Military drone crash update: Ukraine war toll and and ‘hidden crashes’

Bayraktar TB2 reportedly shot down near Kursk, April 2022

Updated – see below

We’ve added details of another 21 crashes to our drone crash database for the first half of 2022  – although 14 of them occurred in the context of the on-going war in Ukraine, so many will have likely been shot down.

It’s important to be aware that we only include larger (Class II and Class III) drones in our database, typified by medium altitude/long endurance drones like the Reaper MQ-9 and Bayraktar TB2.   There have been dozens of verified reports of smaller drones being shot down or crashing in that conflict but they are outside the scope of our study. However, it is extremely likely that other large drones have also crashed/been shot down in that conflict but have not been verified.

In addition, as we regularly try to explain, there are many crashes of large drones that simply aren’t made public and so don’t make it into our database. More on this below.

Ukraine

As in any armed conflict, there is a significant amount of disinformation and confusion surrounding on-going events.  We are only including details of large drone crashes that have been verified  – primarily through use of images.  @robLee@UAVTracker and @Oryx have done sterling work detailing on-going events.  Significantly, older Soviet-era reconnaissance drones have also been pressed into service by both sides, with indications that they may be being used as ‘flying missiles’.  One of these flew off course, crossing several European borders before crashing in the Croatian capital, Zagreb.  Both Russia and Ukraine have denied responsibility.  In a similar case, a Ukrainian operated Bayraktar TB2 went off course and ended up crashing off the coast of Romania.

Large UAVs crashed/shot down relating to Russia/Ukraine war (till 30th June)

Date Operator Drone type Details/source Location
Jun 28, 2022 Ukraine Tu-143 Reys Mid-flight (shot down) Russia
May 10, 2022 Russian Tu-141 Strizh Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
May 7, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight Romania
May 1, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Apr 27, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 27, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 25, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 12, 2022 Ukraine Tu-143 Reys Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Apr 7, 2022 Russia Inokhodets (Orion) Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Apr 2, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 30, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 17, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 11, 2022 Russia Forpost Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Mar 10, 2022 ? Tu-141 Strizh Mid-flight Croatia

Elsewhere, during the first six months of 2022, large drones operated by the US, India, France, Saudi Arabia and Philippines air forces have crashed or been shot down.  The variety of operators and types of UAVs crashing gives an indication of how difficult it is to operate these systems.  Remotely controlling aircraft is incredibly complex and a huge variety of problems can arise leading to an abrupt termination of the flight, including  mechanical issue, electrical failure, lost-communication link, weather problems and human error.  Read more

Smoke and mirrors: FoI shows there appears little substance to the RAF’s drone swarm squadron

Artist’s impression of aircraft launching swarming drones

14 July 2022 – updated below

A Freedom of Information (FoI) investigation has found that an RAF Squadron set up more than two years ago to take the lead on developing the UK’s swarming drones capability has yet to undertake any testing or trialling of drones and currently has just four personnel assigned to it. The revelation raises serious questions about Ministry of Defence (MoD) statements that it is rapidly progressing towards operational use of swarming drones.

While the MoD initially refused to answer any questions about 216 Squadron’s inventory or testing/trialling of drones, arguing the commercial confidentially mean that such details could not be released, this was overturned after an appeal and the MoD admitted that “216 Squadron has not conducted any UAV tests since it was reactivated on 1 April 2020.”

Background

Early in 2019, as part of his ‘Defence in Global Britain’ speech, then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans to develop a new capability of swarming drones. “I have decided to use the Transformation Fund  [ring-fenced  funds to develop new military technology] to develop swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences.”  Rather rashly, the Secretary of State went on to  declare “we expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of the year.”    Read more

Book Review: Navigating a way through the ethical maze of new technologies

  • Technology Is Not Neutral: A Short Guide To Technology Ethics, Stephanie Hare, London Publishing Partnership, Feb 2022
  • The Political Philosophy of AI: Mark Coeckelbergh, Polity Press, Feb 2022

New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) raise formidable political and ethical challenges, and these two books each provide a different kind of practical toolkit for examining and analysing these challenges.  Through investigating a range of viewpoints and examples they thoroughly disprove the claim that ‘technology is neutral’, often used as a cop-out by those who refuse to take responsibility for the technologies they have developed or promoted.

Mark Coeckelbergh is Professor of Philosophy of Media and Technology at the University of Vienna, and his book ‘The Political Philosophy of AI’ encourages us to reflect on what advanced technologies such as AI are already doing to us, in order to prevent us from becoming their helpless victims.  In many ways the book is more about political philosophy than about AI, and is none the worse for that.  Coeckelbergh points out that although a great deal has been written about the technology and the ethics of AI, there has been little thought on the impacts of AI from the perspective of political philosophy, and he sets out to correct this omission.

