‘Drones Fly, Children Die’ – Today, Tomorrow, Forever?

Reaper-2The present and future use of armed drones in Afghanistan came under the spotlight this week, with details of one drone strike in which a 2 year-old child was killed being revealed.

Negotiations continue between Afghanistan and the US over a bilateral security agreement that would allow US military forces to continue operating within Afghanistan after December 2014 when NATO combat operations are due to end.

President Hamid Karzai has stated publicly that he wants no more house raids by US forces (these are deeply unpopular within the country) and has also stated that he would not sign the agreement if more Afghan civilians were killed.  The US has said that they will begin pulling all US forces (as opposed to just ‘combat forces’) out of Afghanistan if the security agreement is not signed by the end of 2013.

On Thursday (28 Nov), during these very public negotiation, Karzai accused the US of killing a 2 year-old child in a drone strike and said he would not sign the agreement.   After a day of NATO saying they were “investigating” and “working with Afghan officials to determine what happened ” a NATO spokesperson confirmed civilian casualties in a drone strike.  According to the Washington Post report:

“The coalition spokesman confirmed that two drone incidents had taken place in Helmand Province on Thursday. The first, in the Garmsir district, targeted an insurgent commander traveling on a motorcycle, but missed him and apparently hit civilians. One child was reported killed, and two women were severely wounded. The targeted man fled on foot and was killed by a later drone strike. In the second, in the Nawa Barak Sai district nearby, another drone strike killed a single insurgent target and caused no civilian casualties, the spokesman said.

While Karzai (and the media) assume that the strike that caused civilian casualties was carried out by US forces, it could however have been a British drone strike  and we have submitted a Freedom of Information request to British MoD about this incident.

The brief details provided by the NATO spokesperson, it should be noted, again bursts the bubble of  ‘precision’ and ‘pinpoint accuracy’ that is ever present in media discussion of drone warfare  – the drone strike simply misses its target, hit civilians and the target gets away (albeit temporarily).

It remains unclear at this stage whether  the agreement will be signed and US forces will continue to operate within Afghanistan post-2014.  With regard to US and British drones currently operating there (as opposed to ground forces)  both countries  are sticking rigidly to the mantra that “a decision has yet to be made.”

British Reaper drones were purchased and are currently operated under Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) procedures, outside normal processes.  This means, in theory at least, once British forces leave Afghanistan, the armed drones could be consigned to  history and not become part of mainstream forces.   While there has been no official announcement, it seems highly unlikely that the UK will abandon its armed drone capability, particularly as an additional five Reaper are just coming into service.  Another clear signal that armed drones  are to be part and parcel of the British air power into the future is the chapter on drones just published in the RAF’s new yearbook, ‘Air Power 2013’ – dully but tellingly entitled ‘Integrating remotely piloted air systems’

Meanwhile, drone proliferation continues with The Netherlands announcing  last week that it is to purchase US Reaper drones following in the footstep of Italy, France and the UK.  The Dutch Reapers, like the Italian and French will be unarmed.  Germany appears – at least at this stage – to be opting out of the Reaper club with the draft agreement between the Conservatives and Social Democrats  ruling out the purchase or development of armed drones over the next four years.

European Defence Ministers have also formed, in the words of French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, “a drones club” to look at developing a future European Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone for use between 2020-2025.  The seven countries – France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain – tasked the European Defence Agency (EDA) to draw up production plans.  The EDA said in a press release that “the objective of this community is to exchange information as well as to identify and facilitate co-operation among member states which currently operate or plan to operate RPAS [Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems].”

Elsewhere, BAE Systems and Dassault have finished a 15-month study into the possibility of jointly developing a combat drone demonstrator.  Although the two companies continue to work on separate combat  drone programmes – Taranis in BAE’s case and NeuroN (alongside EADS) in Dassault’s case – the pair are working to persuade the British and French governments to fund work on a future drone.

There will no doubt be more discussion on current and future drones at the EU Council Meeting later this month which is due to look at ‘defence’ issues. Whether the 2 year-old child killed in last weeks drone strike (and many others like him) will be given even a brief thought is unclear.

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