QinetiQ announced this year they are working to develop Llanbedr Airfield (near Snowden) as a new drone operating centre linked with Parc Aberporth (and it’s always important to remember QinetiQ’s shady origins). In December the US renewed an agreement with Qatar to host the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid airbase from which the air war in Afghanistan is run. Lots was written about drones operating in the US this year, but we particularly liked this piece about what the real questions Americans should be asking about drones. As always Quakers continue to be at the forefront of opposition to drone warfare.
Reprieve continued its great legal campaigning on drones highlighting in particular UK support for US drone strikes in Pakistan. While development of new drones continues, General Atomics Reaper remains the mainstay of US drone military operations, plans to extend its endurance and range were revealed this year. Many senior counterterrorism experts continued to argue that drone strikes contribute to what has become known as ‘radicalization’ rather than achieving effective peace and security. At the end of December, the US DoD released an updated drone roadmap giving current inventory numbers and forecasts for future spending.
The UK acquired the Scan Eagle drone for use by the Royal Navy – the sixth type of drone operated by the UK. Secrecy continues to surround the use of armed drones, with even previously available drone strike statistics being wiped from the web this year. The New York Times broke ranks and revealed the existence of a secret US drone base in Saudi Arabia used to launch strikes in Yemen.
The UK’s advanced drone, Taranis, was reported to have taken its first flight during the year but little evidence was forthcoming. Emptywheel posted a useful timeline detailing dates and events connected with the targeted killing of US citizens, while Anthony Dworkin wrote an important paper arguing that the EU needs to take a much tougher stance on the issue. Reprieve documented the shocking trauma caused by drones and drone strikes to young children in Yemen while a consensus continues to build for great transparency on the use of armed drones.
In October UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson published an interim report from his inquiry into the use of armed drones . In July a UNAMA report gave rare details of civilian casualties from drone strikes in Afghanistan, reporting a 23% increase over the previous period. In September Edinburgh University bowed to pressure from students and campaigners and disinvested from Reaper & Predator component manufacturer Ultra Electronics.
Pitch Interactive produced an amazing – and shocking – visualisation of US drone strikes in Pakistan. The Vatican spoke out on drones in November saying drones “lower the threshold of conflict, making it seem more attractive to enter into war.” The voices of drone victims also began to be heard – at least when the US and the UK weren’t denying them visas to give evidence at public hearings.
The UK began operating its armed Reaper drones from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire from April. The UK’s Watchkeeper drone, supposed to be in service from 2010, is still delayed and many now question whether it will be in service before UK troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan. The MoD continued to insist that no decisions have been taken about the future use of British Reaper drones post Afghan withdrawal.
Northrop Grumman’s X-47b drone gained huge media coverage when it autonomously landed and then took off from a US aircraft carrier in July, although there was much less coverage of two further failed attempts. The mysterious X-37b space drone continues to circle the earth, reaching its one year anniversary in December. What its payload and current mission are, as ever, remain secret. Yemen continues to be a focal point for US drone strikes with a barrage of attacks taking place in August after ‘intelligence chatter’ supposedly indicated an imminent attack. At the beginning of the year Micah Zenko of US Council on Foreign Relations but forward an interesting and useful agenda for reforming, rather than ending US drone strike policy while in July Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri released an audio tape which, perhaps unsurprisingly, condemned the use of drones.
PS – Thanks as always to our readers and supporters. See you in 2014.