Armed drones proliferation update – May 2022

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Today we are publishing a fully revised and updated list of countries operating medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) armed drones as typified by the MQ-9 Reaper and Bayraktar TB2. Please note our list does not include states operating loitering munitions (sometimes dubbed ‘suicide drones’ by the media) or other, one-off use systems.

According to our data, 26 countries currently possess armed drones although for four of these, it is not clear if the drones are actually operational. Out of the 22 states known to operate armed drones, 11 have used them for cross border strikes, while 9 have used them to launch strikes within their own borders.

Since our last update just under a year ago, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Russia and Turkmenistan now possess armed drones.  Of these, Ethiopia and Russia are known to have already used them to launch strikes, while Morocco appears to have launched a drone strike in Algeria.  Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan join Kazakhstan on the list of those who possess the capability seemingly for prestige purposes without any evidence that the systems are operational. Jordan’s CH-4 armed drones are non-operational and have been put up for sale, and while were rumours that they were purchased by a Libyan militia this has not been confirmed.  The full list –  and brief details for each country –  are on our page: ‘Who Has Armed Drones?

Turkey’s armed drone exports surge

Since developing and deploying the Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, Turkey has becoming a significant exporter of armed drones.  As the table below shows, 22 states have acquired armed drones in the nine years between 2013 and 2021.  All bar two of the eleven countries to gain the capability between 2013 and 2018 obtained their armed drones from China.

countries by year - exporter May22c

 

However, in the last three years, only three of the eleven countries to gain the capability imported their armed drones from China, while six imported from Turkey. In addition, at least three other countries that were already operating Chinese armed drones have now also imported Turkish armed drones (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia).  Read more

Ukraine and the ethical debate on armed drones: some early reflections

Images of Bayraktar TB2 strike in Ukraine – undated.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has rightly been condemned across the globe.  The on-going war is horrific, with verified reports of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and a number of reports of killings which amount to war crimes.  At the time of writing, the UN reports that around 2,000 civilians have been killed since the invasion began although the actual figure may be much higher.  It is good to see so see such widespread condemnation of the war, although it is hard not to ask why there is little condemnation of other wars and not come to the obvious conclusion.

After seven weeks, there is a great deal that can be said about this awful war and the initial reaction to it. But our primary focus, as always, is on the use of armed drones and the ethical debate that surrounds their growing use.

Bayraktar drone use in Ukraine

While a variety of small unarmed drones have been used in Ukraine by both sides for surveillance and intelligence gathering, it is the use of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone by Ukrainian forces that has gained most attention.  Multiple news articles have reported that the Bayraktar drone has been used to deadly effect against Russian heavy weapons with headlines such as ‘Ukraine’s Drones Are Wreaking Havoc On The Russian Army’ and ‘Ukraine’s Secret Weapon Against Russia: Turkish Drones’Read more

MoD challenged at Information Tribunal on secret UK Reaper drone operations

Drone Wars appeared in court yesterday to appeal the refusal of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to give basic details of UK Reaper operations outside of its campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Judgement in the case is due to be given in around six weeks’ time.

In January 2020 the MoD refused to answer a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Drone Wars UK seeking the number of UK Reaper flights that had taken place outside of Operation Shader during 2019 and their location. The request was refused both on national security and international relations grounds. Subsequently, Ministers refused to answer questions both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords about the sorties, claiming that Reaper was an ‘intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform’ and that Ministers “do not comment on intelligence matters.”

Labour MP Clive Lewis wrote directly to the Secretary of State, Ben Wallace, about the matter and was told in response:

“REAPER is not conducting strike operations outside those theatres for which Parliament has approved the deployment of UK Armed Forces. The vast majority of REAPER missions are reconnaissance and surveillance operations and as I am sure you can understand, to reveal where it is conducting those missions would provide valuable information to our adversaries.”

Clive Lewis and crossbench Peer, Baroness Viviane Stern, member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and Modern Conflict submitted written statements to the Tribunal urging the need for transparency. Mr Lewis argued that  the refusal to answer questions about the deployment of Reaper is “a serious backward step in terms of transparency and accountability.”

