A new unit tasked with field-testing aerial uncrewed systems and AI technologies has begun work in the middle east according to the head of US Air Force Central Command (AFCENT), Major General Alexus Grynkewich. “It’s a small group of super-empowered airmen that I’m going to provide resources to so they can rapidly innovate and experiment in our literal sandbox that we have in the Middle East” the General told the US Air, Space and Cyber conference in September. It is unclear how the description of the Middle East as “our literal sandbox” was received by allies attending the conference.
Some of Task Force 99’s work will be focused on countering the threat of small drones from state and non-state actors, but it will also ‘experiment with off-the-shelf technologies’ in the ‘hope of harnessing new technologies in innovative ways’ according to reports in defence press.
The new Air Force unit is similar to the US Navy’s Task Force 59, which is based in Bahrain and has been conducting experiments with maritime drones for the past 12 months, (although the US has been using maritime drones in the region for a good deal longer). Tension flared in September 2022 between the US and Iran when two of Task Force 59’s surface drones were seized by an Iranian ship in the Red Sea. After the US demanded that the drones be returned, the Iranian ship released them into the water the following morning.
The US Air Force’s Task Force 99 will mainly be based at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar but will also have a small ‘satellite innovation cell’ at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, from where US and British Reaper drones operate. The Al Udeid unit will ‘experiment with variable payloads on small drones’ according to a report in ‘Air and Space Forces’ magazine. Read more →
On the 3rd November 2002, a US Predator drone targeted and killed Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi, a Yemeni member of al-Qaeda who the CIA believed responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in which 17 US sailors were killed. While drones had previously been used in warzones, this was the first time the technology had been used to hunt down and kill a specific individual in a country in which the US was not at war – ‘beyond the battlefield’ as it has become euphemistically known. Since then, numerous US targeted killings have taken place in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, while other states who have acquired the technology – including the UK – have also carried out such strikes.
At first, the notion of remotely targeting and killing suspects outside of the battlefield and without due process was shocking to legal experts, politicians and the press. In an armed conflict where international humanitarian law (the Laws of War) apply, such strikes can be lawful. However, outside of the battlefield, where killing of suspects is only accepted in order to prevent imminent loss of life, such killings are almost certainly unlawful. Indeed in early reporting on the first such attack 20 years ago, journalists noted that the US State Department has condemned targeted killing of suspects by Israel (see article below).
However, the US argued – and continues to argue today – that its targeted killings are lawful. It has put forward a number of arguments over the years which are seriously questioned by other states and international law experts. These include the notion that whenever and wherever that US undertakes military action international humanitarian law applies; that because states where the US engages in such strikes are ‘unable or unwilling’ to apprehend suspects its lethal actions are lawful; and that there should be greater ‘flexibility’ in interpreting the notion of ‘imminence’ in relation to last resort.
Here are a small sample of drone targeted killing operations undertaken by the US and others.
November 3, 2002, US drone strike on a vehicle in Marib province, Yemen.
Target: Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi
The first drone targeted killing saw a CIA Predator drone operating out of Djibouti launch two missiles at a vehicle travelling through the desert in Marib province, Yemen. The drone’s target was ostensibly al-Qaeda leader Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi, said by the US to be behind the lethal attack on the USS Cole two years previously. However, also in the vehicle was US citizen Kemal Darwish and four other men, all believed to be members of al-Qaeda. As Chris Woods wrote in 2012, “The way had been cleared for the killings months earlier, when President Bush lifted a 25-year ban on US assassinations just after 9/11. [Bush] wrote that ‘George Tenet proposed that I grant broader authority for covert actions, including permission for the CIA to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives without asking for my sign-off each time. I decided to grant the request.’”
Online webinar: Pandora’s box: 20 years of drone targeted killing
Drone Wars has invited a number of experts to mark 20 years of drone targeted killings by offering some reflections on the human, legal and political cost of the practice and to discuss how we can press the international community to ensure that drone operators abide by international law in this area.
Agnes Callamard, Secretary General, Amnesty International. Ex Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2016-2021)
Chris Woods, Founder of Airwars, author of ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’
Bonyan Jamal, Yemen-based lawyer and Legal Support Director with Mwatana for Human Rights, Yemen
Kamaran Osman, Human Rights Observer for Community Peacemaker Teams in Iraq Kurdistan
Drone assassination returned briefly to the top of the news agenda this week with the US targeted killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Many could be forgiven for thinking this was the first drone targeted killing since the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, but behind the scenes the use of drones for these type of operations is growing – and spreading.
