the radial spaces defined by noise pollution and, of course, airspace.

The ‘militarized’ airspace of the UK is a highly regulated continuum of invisible but complex architectures. Many exist for only a few minutes at a time, others exist for duration of the working week but many more are permanently off-limits to the passing civilian aircraft. The intersection of permanent aerodrome volumes, bombing ranges, temporary NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen), Air Tactical Areas (ATA) around the coasts and low-fly zones combine to create a uniquely managed environment – one that is created to coordinate a high volume of mixed air traffic. It is one that also currently resists unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has strict guidelines regarding the use of UAVs for military or civilian use. It stipulates that UAVs over 7kg can only operate in UK airspace which is segregated (temporarily or otherwise) from that of manned aircraft. While this may, in part, be the impetus for developing smaller UAVs for domestic applications in urban environments, it also places considerable constraints on the MoD’s burgeoning UAV Watchkeeper program. Judging from a recent application to extend its military airspace to the region south of Salisbury Plain, the MoD must be having considerable difficulties in integrating these drones into training and Mission Rehearsal Exercises. The Watchkeeper’s medium range capabilities are constrained by the existing airspace architecture at Salisbury Plain Training Area which itself is heavily regulated and highly dangerous in equal measure.

The design of this new segregated military airspace and the ensuing consultation process are being managed by QinetiQ on behalf of the MoD, and the opinions of local and national stakeholders organisations are also being solicited as a requirement of CAA procedure. But whether the new space will become a semi-permanent Danger Area such as MoD Shoeburyness on the Thames estuary, the bombing ranges on the Lincolnshire coast and many other sites around the country remains to be seen. If this were the case, however, another block of the sky would be appropriated by the MoD for training activity and another section of the civilian landscape will presided over by military technology. The final go-ahead from the CAA may be some months away and as QinetiQ point out, the airspace design may be subject to changes, but however complicated and drawn-out this procedure may seem, it is something that should be valued for its potential to expose the utility of the technology in question and any further incursions of military spatial production into the civilian realm.

Plans are afoot, however, to eliminate segregated airspace for drones and establish an integrated air traffic policy where manned and unmanned vehicles fly side by side. Industrial and military stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic seem to crave a future where UAV’s fill their domestic skies. In the USA, the Office of the Secretary of Defence stated in 2004, rather worryingly, that this must happen for the sake of national defence and homeland security. There is no reason to suspect that this strategy will change in the near future. Similar objectives are sought for the skies of the UK by a consortium of defence and aerospace giants who gather beneath the banner of Astraea. Under license from the National Aerospace Technology Strategy, Astraea seeks to ‘reinterpret’ the current regulatory framework provided by the CAA to facilitate the desegregation of British airspace.

Of course, the questions surrounding the segregation or desegregation of domestic airspace somewhat lacks the immanence or the strategic consequences of the battle space but they are nevertheless part of the ‘bigger picture’ of UAV deployment. For now the CAA seem to be ahead of the game in terms of restricting UAV deployment until their collision avoidance capability matches that of the human pilot. But with the assumption that deregulated airspace will happen at some stage in the near future and additional pressure from both the state and private sector it seems likely that the CAA will follow suit.

For me, it was a blistering summers day on the Oslo Fjord in 2004 when the airspace divisions were shattered and the ethical implication of drone technologies became immediately apparent. Lying on my back, passively enjoying the usual seaside sensations, an alien buzzing filled the air and a white Predator-type drone calmly passed over me at a unnervingly low altitude. I had vaguely heard about these things but imagined them confined by mountains of red tape to the hidden plains of Nevada or maybe to high altitude reconnaissance over distant war zones. The moment was both alarming and strangely prescient of future when even the most benign holiday activity is monitored by the inscrutable eye of an autonomous drone.

Further reading:

Airspace Integration Plan for Unmanned Aviation, Office of the Secretary of Defence, November 2004, available from:

Information on Astraea at:

QinetiQ’s stakeholder consultation plan for the Salisbury Plain UAV airspace extension plan can be found at:

Civil Aviation Authority guidelines for UAV operations in UK airspace can be found at: