Drone ‘beast’ captured in Iran – others rampage in Afghanistan and Gaza

RQ-170 Sentinel drone

There has been intense media coverage of the downing of a US drone in Iran over the past week.  Iran has previously claimed that it has shot down ‘Western drones’ (as we reported here) but they have never provided proof despite saying they would.

Initially the US denied any of their drone had been downed and then said that the drone may have been one lost in Afghanistan previously.  Within days  however the CIA was saying – through the usual ‘unnamed sources’ – that it was one of their drones that had crashed inside Iran.

The drone concerned is a RQ-170 Sentinel.  It was dubbed the ‘Beast of Kandahar’ when the then unknown drone was first spotted by the press in 2007 and 2009. It’s existence was officially confirmed – and its name officially revealed –  in late 2009. However little detail about the drone has been revealed.  All that is known about the drone is that it is stealthy, jet powered and unarmed.

The Beast - tamed

On December 8, Iranian TV showed  video footage of the drone and claimed that they had electronically hijacked it and brought it down.  This seems improbable and its far more likely the drone simply crash landed.  The fact that bottom of the drone was covered and it appeared to have no landing gear also points towards a crash.  When contact with a drone is lost, the drone is programmed to go into a holding pattern until contact is recovered.  Perhaps the drone did this until it simply ran out of fuel. However the drone, which flies at a high altitude, would have been much more damaged if it had crashed in this manner so many questions remain. Some have questioned whether the drone displayed by Iran was in fact a fake.

In a protest letter about the incursion of the drone on to it territory, Iran has called on the United Nations to condemn the  “violation of international rules by the U.S. government.”

Meanwhile other drone ‘beasts’ continue to rampage.  There has been two days of violence in Gaza following an Israeli drone strike.  According to the Irish Times “Gaza residents said a 42-year-old civilian was killed in an Israeli air strike on Hamas training facility. Seven members of the man’s family were wounded, including his father, wife and five of his children.”

And no doubt, US and UK drone strikes in Afghanistan continue completely unreported.  Time these drone ‘beasts’ were caged too.

NATO asks US for Drones “to find stuff to blow up” in Libya

NATO commanders have asked the US to send more Predator drones to Libya to enable them to find more targets. After four months of airstrikes, NATO forces are having trouble locating new military targets. As one senior officer put it “It’s getting more difficult to find stuff to blow up…”  So far the Pentagon has not made a decision on whether to grant the request as it will mean moving the drones from Iraq, Afghanistan and, as Pentagon spokesperson put it tactfully “counter-terrorism operations elsewhere.”

Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have released new figures related to British drone strikes in Afghanistan in response to a question from Green MP Caroline Lucas this week. The figures, which Defence Minister Nick Harvey says are of ‘weapons released’ are for the first time broken down annually, so we are able to fill in more details about the rate of use (see table below). No doubt on some occasions more than one weapon is “released” during individual attacks.

Also this week two British citizens were arrested in Herat in Afghanistan .  Special forces raided the Hotel in which the couple, who are in their twenties and have dual nationality, were staying and they were flown to Kandahar airbase for interrogation. There will no doubt now be a legal battle of what happens to the pair. Clive Stafford Smith form the human rights organisation has offered to represent them. On at least two previous occasions British citizens in Afghanistan have been the subject of a drone strike. It is a step forward that this pair have been arrested rather than assassinated – particularly if as well may be the case, they were only visiting relatives.

We reported last month that France had announced that the UK and France were to delay a decision on the new joint drone by 12-18 months.  This was something of a surprise as a decision to go ahead to develop the proposed drone was expected in the summer. France has now announced that it is in talks with Dassault Aviation to procure a version of the Israeli Heron TP drone as a ‘stopgap’ measure.  This all smells very fishy and no doubt more will emerge over the coming weeks.

TBIJ uncovers civilian deaths in US drone strikes

A man holds a piece of a Hellfire rocket in his hands after five homes were destroyed by US drone strike in August 2010, killing 20 people. Photo: Noor Behram/Reprieve

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) a not-for-profit investigative journalism organisation, has uncovered compelling evidence of  civilian deaths in US drone strikes in Pakistan.  The evidence directly contradicts the recent statement by President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser that ‘there hasn’t been a single collateral death’ in Pakistan since August 2010

As well as reviewing all available media reports, the Bureau has worked with lawyers and researchers representing civilians reportedly killed in attacks. And they have employed researchers in Waziristan to corroborate evidence relating to particular strikes.

The Bureau has examined 116 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan between August 23 2010 and June 29 2011.  They have found that between them, the attacks have killed at least 740 people, among them 36 named fighters from al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups. Hundreds of unnamed low-ranking fighters are also likely to be among the dead.

But civilian deaths have been credibly reported in more than one in five of the strikes.  To date, the Bureau has identified 45-56 civilian victims across 10 individual strikes – the most recent in mid-June 2011. The dead include six children.

For more details see the following stories on the  TBIJ website:

US claims of ‘no civilian deaths’ in Pakistan drone strikes is untrue

Get the data: Twenty-five deadly strikes

These reports raise serious questions about the UK’s own 170+ drone strikes in Afghanistan.  The MoD was forced to admit for the first time this month that Afghan civilians had been killed in a British drone strike.   They continue to maintain however that this was a on-off due to “intelligence failures on the ground.”

While military and counter-terrorism officials can blithely state from thousands of miles away that there are no civilian casualties, the story on the ground appears to be very different. I have no doubt that further details about civilain casualties from British drone strikes in Afghanistan will emerge.

US drone strikes return to Pakistan with a vengeance as resistance grows

After something of a lull, US drone strikes have returned with a vengeance to Pakistan over the past two weeks, the latest of which, killed six  people this afternoon.  In addition strikes have taken place on 10th, 12th, 13th and 16 May.  According to the Pakistan Observer, 238 people have been killed and 40 injured in 39 drone strikes in Pakistan  since 1st Jan 2011 (excluding today’s strike).  The Oxford Research Group has today issued an interesting paper examining the various casualty figures reported for drone strikes in Pakistan.

This weekend, thousands of Pakistanis are expected to respond to Imran Khan’s call to protest the drone strikes by blocking NATO supply routes through Pakistan for forces in Afghanistan.  A protest will also take place outside the US embassy in London tomorrow (21st May) and UK Pakistanis plan to protest drone attacks during President Obama’s  speech to UK Parliament on May 25th.

Meanwhile US Attorney General, Eric Holder, told Channel 4 news this week that US drone strikes in Pakistan were totally consistent with International  law: 

“Anybody who is the target of any of our military action is always thought to be somebody who is thought to be a threat to the US, so there is a basis to any of the action we take, on the battlefield, in the variety of ways that we do it.”

His suggestion, that It is lawful to kill someone who is merely thought to be a threat would be laughable, if it were not so awful. However, as Tara McKelvey points out in an excellent article for the Colombia Journalism Review on the reporting of drone strikes,  many journalists seem to meekly accept these bland assurances. Challenging her fellow journalists, McKelvey suggests that

“A more whole-hearted pushback is in order, with top newsrooms banding together, backed by their legal departments, to try to force a more substantive and open public policy debate on whom and how the US decides to kill with the push of a button.”

Well, we can only hope

US drone strikes resume in Pakistan

The Washington Post  reported today (Feb 21st) that out of 118 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan only 13 ‘High Value Targets’ had been killed, of which only two were on the US’ Most Wanted list.  According to the New American Foundation it is estimated that a total of 607 people were killed in US drones strikes in Pakistan in 2010.  Interestingly the Post report also states that each drone strike in Pakistan costs the CIA £1m!    

The press report comes as two separate drone strikes in Pakistan reportedly killed eleven people .  These are the first drone strikes in Pakistan in almost a month, a gap which many attribute to the US attempts to free Raymond Davis, an alleged CIA spy accused of killing two men in Lahore in mid-January.    For more about the Davis case see this report from the Guardian.

