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

‘All the warfare of the future’: Drones, new technology and the Integrated Review

At the beginning of March, the government will publish its long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, known (thankfully) as ‘The Integrated Review’.  It’s purpose is to “define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy.”

When published, the Integrated Review will likely focus on strategy and overarching themes rather than detail specific projects (a White Paper is expected soon after to flesh out equipment plans). However, it is already clear from statements made by ministers and senior military officers that in terms of defence and security, investment in emerging military technology such as direct energy, cyber, AI, and in particular, drones, is seen as key for the UK’s ‘involvement in the world’.

The clearest indication of this came in Boris Johnson’s statement to the House of Commons on defence spending in late November. Framed as an update on the Integrated Review, the Prime Minister announced a significant budget increase, declaring that UK military spending would be around £190 billion over the next four years.  Again and again during his statement, Johnson returned to the government’s commitment to , as he put it, ‘the new technologies of warfare’:

“Our new investment [is] to be focused on the technologies that will revolutionise warfare, forging our military assets into a single network designed to overcome the enemy. A soldier in hostile territory will be alerted to a distant ambush by sensors on satellites or drones, instantly transmitting a warning, using artificial intelligence to devise the optimal response and offering an array of options, from summoning an airstrike to ordering a swarm attack by drones, or paralysing the enemy with cyber-weapons. New advances will surmount the old limits of logistics. Our warships and combat vehicles will carry “directed energy weapons”, destroying targets with inexhaustible lasers. For them, the phrase “out of ammunition” will become redundant.”

Asked about research and development spending, Johnson added

“There is big, big chunk of this package specifically dedicated to research and development in cyber, AI and drone warfare – all the warfare of the future.  The victors of the future will be those who are able to master data and new technology in the way that this package supports.”

And Johnson isn’t the only one talking up the UK’s commitment to drones and new military technology.  Defence Secretary Ben Wallace suggested last summer that 90% of the RAF’s aircraft will be unmanned drones by 2040, insisting that the Army would have to give up assets such as tanks in order to have more drones and other modern equipment. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, told Sky News on Remembrance Sunday that the British army of the 2030s could include large numbers of autonomous or remotely controlled machines while leaks to The Times indicated that the size of the British army could be cut by 10,000 as part of ‘an increased focus on unmanned drones and vehicles along with enhanced technological capabilities.’

While the direction of travel is increasingly clear, the question to be asked, then, is what is behind the embrace of drones, autonomy and other emerging technology? What does it indicate about how the government sees the UK’s role in the world that we are investing so heavily in these systems?  Read more

Intervention ‘without the need to consider the human cost’: MoD thinking on UK’s new drone revealed

Documents obtained by Drone Wars using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) reveal how British military officials view the UK’s next generation armed drone, known as Protector, and the types of advanced capabilities the aircraft will have. Protector, which is set to replace the UK’s current fleet of armed Reaper drones in the mid-2020s, is essentially SkyGuardian—the latest version of the Predator drone being produced by General Atomics—plus UK modifications. The modifications revealed in the FOI documents (comprising presentations given by UK military personnel at a drone technology conference held last September) are significant because they provide an insight into how the Ministry of Defence (MOD) plan to utilise Protector.  Looking more widely, Protector epitomises the second drone age, characterised by a global expansion in both the type of drones being used by states and the scale of operations, including in the domestic sphere. Read more