New UN Special Rapporteur report on armed drones and targeted killing – its relevance for the UK

Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

Agnes Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has produced a new report on armed drones and targeted killing for the UN Human Rights Council.  The report follows up and adds to two previous reports by her predecessors which we reported on at the time here (2010) and here (2014). While reading the full report is recommended, here is our summary and how it speaks to UK drone operations.

Focused on the use of armed drones in particular for  targeted killings, the report  lambasts the silence of States and international institutions in response to the damage being done by their increasing use:

“The vast majority of targeted killings by drones are subjected to little public scrutiny at either national or international levels. And yet, drone technologies and drone attacks generate fundamental challenges to international legal standards, the prohibition against arbitrary killings and the lawful limitations on permissible use of force, and the very institutions established to safeguard peace and security. [Para 1]

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Libyan war sees record number of drones brought down to earth

Libyans take selfie with crashed Bayraktar drone, April 2020

Our latest quarterly update has added a further 27 crashes/downings of large (NATO class II and II) UAVs to our drone crash database.  This is undoubtedly the largest number we have added in one update and is due to the number of drones operated by Turkey and UAE  on behalf of the two belligerents in the the Libyan ‘civil war’ that have been shot down. In the first 6 months of 2020, we have identified 40 large military drone crashes/downings compared to 28 for the whole of 2019 and 19 for 2018.

On average, 2-3 large drones have tumbled to earth per month over the past decade, but 14 drones crashed/were downed in Libya in April/May 2020. While it is always difficult to sift out details of crashes and downings amidst the hyperbole and propaganda, as always we have only included reports which can be verified with photos and video or come from reliable sources. It is likely that other crashes/downings have occurred but have not been verified.  At the same time, a number of claimed downings proved false. It should be noted that although every drone crash has been claimed as a downing, images of some wreckage show drones to be virtually complete indicating that they were not necessarily hit by missiles. Read more

Drone Strikes in Popular Culture: Eye in the Sky

Examining how popular culture discusses and presents drone warfare is increasingly important today, as public understanding of drone warfare is developed through movies, novels, TV and other cultural forms as much as it is through more traditional news media. Popular culture representation of drone warfare helps to circulate and amplify political ideas about what drones are, how drones are used, and what is ethically and politically at stake.

Take, for example, Gavin Hood’s 2015 film Eye in the Sky, in which civilian and military authorities disagree over the ethics of authorizing a drone strike against an al-Shabab cell planning an imminent suicide attack. Eye in the Sky’s ethical debate is structurally analogous to the ticking bomb scenario, a misleading yet very popular narrative which articulates a defence of extreme violence in ‘emergency’ conditions. As a consequence, the movie frames the moral quandaries of drone warfare in such a way that on the one hand, a Hellfire strike seems to be a simple military necessity and, on the other hand, many of the most important and controversial aspects of drone warfare are left unexplored. Read more

Book Review: The Drone Age by Michael J. Boyle

The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace is a great introduction for anyone looking to get an overview of the important issues surrounding the use of military drones. It is clear, engaging and full of insight, as a result of the authors expertise in the field. For those who already very familiar with military drones, there is less that is unexpected but some of the historical context may be new and is certainly worth understanding. The book brings together a substantial amount of information and is highly recommended for people seeking to understand the origins of drone use and the reasons this technology is changing warfare.

Rather than hype up the dangers and speculate about a dystopian future, the book is a well-balanced explanation of where we are, how we got here, what changes are likely to take place in the near future and why the technology itself is ‘disruptive’ (an argument Drone Wars UK has consistently made). The book charts the different ways in which drones have changed numerous practices of war, balancing out the sometimes predictable focus on hunter-killer missions of Predators and Reapers with the surveillance and targeting support that are the work of the majority of most drone operations. Yet Boyle makes clear that these less headline-grabbing operations have also contributed to a step-change in warfare. ‘The Drone Age’ does not stop there however, and looks at the way in which drones have changed peace-keeping and domestic surveillance. The focus is mainly on state (military and police) use but it also covers the UN, human rights organisations, terrorist and rebel groups, and more. Read more

Turkey’s unprecedented ascent to drone superpower status

  • In this special Long Read, guest writer Samuel Brownsword lays out the rise of Turkey as a drone superpower, as well as its increasing use of armed drones, both within and without its borders.
President Erdogan poses with Bayraktar drone

In late February 2020, at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike in Syria’s Idlib province which Ankara blamed on the government of President Bashar al-Assad, although many suspected that it was in fact carried out by Russian forces.  At the time, those monitoring events in Syria feared that the attack could trigger a direct confrontation between Turkey and Russia, a supporter of Assad. Events leading up to this incident had already strained relations between the two countries and threatened to rupture defence, energy, and trade links. However, Ankara’s response not only marked the beginning of a new stage in the Syrian civil war, but yet another escalation in global drone warfare.  Read more

A Joint Enterprise: How the UK and the US co-operate on drone warfare

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A new report published today by Drone Wars UK investigates the co-operation between the UK and the US in relation to armed drone operations. While the UK insist its armed drone programme is separate and independent to that of the US, our report, ‘Joint Enterprise: An overview of US-UK co-operation on armed drone operations’, argues that close historic ties, shared use of infrastructure and tightly integrated operations show that that the two programmes amount to a joint enterprise, with arguably joint liability.

The report lays out how co-operation between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and US Air Force (USAF) takes place in a wide range of areas and maps out the bases, companies, and operational units behind this joint enterprise. It shows how the harmonisation of equipment and concepts of operation, interoperability, and a single centre of command and control help to tie the UK into overseas ‘coalition’ wars led by the US.

As Drone Wars has revealed, there are currently a number of RAF Reapers deployed on a mission which the MoD will not discuss. It is more vital than ever that there is proper public transparency over UK drone operations and clearer understanding of the links with US drone operations. Read more