UK Drone Strikes: Peeking Behind the Curtain

We are publishing from today a list of known UK drone strikes in Afghanistan.
The list will be regularly updated when information becomes available.
The UK Drone Strike List is available here

In summary:

  • Some details of 80 (40%) of UK drone strikes have been revealed, information about another 150 UK drone strikes remains secret;
  • In February 2012 a British Reaper drone tracked a “high value insurgent” over a period of eight hours before launching a drone strike
  • Two other reports in the list detail strikes that may possibly be targeted killings
  • UK drone strikes are regularly aborted at the last-minute due to the possibility of causing civilian casualties

The growing use of armed drones has raised a number of legal, ethical, political and moral questions. Most of  these questions however, are very difficult  to address without access to the  appropriate information  revealing how armed drones are actually being used.  While there is some public information about US drone strikes in Pakistan, there is very little information available about US and UK drone strikes in Afghanistan.

Drone Wars UK has repeatedly asked the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) to release details of the circumstances of UK drone strikes.  Unfortunately all such requests are currently being refused.

Since June 2008 the Royal Air Force (RAF) has published a weekly report of its activities in Afghanistan.  The reports, called Operational Updates, although far from comprehensive, subjected no doubt to censorship, and apparently primarily produced to portray the RAF in a positive light, nevertheless give occasional brief details of  UK drones strikes.

While some mention of Reaper drones was made in the weekly reports in 2008 and 2009, it was not until January 2010 that a Reaper drone strike is first mentioned:

” During the week [a Reaper] fired a Hellfire missile which killed 12 insurgents who were massing to attack a target.”    

Since that first piece of information almost one hundred British drone strikes have been mentioned in the weekly reports.

Today we are publishing a list of UK drone strike compiled from the RAF operational reports.  We will regularly update the list, both from the RAF reports and hopefully from other sources when they become available.

A Partial Picture Only

We know from a Freedom of Information (FoI) request that there have been 248 British drone strikes to date (29 Feb 2012).  This means that the strikes recorded in the weekly Operational Updates represent only 40% of the total number of British drone strikes.  Details of the other 60% remain secret and unreported.  In addition the reports have obviously been self-selected by the RAF and none of the reports have been independently verified.  Tellingly a British strike that took place on 25th March 2011 in which at least four civilians were killed was not mentioned in the weekly reports and all reports of Reaper activity ceased for eight weeks after.

What is revealed

Of the 80 drone strikes that the RAF have given some details about in the weekly reports, about half (39) targeted “attacking insurgents”, “insurgents firing on friendly forces”,  or insurgents “preparing” or “massing” to attack. 17 strikes targeted insurgents who were “active”, “armed” or “committing hostile acts”.  It is not clear in all cases what this actually means.

Another 13 of the reported drone strikes were targeted against those said to be individuals or teams emplacing IEDs, with 6 strikes targeting weapons caches or explosive production facilities.

Two of the strikes were targeted at a “high value insurgent” and a “known insurgent”, while a third was detailed as “a significant operation”.  These could potentially be targeted killings.

Finally the updates twice report that missiles were diverted away from their targets after being launched from as civilians had approached the target area.  The weekly reports detail on a number of occasions the fact that strikes were terminated at the last possible moment because of danger to civilians.


Apart from the very first reported drone strike in 2010, no fatalities had been given.  However from June 2011 there appears to have been a change in policy as 17 of the 46 drone strike reported in that period included casualty figures. Of the 18 strikes reported that give such details there were a total of 52 reported people killed.

Missing Details

While it is helpful to have this ‘peek behind the curtain’, it is far too little information to make any proper judgement about the growing use of drones.  Apart from anything else, there is no detail at all about the other 60% (150 drone strikes) that have taken place.

In order to begin to answer the questions that have been raised by the growing use of armed unmanned drones, it is vital that more information is released about the circumstances of these strikes.  There cannot be proper public accountability for what is being done with this new type of weapon system until a proper, public, informed debate takes place.  Such a debate cannot happen without the release of further information.

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