Drones in the Sahel: in whose interest?

Last week’s military coup in Mali brought brief attention from the world’s media to the Sahel. But behind the latest headlines, drones are a growing part of the ongoing conflict in the region.

French troops guard a Reaper drone

On 21 December 2019, France carried out a drone strike for the first time, killing seven alleged jihadist fighters in central Mali. In total, 40 terrorists were killed during the weekend-long operations which took place in an area controlled by the group, Katibat Macina. The news of the strike came just two days after Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, said its fleet of MQ-9 Reapers had finished testing with laser-guided missiles at an airbase in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Until this point, French Reapers in the Sahel-Saharan strip had been used primarily for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Now, the French government argues, the idea is for the military to have an additional strike capability in its missions, supporting states in their fight against terrorist groups and thus bringing stability and security to the region. The reality, however, is a little hazier than that.  Read more

Five years on from UK’s first drone targeted killing, increasing secrecy needs serious challenge

Secret British drone operations getting little scrutiny

The long delay to the release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report showed all too clearly just how much control the government can wield over Parliament’s weak powers of scrutiny.  While the ramification of this latest setback to parliament’s role of holding the executive to account are still being worked out, the consequences of a similar failure five years ago – when MPs attempted to investigate the use of drones by British forces for targeted killing –  are now apparent.  This should act as a salutary reminder of the need for MPs to constantly push to strengthen their oversight powers.

Five years ago today (21 August 2015), an RAF Reaper drone operating over Syria launched a missile at a vehicle travelling along a dusty road in Raqqa, killing its three occupants including the target of the strike, 21-year old Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan. The targeted killing caused a storm of controversy when then PM David Cameron reported it to parliament three weeks later. The government had not only for the first time launched a lethal strike in a country in which it was not at war, but had also defied a resolution supporting use of force in Iraq though specifically ruling it out in Syria. The government insisted that the operation was necessary as Khan was instigating and encouraging terror attacks in the UK. Read more

Revealed: Private contractors flying British armed drones as number of UK strikes in Iraq increase again

Contractors maintain and operate US drones (General Atomics)

British forces have begun to use private contractors to launch and recover UK Reaper drones undertaking operations against ISIS and other missions which the MoD is refusing to disclose.

The revelation comes as a new Freedom of Information (FoI) response reveals an increase in the number of UK airstrikes in Iraq over the past quarter.  According to the FoI data, UK Reaper and Typhoon aircraft launched 32 airstrikes (or ‘Weapon Release Events’ as the MoD now describes them) against ISIS in April-June 2020.  Not since the end of the battle to regain control of Mosul in 2017 has the UK launched that number of strikes in Iraq. There have been no UK airstrikes in Syria since July 2019.  Read more

Watchdog reports continuing problems with Protector and Watchkeeper drone programmes

General Atomics SkyGuardian drone which UK MoD chooses to call ‘Protector’

Last month the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it had signed a £65 million contract for delivery of three new Protector drones for the Royal Air Force (RAF).  In an upbeat press release, which included the bold claim that the drones are “capable of strike missions anywhere in the world,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace enthused that “the UK is proving once again that we are a world leader in defence technology” (although Protector will actually be purchased from General Atomics, a US-based company, and manufactured in the US) and that the drones would be “meeting the UK’s defence and security needs for decades to come.”

A few days before the MoD’s announcement, however, a more impartial assessment of progress of  the Protector programme was published by the government watchdog, the  Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in its annual report on progress of  major projects.  The Protector programme was rated as ‘amber’ by the IPA in its confidence assessment for delivery of the programme, meaning that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention. These appear resolvable at this stage and, if addressed promptly, should not present a cost/schedule overrun”. The rating is an improvement from amber-red last year (“successful delivery of the project is in doubt”) and red the year before that (“successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”).    Read more

US declares it will breach arms control agreement to sell more drones

US MTCR move signals Trump’s intent on arms control

The Trump administration announced on Friday (24 July) that it will breach the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) by unilaterally re-interpreting it in order to export armed drones.  The US has tried without success over the past four years to persuade other signatories of the agreement including the UK, Canada, France and Germany to make changes to allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) to be exempt from the 1987 agreement.  However, much to their annoyance, other countries have stood firm.

In essence, the MTCR, regulates missile, rockets and similar technology including drones that can travel at least 300km into two categories; Category I are those able to travel that distance and deliver a payload of 500-kilogram; Category II are those able to travel the distance but not carry a 500 kg payload.  Signatories agree a ‘strong presumption of denial’ of exporting Category I systems.  Read more

Drone Proliferation Update, July 2020

Serbia acquires Chinese CH-92 drones
  • This latest update details new operators and other significant developments around the proliferation of armed drones.  For our complete list of states operating, or close to operating, armed drones see Who Has Armed Drones?

Over the last six months, Libya has continued to be the focus for the use of armed drones. France has increased its activity in the Sahel, and several Asian nations, plus Russia, edge closer to operating armed drones. Turkey and Iran also continue to promote their indigenous developments, and the US appears to have decided to unilaterally reinterpret the MTCR guidelines to allow it to increase its export of armed drones.

Meanwhile, UN Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard, has urged action on drone proliferation during her annual report to the UN Human Rights Council, arguing of the need for the international community to  “undertake effective measures to control their proliferation through export and multilateral arms control regimes and/or under international treaties” in order to tackle effectively the many challenges posed by armed drones, particularly for targeted killings. Read more