MoD Aberporth from above. (Photo via)
Schoolchildren in West Wales are told they have a choice of sorts and it goes a little something like this: farmer, fisherman, drunk, drone pilot.
Some follow in their father’s footsteps, trying to make a living off the flood-prone land. It’s an unforgiving business but it can be a rewarding one. Others fish the Irish Sea for lobsters and prawns, or take to the offshore rigs where they drill for gas and oil.
Many simply slip away. Some head east while others go down the time-tested path of Tennent's and Teachers – no one said this was a game of equals.
The brainy kids go to sixth-form in the shadow of ParcAberporth Technology Park, the whine of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) whispering seductively.
Those studying science are offered tours of the site and told about the lucrative opportunities for working with the latest in stealth weaponry. They might be promised the sky, but with around 50 people currently employed on the site it seems unclear just where the jobs are going to come from.
ParcAberporth, the UK's only purpose-built testing site for UAVs, opened for business around ten years ago with the Welsh Government promising up to 1,000 jobs. It was here they had the first flight of Watchkeeper – the British Army’s latest unmanned aircraft. After 500 hours of flight time Watchkeeper is now in the final stage of testing before deployment and the operation has been shifted 180 miles to Wiltshire.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has just announced a new £2.5 million contract to continue testing UAVs at Aberporth.
But despite all the talk of “paying dividends to the local community” there is little to suggest the situation is going to change.
UAVs are often called drones – a crude term for something so complex, but then many feel they have reason enough to call them ugly. The word drone comes from the male honey bee whose sole purpose in life is to impregnate the queen.
The term also refers to workers, it’s a pejorative expression alluding to man’s capacity for indolence, after all, the male bee makes no honey. It’s worth noting that these are bees without a sting and once they’ve served their purpose they are expelled from the hive to die.
Two parallel meanings of the same word, conflicting definitions colliding in the West Wales countryside. When it comes to drones, efficiency is the word and the role of humans has been streamlined in almost every way.
The RAF Ensign is lowered as RAF closes at dusk on 31st May 1984. (Photo via)
There was a time when the military was one of the biggest employers in West Wales. With the RAF airbase dating back to the Second World War.
The site employed around 1,000 skilled workers trialing heavy artillery and missiles. Prince Charles and Winston Churchill were among the visitors to the base, which had its own cinema and football team. It also ran a popular apprenticeship scheme through which thousands of youngsters were trained.
Mike Ford, 72, studied and worked at the base testing Bloodhound missles. He now runs a website documenting its history. He said, “It was the making of me; I arrived a spotty faced teen and came out man who they’d trust with a guided missile. My whole career started there. The base had a very tight, close-knit community. Technical work took precedence over everything else. You couldn't tear us away to visit the dentists. But that's all gone now. When the Berlin Wall came down it changed everything. The Bloodhound testing stopped over night. The buildings were left empty for years before being torn down.”
"Business is slow around here, there's a low population and it's hard work so when the UAV testing was announced it was very exciting. But things seem to have gone quiet, they don't seem to have gone everyone interested and quite a few of the bases are empty at the moment. I think there is still potential for job development but at the moment it's just that."
The RAF base closed in 1984 compounding the area’s dire employment situation. The site lay unused for about 15 years – a windswept testament to progress. Entrepreneur Ray Mann, 66, bought the neighbouring West Wales airfield in 2001 – just a month before the twin towers fell and everything changed.
Mann himself acknowledged that the horrors of the 11th of September that year and the subsequent war on terror created the “rapid need” to develop UAVs. Never one to miss a business opportunity this ex-pilot started negotiating with the MoD to begin tests of Watchkeeper on his airfield.
RAF Aberporth Football Team Junior Cup Winners, 1974. (Photo via)
The Welsh Government decided they wanted to get in on the act and ordered for the RAF camp to be demolished to make way for a “UAV centre of excellence”. Politicians gave the go-ahead for £17 million of public money to be pumped into the project with the promise of major job creation. But this hasn’t exactly been the case.
At present the site is thought to employ around 50 people, far short of the RAF station in its prime, not to mention failing to deliver the “major job creation” the area so badly needs.
Harry Rodgers, of local group Bro Emlyn for Peace and Justice, has been campaigning against ParcAberporth since it opened.
“It’s like a joke, except it isn’t funny.” He said to me. “The jobs haven’t materialised at all. The only jobs have been MoD, army jobs and even then we’re talking tens rather than hundreds. You’re looking at an economic disaster; the local community is every bit as devastated as when the air base first closed.”
The development might not have exactly resuscitated the ailing job market but it did ensure the town was the first place in Wales to get superfast broadband, so, hey – every cloud.
It was the nail in the coffin for the humble dial-up modem when homeowners were able to get online via the base’s high tech connection.
This was part of the infrastructure installed by defence technology and security company Qinetiq in 2009, as part of the MoD’s £847 million project to develop Watchkeeper. Qinetiq, set up by the MoD before being privatised by Gordon Brown in 2003, got a £5 million share of this contract.
The Watchkeepr drone's maiden flight.
A year later on the 17th of April, 2010, Watchkeeper had its maiden flight, gliding quietly through the West Wales sky. The locals didn’t take too much notice, maybe they were too busy downloading porn or refreshing the Jobcentre Plus website.
The First Minister of Wales Rhodri Morgan, however, took the opportunity to announce the country was open for business – inviting security companies to test their drones at Parc Aberporth. He was taken up on his offer by a range of private companies keen to test the latest stealth technology over 3,320 square miles of land and sea. This includes Selex Galileo whose Falco drone crashed near the base in 2009 after suffering a mechanical failure. Or maybe the shame of sharing its name with an Austrian rapper got too much for it. And Israeli company Elbit Systems, which has been criticised by Amnesty International for the use of its Hermes 450 drones on the Gaza strip. Despite these investments the number of jobs on the base remained very low.
Watchkeeper is now on the verge of graduating to hostile airspace after being given Release to Service status – the formal safety clearance required to fly in UK airspace. It will now be used for military exercises above Salisbury Plain, the last stage of testing before its deployment in war zones across the world. Campaigners claim it was the “incessant rain and high winds” that passes for weather in West Wales, which led the MoD to relocate.
The firm has started an apprentice training school at Boscombe Down and is currently courting students and graduates in Malvern, Worcester, “helping to inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists and technologists”.
A bloodhound missile crew. (Photo via)
It remains to be seen how the latest wave of MoD investments will affect Aberporth but the main issues remain unchanged.
Mark Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Ceredigion, put it best when he said, “Many promises were made and these have been in the pipeline for a very long time. But despite a lot of public money being spent, there is not much evidence of economic development on the ground.”
And with many of ParcAberporth’s steel-framed industrial units still standing empty the site is looking more and more like a 30 acre memorial to the collateral damage of a multibillion pound war machine – the generations of workers no longer a part of the process.
The armed forces, like the car industry before it, is hurtling unstoppably towards automation with skilled workers being fast replaced by robots.
This is the future of conflict and there will be clear winners.
It won’t be the unemployed workers taking home £56.80 a week in income support after their military jobs vanish. Or the taxpayers who have already bankrolled a massive plan of government spending on UAVs which has topped £2bn.
It will be private business that benefits, businesses such as QinetiQ who made £72.6m profit before tax in the first half of last year.
When you’re looking at those kind of returns then it's obvious that when it comes to drones, we are very much in the early stages of what is sure to be a long and lucrative production line.
For some more so than others.