The strike on Zawahiri, which took place early on Sunday morning (31 July) in Afghanistan, was announced by President Biden on Monday evening. US officials speaking to journalists on background said that the strike was carried out by the CIA after Zawahiri’s location was discovered earlier in the year. US officials insisted that he was a lawful target based on his continuing leadership of al-Qaeda although multiple international law scholars question the US’ interpretation of international law in this area.
The strike comes almost a year after US troops withdrew from Afghanistan and, within the US at least, reporting of the targeted killing played out against continuing political arguments around whether the withdrawal has harmed or improved US interests/security in the region. Biden argues that his ‘over-the-horizon’ strategy – that is remote drone strikes with ‘in-and-out’ special ops raids as necessary – instead of long-term deployments, improves US security.
Many early responses to the killing were quick to affirm the efficacy of drone strikes and this strategy. Trump’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the original withdrawal agreement, told the New York Times “In this case, over the horizon worked.” He called the strike proof that “we can protect our interest against terror threats in Afghanistan without a large and expensive military presence there.” Elsewhere, the liberal think-tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft also claimed that such strikes ‘work’ insisting that they were “a more sustainable form of risk management” than long-term occupation (although, to be fair, they did argue that such a position “should not be conflated with the unhinged permissiveness of past drone wars”). However, whether such strikes ‘work’ by increasing peace and security in the long-term, is still very questionable. The reality is that the drone warfare has its own logic and momentum, and its increasingly clear just how hard it has become to put this tool back in Pandora’s box. Read more →
The influential State of AI Report 2021, published in October, makes the alarming observation that the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes is now moving from research into the production phase. The report highlights three indicators which it argues shows this development, one of which is the progress that the US Air Force Research Laboratory is making in testing its autonomous ‘Skyborg’ system to control military drones.
Skyborg (the name is a play on the word ‘cyborg’ – a biological lifeform that has been augmented with technology such as bionic implants) is intended to be an AI ‘brain’ capable of controlling an aircraft in flight. Initially, the technology is planned to assist a human pilot in flying the aircraft.
As is often the case with publicity material for military equipment programmes, it is not always easy to distinguish facts from hype or to penetrate the technospeak in which statements from developers are written. However, news reports and press statements show that over the past year the US Air Force has for the first time succeeded in demonstrating an “active autonomy capability” during test flights of the Skyborg system, as a first step towards being able to use the system in combat.
Official literature on the system states that Skyborg is an “autonomous aircraft teaming architecture”, consisting of a core autonomous control system (ACS): a ‘brain’ comprised of both hardware and software components which can be used to both assist the pilot of a crewed combat aircraft and fly a swarm of uncrewed drones. The system is being designed by the military IT contractor Leidos, with input from the US Air Force and other Skyborg contractors. It would allow the aircraft to autonomously avoid other aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and hazardous weather, and take off and land on its own. Read more →
Last week’s military coup in Mali brought brief attention from the world’s media to the Sahel. But behind the latest headlines, drones are a growing part of the ongoing conflict in the region.
On 21 December 2019, France carried out a drone strike for the first time, killing seven alleged jihadist fighters in central Mali. In total, 40 terrorists were killed during the weekend-long operations which took place in an area controlled by the group, Katibat Macina. The news of the strike came just two days after Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, said its fleet of MQ-9 Reapers had finished testing with laser-guided missiles at an airbase in Niamey, the capital of Niger.
Until this point, French Reapers in the Sahel-Saharan strip had been used primarily for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Now, the French government argues, the idea is for the military to have an additional strike capability in its missions, supporting states in their fight against terrorist groups and thus bringing stability and security to the region. The reality, however, is a little hazier than that. Read more →
Arthur Holland Michel, author of ‘Eyes In The Sky’, is one of the co-founders of the Centre for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York State. The Centre for the Study of the Drone has done extraordinary work in monitoring the spread in the use of drones, including publication of ‘The Drone Databook’, a detailed country-by-county study of military drone capabilities; a comprehensive study of counter-drone systems; and a weekly round-up of news and developments in the world of drones.
With this pedigree, and Michel’s background as a journalist reporting on technical issues, we can expect an authoritative and carefully considered account of the topic he has chosen to investigate in this book: the emergence of wide area persistent surveillance systems and their use in warfare and policing. Based in large part on interviews with insiders, ‘Eyes In The Sky’ gives a balanced but nevertheless worrying account of the dramatic implications that wide area surveillance will have for society. Read more →