Over the past few years States, international organisations and civil society groups have expressed concern about the increasing proliferation and use of armed drones. To illustrate what is happening, Drone Wars has compiled details of the use of armed drones in the first three months of 2018. Due to both the lack of transparency by operators and the difficulty of reporting strikes from the remote locations where they often occur, this survey is undoubtedly incomplete. In addition the fact that multiple nations are operating armed drones to launch strikes against differing groups in Syria (US, UK, Israel, Turkey and Iran) and Yemen (US, UAE and Saudi Arabia) makes attribution and accountability for strikes there almost impossible. Nevertheless this short survey (1 Jan 2018 – 31 March 2018) gives something of an insight into the use of armed drones by multiple operators to launch strikes in multiple countries.
The United States
The US continues to be the most prolific users of armed drones and in this short three-month snapshot we have identified US drone strikes occurring in seven separate countries; Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Iraq/Syria: US drones continue to launch strikes in Iraq and Syria as part of the US -led Coalition to defeat ISIS and, separately, to target Al Qaeda. The Coalition announced in February that it was shifting from “enabling combat operations to sustaining military gains.” US statements on strikes in Iraq and Syria generally do not give details of which aircraft has carried out which strikes. Nevertheless, US officials confirmed that US drones took part in air strikes on pro-Syrian forces that were attacking Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) in early February, reportedly killing around 100 fighters including Russian contractors. Separately a US drone also destroyed a Russian tank being operated by pro-Syrian forces.
Yemen: Press reports have occasionally detailed individual strikes (such as here and here) but the majority of strikes go unreported. While not giving details of whether they were carried out by drones or other aircraft, US officials told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) that 15 US strikes occurred in January and February and The Intercept in late March that six had been launched that month, making a total of at least 21 US strikes in Yemen since the beginning of the year. In February scores of Yemenis took to the streets in protest after one of the strikes killed seven civilians in Shabwa province in southern Yemen. A month later, a 13 year-old boy and seven other civilians were killed in a series of US drone strike in eastern Yemen according to detailed reports published by The Intercept.
Somalia: There have been at least five US drone strikes targeting al-Shabaab militants according to public reports in the first three months of 2018 (see here for example). Somalia has seen a real escalation in US air strikes under Trump and a Guardian investigation in January reported that dozens of civilians had been killed in drone strikes during the last six months of 2016. Human rights groups including the Somali Human Rights Association (SOHRA) are demanding greater transparency and accountability for the civilians killed .
Libya: As the Trump administration appears to be ramping up operation in North Africa and the Sahel, US drones have returned to Libya after the air war against ISIS in 2016. US officials have confirmed two strikes took place in March, adding to the half-dozen since Trump took office. The first, near Fuqaha targeted ISIS militants and was followed a few days later by one further south targeting, according to US officials, an al Qaeda leader. The second strike, signalled a possible expansion of US operations southwards reported the New York Times.
Pakistan: After something of a hiatus, US drone strikes returned to Pakistan shortly after Trump took office in January 2017. Since the beginning of 2018 there have been three US drone strikes in Pakistan reported although exact details can sometimes be confused. Relations between the Trump administration and Pakistan are poor and Pakistan has publicly condemned what it calls the “unilateral actions” as “detrimental to the spirit of cooperation between the two countries.” According to Pakistani officials, the US told Pakistan in response that drone strikes would continue until Islamabad “satisfies” Washington that it is itself taking action against all the militant outfits.
Afghanistan: In January Pentagon officials told reporters that the US was increasing the number of troops and deploying more drones to Afghanistan as part of efforts to intensify the war against the Taliban and ISIS. Dozens of US air strikes have occurred in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year, many of which have been reported as drone strikes. US military newspaper, Stars and Stripes reported that Kandahar now has the largest operational deployment of US Reaper drones at one airfield.
The US continues to increase its use of armed drones for strikes both within armed conflicts and beyond. In our snapshot we can see it is not just the amount of countries where strikes are taking place, but the increasing number of strikes within those countries that signal a real increase under President Trump. In March a number of US civil society groups issued a joint statement expressing deep concern about changes in US policy around the use of lethal force and the expansion of the use of armed drones by the Trump administration. For more information on US use of drones and other air strikes by US forces see Airwars and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The UK is the only European country currently operating armed drones, with British Reapers operating in Iraq and Syria as part of the coalition campaign against ISIS. Since the beginning of the year we believe that 58 of around 110 UK air attacks have been carried out by British drones, with one Reaper drone strike in March targeting and destroying an ISIS fixed-wing drone. UK ministers insist that UK drone and air strikes will continue until the “absolute defeat” of ISIS.