The ‘DC Exile’ blog has some interesting reflections on the legality of US drone strikes following last week’s Newsweek interview with the former CIA counsel , John Rizzo, who authorised drone strikes in Pakistan.   They suggest that the revelation that once identified, a targeted individual may be subject to the use of force at any time thereafter calls into question one of the US stated legal justification for drone strikes:

“such continuous targetability calls into question the ability of the United States to rely on self-defense as one of its two legal justifications for its targeted killing program. Strikes against these continuously targetable individuals would then only be lawful within the context of an armed conflict. Any targeted killing outside of an armed conflict or valid self-defense would be an illegal, extrajudicial execution.”

It’s well worth reading the whole post.

Meanwhile Radio One’s ‘Newsbeat’ programme secured an interview with 15 year old Sadaullah Wazir who lost both his legs and an eye in US drone strike in North Waziristan (as well as members of his family).  He is currently attempting to sue the CIA.  You can see short video of the interview here

In Afghanistan NATO have launched an investigation  after the Governor of Konar province said 65 people including 22 women and more than 30 children were killed in a NATO operation.  Most reports suggest the attacks were carried out by NATO helicopters but the Washington Post says a Predator drone was also involved

PS…..    Drone Wars UK – Mini Tour

I’m doing a few speaking gigs over the next few weeks on drones – do come along if you are in the area.

Sun 27th Feb,  7pm         Porthmadog FoR – Y Ganolfan, Porthmadog  :  Details here

Mon 28th Feb, 7.30pm    Caermarfon FoR  – vestry of Salem chapel, Caernarfon:  Details here

Tues 1st Mar:  7.30pm   Oxford Stop the War – Town Hall, Oxford:  Details here

Mon 14th Mar:  8pm –  Friends Meeting House, Queens Road Leicester CND AGM

Thur 14th Apr: 7.30pm – Public Meeting, Friends Meeting House, Bristol

Sat 14th May, 2pm – FoR Scotland Annual Conference

Death TV: Overwhelmed and bored analysts recommending drone strikes

The Washington Post reported this week that vast amount of video footage from drones are overwhelming analysts

According to Marine Corps General James Cartwright, Vice Chair of the Military Joint Chiefs of Staff, the video is “boring intelligence analysts to tears.”

Forced to watch what Gen. Cartwright called “Death TV,” bleary-eyed analysts at ground stations and other outposts spend hours wading through useless data until they spot signs of a target and recommend that the drone fire its missile.

Cartwright wants (yes, you’ve guessed it) more autonomy and technology to solve the problem and companies are lining up to provide the technology to process the video feed.  “Within three years, it will be technically feasible to run these sophisticated algorithms and extract relevant essence data from the content” according to John Delay of Harris Corp which has, according to the article, several defense contracts, but also has also made transmitters for broadcast television since 1969. (Death TV indeed!)

Unfortunately for the analysts, and without doubt Afghans too, Aviation Week says that Gorgon Stare will enter service aboard US Reaper drones in Afghanistan  next month   Gorgon Stare is a new surveillance capability that allows a wide area of ground to be videoed  while also enabling individuals to be tracked within that wide area. As Aviation Week explains:

‘The five EO cameras each shoot two 16-megapixel frames/sec., which are stitched together by the computer to create an 80-megapixel image…. The result is a system that offers a “many orders of magnitude” leap beyond the “soda straw” view provided by the single EO/IR camera carried by an MQ-1 Predator or a conventional Reaper UAV…. The video taken by Gorgon Stare’s cameras can be “chipped out” into 10 individual views and streamed to that many recipients or more… At the same time, Gorgon Stare will process the images from all its cameras in flight, quilting them into a mosaic for a single wide-area view.’

Four sets of Gorgons will enter service next month as part of the initial deployment.  A further developed version, involving BAE Systems’ ARGUS system [see ‘our Outstaring the Gorgon: BAE, Drones and ARGUS] is already being developed and tested.

Meanwhile the US Army has announced plans to conduct the largest ever demonstration of interoperability between manned and unmanned systems next year with the aim of proving that MUSIC (Manned Unmanned Systems Integration Concept) can work. As previously mentioned there is enormous pressure on political and civil authorities to allow unmanned aerial vehicles to operate within civil airspace and MUSIC is another step in that direction.   However Drone Wars UK can’t help but point out, as yet another drone crashes, that unmanned systems continue to regularly fall out of the sky.