Over the past few weeks I have been trying to extract details about British drone strikes in Afghanistan from the RAF’s weekly operations reports. It goes without saying that a complete or reliable analysis is not possible from this material alone as it is very limited, subject to censorship and is primarily produced to show UK forces in a positive light. Nevertheless it is possible to gleam some information from the reports which may be more useful in the future when combined with other sources.
In the reports some details of 44 individual British drone strikes in Afghanistan are given. It is certain that there were more UK drone strikes in 2010 than are mentioned in these reports. I would estimate, from other figures supplied by the MoD, that the true number of British drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2010 is actually in the region of 55 to 65.
While specific details or background circumstances of the drone strikes are omitted from the reports, the targets of 44 British drone strikes mentioned in the RAF reports are broken down in the table below.
Where details are given, the majority of the strikes were carried out using a single weapon. 16 times a single Hellfire missile was used and 5 times a single Paveway 500lb guided bomb was dropped. On two occasions two hellfire missiles were used, however for 21 of the reported strikes no details of the weapons used were given.
Only on one occasion are casualties specifically mentioned. A report from January 2010 states that a UK Reaper “fired a Hellfire missile which killed 12 insurgents who were massing to attack a target.” Three times during the period covered it was reported that the possible injury to civilians meant a drone strike was aborted at the last moment or that a missile was deliberately diverted after it had been fired in order to miss its target.
Questions around the current use of drones in Afghanistan fall under several headings. Does the ‘risk free’ nature of remote warfare mean that attacks are undertaken more frequently? Does the supposed accuracy of drone sensors and cameras mean that ‘riskier’ strikes are undertaken? Are British drones being used to undertake targeted killings in contravention of humanitarian and international law?
Analysis of the limited information provided by the RAF reports for 2010 fail to answer these questions. Indeed it raises further questions. For example what are the ‘hostile acts’ (if they are not attacks on friendly forces which are detailed under a separate heading) that led to eight of the drone strikes? Two drone strikes were launched at insurgents planning an attack. How were these plans discovered and could the plotters have been arrested? Three separate drone strikes were launched at identified ‘active insurgents’. Were these targeted killings by British forces or were
the insurgents engaged in armed attacks at the time of the drone strikes?
While some of the targets attacked by drone strikes appear to be no different from those undertaken by manned aircraft, the devil, as they say is in the detail. And there is a lot of detail missing.