Baroness Stern stated:

“Despite repeated attempts by myself and colleagues to attain even the most basic information about the UK’s drone deployments, policy, and commitments, Parliament has not been provided with the accurate and timely information needed to meaningfully carry out its constitutional scrutiny role. Whilst certain details must be kept secret in order to ensure operational and national security, the current trend of withholding information about the use of drones purely because it is seen as an “intelligence” asset, as well as withholding vital information on the UK’s growing military capabilities and commitments is deeply concerning and unjustified.”

In court, the MoD argued against the release of the information on two grounds.  Firstly, that the information was exempt from release under Section 26 of the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that the information would prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of relevant forces.  Secondly, it argued that release of the information was exempt under Section 27 of the Act, in that its release would prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other State and/or the interests of the United Kingdom abroad.  Read more

British Reaper drone crashed after landing at undisclosed location in December 2021

UK Reaper drone ZZ209, damaged in a December 2021 accident, seen here being delivered to the RAF in Afghanistan in 2014.

A British Reaper drone crashed after landing on 1st December 2021 the MoD has revealed in a Freedom of Information response to Drone Wars UK.

The crash is the sixth ‘mishap’ that has occurred to the UK’s armed Reaper UAV fleet since the system came into service in 2008. At least 20 large (Class II and III) military drones operated by UK armed forces have crashed in the last 15 years. The latest accident came less than a month after a newly purchased Reaper came into service to  with the intention of bringing the UK’s fleet back up to its full strength of ten.

While the MoD is refusing to disclose the location of the accident for national security reasons, unless it was an improvised or emergency landing – of if UK Reapers have been deployed to an additional location for operations outside of Iraq and Syria – it is likely to have been at the Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait where the UK’s Reapers are believed to be based.

The MoD state that the accident was caused by the “failure of the nose wheel steering on landing.”  This indicates that the drone likely ran off the runway. The status of the drone, whether it is repairable, and, if so, how long it will be out of service, is still “under investigation”.  Read more

Cost of UK air operations in Iraq and Syria tops £2bn with no end to strikes in sight

The long-delayed publication of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) accounts for 2020/21 show that the cost of UK air strikes and operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2014 has now topped £2 billion.  It should be noted that these costs are covered by the Treasury over and above the UK’s defence budget.  The UK carried out 54 air strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2021.

Published nine months after the  financial year end, the MoD’s accounts for 2020/21 detail that the ‘net additional cost’ to the UK of air operations against ISIS in the Middle East were £176m – an increase of 20% over 2019/20.  

Both the Iraq and Syrian government declared the military defeat of ISIS after its final territory was overrun in March 2019, while the death of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, six months later further degraded their capability. While ISIS undoubtedly remains a serious terrorist threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, the continuing presence of US troops and on-going air strikes are also deeply resented by the people of Iraq.  Read more

(Un)Safe Space: The growing military and commercial exploitation of space

Book Review: ‘War in Space – Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics’ by Bleddyn E. Bowen. Published by Edinburgh University Press, 2020

With the increasing recognition of satellite technology as critical to our daily lives, a number of states, including the US and the UK, now see space as a critical military domain like land, sea and air.  Bleddyn Bowen’s new book ‘War in Space – Strategy, Spacepower, Geopoliticsattempts to place the notion of ‘spacepower’ into the mainstream of International Relations by adding the use of space systems to the preparation for, and execution of, warfare.

Bowen notes that spacepower has provided new methods of political-economic development and poses questions such as ‘will a war begin or be decided in space?’, ‘how do satellites change the way war is conducted on Earth?” and “what difference can space warfare make on Earth?”  While full answers to these questions are not easily provided at a time when rapid change is taking place, Bowen does suggest that wars may not begin in space or be decided by what happens in orbit alone, and that space technology is not going to provide simple solutions to strategic problems.

While the second part of that statement may be true, the first part can be challenged in the light of the recent rush to space activity. Satellite systems are defenceless and extremely vulnerable and now that satellite technology is employed in so many aspects of our lives – from controlling drones to weather forecasting to banking and communications to GPS – the loss of an important satellite could cause havoc. However, the loss (even through an accident such as impact with space debris or a meteorite) of a key military or dual use satellite (such as one used for early warning of missile attack) at a time of international tension could lead to a military exchange and be catastrophic.  Read more