Happy birthday to us! Drone Wars UK is ten

Rather unbelievably, Drone Wars UK is ten years old this week. Although I had been researching and writing about drone warfare earlier, Drone Wars UK as a blog, an organisation, an entity came into being on 1st June 2010.  In the decade since, the use of armed drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles – or ‘remotely piloted air systems’ as we are pressed by some to call them – has (ahem) taken off.  As we and many others feared and predicted, the use of these systems has become virtually normalised and are spreading across the globe, and yet this is still only, I would suggest, the beginning of the drone war era.

While the existence of Drone Wars UK does not, of course, coincide with the existence of drone warfare itself – unarmed UAVs have been used in warfare in various ways for decades with the first air strike from a drone taking place soon after 9/11 – the past decade has undoubtedly seen drones established as a key tool of modern warfare.

We had a public event planned for this week, bringing experts together to discuss and reflect on drone warfare – and with cake to mark the anniversary – but sadly due to Covid-19 restrictions, that has had to be postponed till later in the year. In the meantime, I answered a few questions about our work over the past decade and our future plans in a video interview, and I’ll be sharing a short series of reflections, taking stock of where we are now, what has changed over the past decade, and where we are likely headed in the near future.  As always, we rely on donations to keep our campaign work going. If you are able to make a contribution to our 10th birthday appeal we would be extremely grateful.  

Reflections #1: Are ‘drones’ (still) a thing to focus on?

Throughout the past decade, with perhaps the exception of an 18-month period in 2012/3, we’ve been repeatedly told that drones are not something to focus on.

At the very beginning this was because they were thought too obscure and irrelevant to what was happening at the time and there were other issues around peace and security to work on.  As time went on and the use of drones became more prominent, we began to be told that drones were in fact no different from other forms of air power so there was little point on limiting our work to simply drones. Later still, as the media coverage of the US use of drones to carry out targeted killings in Pakistan and Yemen grew, and the UK followed down this path, Read more

Military drones continue to tumble to earth

Bayraktar drone downed in Libya 30 March 2020

The Drone Wars drone crash database has been updated with a further nineteen crashes of large (Class II and III) military drones; thirteen since the beginning of 2020 and six from 2018/19 only recently revealed. While there have been many claims and counter-claims of drones shot down in Syria, Yemen and Libya, we continue to include only crashes/downings that have been verified by photographs or video. Recording the crash of large military drones is an important means of monitoring the proliferation of these systems as well as documenting their inherent risk – see our report Accidents will happen – for more details. Read more

New briefing on ‘Protector’ drone as MoD pressure on air safety regulator revealed

As the Guardian today reveals that MoD pressured air safety regulators over the first flight of the UK’s new Protector drone into the UK, we are publishing a new four-page briefing raising many questions about the programme.

The Guardian article, which revealed that MoD pressured the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to delay safety notifications to prevent possible protests shows that clandestine pressure has been effectively applied on an independent public regulator by the MoD which resulted in the erosion of safety norms.

Even more worrying perhaps is that in the near future, the CAA is due to make a significant decisions on whether the MoD’s new military drones, equipped with largely untried ‘detect and avoid’ technology, are safe to fly in UK airspace. The fact that the MoD has already successfully exerted pressure to get the CAA to bend safety rules in relation to the flight of a Protector is extremely disturbing. Read more

FoI reveals UK flying Reaper drone missions outside of operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has revealed in response to an FoI request from Drone Wars UK that British Reaper drones are undertaking missions outside of Operation Shader, the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The MoD has refused to say how many ‘non-Shader’ sorties there have been, or where they are taking place.

There has been no suggestion until now that British drones are undertaking operations elsewhere.  Answers to previous parliamentary questions and FoI’s requests about the use of RAF Reapers have all indicated that since late 2014, they have only been used as part of Operation Shader. The one exception was the mission that undertook the targeted killing of Reyaad Khan in August 2015, which the MoD subsequently insisted was not part of Operation Shader. Read more

Drones, targeted killing and the Soleimani Strike

Remains of vehicle following US drone strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport

A week ago, a US air strike that officials (speaking off-the-record) acknowledged was carried out by a Reaper drone, killed senior Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and up to 10 others, travelling in a two-car convoy outside Baghdad airport. The targeted killing of a senior Iranian military officer sent shock waves around the globe and appalled many. International law scholars argued strongly that the strike was unlawful, politicians and diplomats articulated the dangerous impact both locally, regionally and internationally and military officials braced themselves for the inevitable retaliation.  Read more

A bloody month in the drone wars: 7 separate drone strikes kill dozens of civilians across 4 war zones

November 2019 saw seven civilian casualties incidents from drone strikes in four different war-zones illustrating the growing spread of drone warfare. The seven strikes between them are thought to have killed  41 civilians including 11 children.

Proponents of the use of armed drones often argue that drones are better at warfare as they can  sit above the ‘fog and friction’ of war and therefore limit the harm to civilians as they have a better view of the ground.  The reality, however, is that drones appear to be transferring the risk of warfare away from combatants onto the shoulders of civilians.

These seven strikes in the month of November are just a snapshot of the impact of drone warfare on civilians.  However, the likelihood is that civilians will continue to be killed unless there is progress at the international level on controlling the proliferation and use of armed drones. Read more