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

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

Long read: Six strikes that show the reality of drone warfare today

Weddings. Hospitals. Refugee camps. Aid workers. All have become the target of lethal strikes this year due to the spreading use of drones by a growing number of states.  Here we detail six particular strikes and, below, reflect on what they show about the reality of drone warfare today.

1. January 3, 2021: French strike targeting a gathering of people, Mopti, Mali
Charred ground where French strike occurred according to UN investigation report.

Following surveillance by a French Reaper drone “spanning several days”, two French Mirage jets operating in conjunction with the drone fired three laser guided bombs at what was said to be a gathering of around 40 armed militants. French military spokesperson Col. Frederic Barbry told Associated Press that the strike followed an intelligence mission which showed a “suspicious gathering of people.”

The gathering, however, was a wedding party and, according to a subsequent UN investigation, 19 civilians, including the father of groom were killed. The detailed report concluded that around 100 people were at the wedding celebration including 5 men who were alleged to be members of an armed group, only one of whom visibly carried a weapon. The report stated:

“Of the 22 people killed, 19 were directly killed by the strike, including 16 civilians, while the three other civilians died of their injuries during their transfer for medical treatment. At least eight other civilians were injured in the strike.  The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are people protected against attacks under international humanitarian law.“

France rejected the results of the UN investigation and continues to dispute that any civilians were killed in the strike.  [Further details.]

 2. May 4 2021: US strike targeting vehicle and occupant, Deir Ezzor, Syria

A US Reaper drone strike targeted the occupant of a vehicle in eastern Syria with the man killed instantly. The Coalition tweeted:

“CJTFOIR conducted an air strike removing a Daesh terrorist from the battlefield near Dayr az Zawr, Syria today. Coalition and our partners will continue our mission to defeat Daesh, disrupt their resources and eliminate Daesh remnants.”

However, locals disputed that the man killed, identified as Bassem Atwan Al-Bilal, was involved with ISIS or any other militant group, stating that he worked in the gas industry, refining oil.  They also revealed that the man had only bought the vehicle two days previously and suggested that target of the drone strike was likely to have been the previous owner. Read more

CAA opens UK skies to military drones

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has granted permission to US drone company General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new SkyGuardian drone in UK airspace. The MoD is buying 16 SkyGuardian drones, but renaming them as ‘Protector’. This is the first time that large military drones will be allowed to fly in the UK outside of segregated airspace and the decision will be seen as a breakthrough by the drone industry, who will see it as the beginning of opening UK skies to a whole host of drones to fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS).

The news came in an ‘airspace alert’ issued by the CAA following the announcement that temporary airspace rules were to be put in place around the bases where the drone will be based. The terse, one-sentence paragraph in the alert said:

“The CAA has also completed an in-depth review and issued the authorisation to General Atomics operate within the UK.”

The lack of detail reflects the lack of transparency about the process to allow General Atomics to use its largely untried and untested ‘Detect and Avoid’ (DAA) equipment in the flights.

General Atomics has developed its DAA equipment to supposedly replicate an on-board pilot’s ability to ‘see and avoid’ danger. This is the bedrock upon which all air safety measures are built and – as we reported back in 2018 – regulators at the CAA were deeply sceptical as to whether remote technology can replace an on-board pilot in busy airspace such as UK skies. Test flights of the drone in the US last summer, which were due to fly over San Diego, were routed away from city after apparent concerns from US safety regulators.  Read more

UK air war in Middle East continues with no end in sight

UK aircraft and drones have carried out almost 120 air strikes in Iraq and Syria since the fall of ISIS in March 2019

The latest response to our quarterly FoI request to the Ministry of Defence on UK armed air operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria brings us up to two full years since the end of ISIS’ so-called Caliphate in March 2019.

The figures give a glimpse of continuing UK air operations in the Middle East  but with a significant hole in the middle. Although the government has confirmed the RAF Reapers are now also undertaking operations outside of those against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, they continue to refuse to give any details of those missions.  All the MoD will say is that “the UK Reaper fleet is currently based in the Middle Eastern Region.”

The latest figures for Operation Shader (we’ve updated our summary here) show that the UK is fast approaching 10,000 armed air missions in Iraq and Syria since the launch of operations in 2014. Of those, just over a fifth (2,203) have taken place since Kurdish forces overran ISIS’ last stronghold – the village of Baghuz in Eastern Syria – in March 2019. Roughly two-thirds of UK armed air missions in Iraq since March 2019 have been conducted by RAF Reapers with a third by Typhoons, while in Syria it almost the exact reverse, with just a third of UK Syria missions being carried out by UK drones.  Read more

As the government set out its plans to fund hi-tech war, can you donate to help our work?

Dear Friends,

Last week Boris Johnson published his government’s Integrated Review of defence, security and foreign policy, setting out the government’s commitment to develop and use emerging military technology to engage in both overt and ‘grey zone’ warfare.

Today will see the publication of a Defence Command Paper, giving more detail on which military programmes and defence company projects will receive funding for developments “in cyber, AI and drone warfare – all the warfare of the future” as Boris Johnson put it.

Boris Johnson flies a drone during a military exercise on Salisbury Plain in 2019.

Over the past decade Drone Wars has scrutinized and challenged the government’s use of drones and other emerging technology and we very much need your help to continue to do so. Read more