In January British intelligence officials told reporters that they were 99.9% certain that 12 year-old British boy JoJo Dixon was killed in a June 2017 US drone strike which killed his mother, Sally Jones. In February it was revealed that a third British man, Naweed Hussain, was targeted in a UK-led, US drone targeted killing operation. Campaigners continue to press ministers and officials to clarify UK policy on the use of armed drones outside of war zones.
Turkey is increasingly deploying its indigenously developed armed drones since they were first used in the summer of 2016. The Bayraktar TB-2, developed by a company owned by the family of President Erdogan’s son-in-law, and the ANKA-C, are the armed versions of Turkish surveillance drones. Turkish media (apparently relying on official sources) reported that out of a total of 405 ‘terrorists’ killed in Turkish military operations in 2017, 64 were killed in Turkish drone strikes.
President Erdogan’s son and son-in-law were pictured in a drone ground control station in January watching drone footage as Turkish forces entered Syria to capture Afrin from Kurdish forces. As well as strikes in Syria, Turkey has also used its armed drones for strikes targeting Kurdish groups both inside Iraq and in Turkey itself. In February Erdogan himself visited the Batman air base in southeast Turkey, from where the Turkish drones are operated. One video, of an apparent Bayraktar strike, was released and said to detail a strike following a rocket attack by Syrian based Kurdish militants south of Afrin. In February a Bayraktar crashed near Afrin either due to malfunction or was shot down according to differing reports.
Turkish defence press reported that the unmanned systems were used intensively in the Afrin campaign and the PM, Binali Yıldırım, said that the drones “altered the fate of the Afrin operation and gave Turkey the upper hand.” In March, Turkey announced that it had added a further eight armed Bayraktar-TB2’s to its arsenal bringing the total up to 23. At the same time Turkey announced that it had signed its first export deal for the drone. Six of the armed drones will be exported to Qatar within the year.
Israeli drones are reported to have carried out some of the air strikes that Israel has launched against Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip since January. Israel, however, never officially confirms when its drones have launched strikes. In February the New York Times revealed that Israel has been secretly launching drone strikes in Egypt’s Northern Sinai over the past two years with the approval of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Meanwhile, Egypt has also reportedly deployed its own armed drones, acquired from China in 2016, in its ‘Sinai 2018’ security operation in Northern Sinai, launched in February 2018.
In February a surveillance drone launched in Syria crossed into Israel and was shot down by Israeli forces. Israel accused Iran of operating the drone against Israel and launched attacks in Syria, targeting air defence positions and a Syrian air base near Palmyra which it said was an Iran command and control position. Iranian military forces are in Syria supporting the Assad regime. An Israeli F-16 was shot down by Syria during the raid and Israel carried out further strikes in retaliation. Iran denied operating the drone, although, as Wim Zwijnenburg demonstrates at Bellingcat, it had all the hallmarks of being Iranian developed. Syrian army forces stated that it had been operating the drone on a routine surveillance mission against ISIS in Syrian territory when it had been shot down. Others suggested that it may have malfunctioned and strayed into Israel.
Nigeria released four videos of its armed drones launching strikes against Boko Haram targets during January and February. Nigeria is clearly stepping up its use of the drones after acquiring them from China in 2015. In March, the Nigerian Air Force also announced the first graduates from its UAV training school after they completed a two year training course.
Non-state groups have also been using armed drones. While many of these ‘drone attacks’ are mostly flying IEDs – quadcopters crudely armed with small explosive devices – other groups are using them in a much more sophisticated way. One such attack, carried out by an unknown group against Russian forces in Syria, took place in early January. Nick Waters, in his in-depth examination of the attack also suggests that an attack on a different base on New Year’s Eve which killed 2 Russian solders could also have been carried out with these type of drones. Russia, later, said it had killed the militants behind the attack and destroyed a stockpile of drones.
Drone Wars: The Next Generation. Our new report, examining which countries are currently operating armed drones and who is likely to join in the near future, will be published in May 2018.