Political theorist Langdon Winner has argued that technology is political and observes that instead of bringing greater democratisation and equality, new technologies may well give even more power to those who already have a great deal of it.  Coeckelbergh’s book exposes the political power that AI wields alongside its technical power and shows how new technologies such as AI are fundamentally entangled with changes in society.  He explains how the political issues we care about in society are changed and take on new meanings and urgency in the light of technological developments such as advances in robotics, AI, and biotechnology, arguing that to understand the rights and wrongs of new technologies we need to consider them from the perspective of political philosophy as well as ethics, and that this will help us to clarify the questions and issues which the technologies raise.

‘The Political Philosophy of AI’ sets out the theories of political philosophy chapter-by-chapter as they relate to the major elements of politics today – freedom, justice, equality, democracy, power, and the environment – and for each element explores the consequences that we can expect as AI becomes established in society.  This serves to frame the challenges that the technology will bring and act as an evaluative framework to assess its impacts.  Coeckelbergh also uses the analysis to develop a political philosophy for AI itself, which helps us to not only understand and question our political values but also gain a deeper insight into the nature of politics and humanity.

Coeckelbergh’s book asks questions rather than gives answers, and this may disappoint some readers.  But this approach is in line with the philosophical approach that politics should be publicly discussed in a participative and inclusive way, rather than subject to autocratic decisions made by a powerful minority.  That there is virtually no public debate about the wishes of the UK government and others to use AI to transform society says as much about our political system as it does about AI.

“That there is virtually no public debate
about the wishes of the UK government and others to use AI
to transform society says as much about our political system
as it does about AI.”

Read more

Unreported drone strikes revealed as complete list of UK air and drone strikes against ISIS published  

Drone Wars is today publishing a sortable and searchable dataset of all known UK air and drone strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since September 2014.  Included in the data are a small number of UK drones strikes that occurred in the second half of 2018 that were not reported at the time.

The data, compiled from official sources, contains more than 1,650 individual reports with the vast majority detailing the target, the aircraft used to launch the strike and which munitions were used.  Our aim in publishing this dataset is to both aid transparency and to encourage greater study of the impact of UK air and drone operations.

Transparency

While the MoD currently has a list of UK air strikes in Iraq and Syria on its website (available here), the reports in many cases are only a summary of the original releases, with vital detail edited out. For example the entry for 18 January 2018 reads as follows:

2 Reapers struck 6 terrorist targets, including 2 armed trucks, 2 lorry-bombs, a mortar and a Daesh held building, in eastern Syria.”

However the original report, available in our dataset, reads:

“SDF operations north of Abu Kamal on Thursday 18 January were supported by two RAF Reapers as well as other coalition aircraft. One of our Reapers used a Hellfire to knock out an armed truck that was firing on the SDF, then pursued a second such vehicle as it drove away and destroyed it with another Hellfire. A third Hellfire was used in a successful attack on a Daesh-held building.  The second Reaper also conducted three attacks; a Hellfire missile silenced a mortar spotted firing from beneath some trees, and a further missile and a GBU-12 guided bomb took care of two truck-bombs. As well as conducting their own attacks, the Reapers also provided targeting and surveillance support to seven attacks by coalition aircraft, against a range of terrorist positions, including two engineering vehicles being used by Daesh, and a large group of terrorists mounted on motorcycles, whom our aircraft tracked to a compound, where they were successfully targeted by a fast jet.”

Perhaps even more importantly, more than 40 reports of UK strikes – including the first four to occur in late September/ early October 2014 – are simply absent from the MoD’s list.  In addition, the targeted killing of Reyaad Khan in August 2015, which was a separate, UK intelligence-led, mission and not part of coalition operations against ISIS, is also not included in the MoD’s list.  All of these are included in Drone Wars dataset.  For many reasons we think that it is important that a full list of UK air strikes is publicly available.  At the end of UK air operations in Afghanistan in 2014, the MoD deleted details of UK strikes in Afghanistan from its website.

Unreported drones strikes in 2018

Intriguingly, there are eight Reaper drone strikes included in the MoD’s summary list for which no details were released at the time of the strikes  All of these occurred in Syria during the second half of 2018 and several have the potential to be possible targeted killings. It is possibly relevant that these unreported strikes occurred in the months following the May 2018 announcement that a UK drone strike in eastern Syria had killed a civilianRead more

New briefing: For Heaven’s Sake – Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space

Click to open

Drone Wars UK’s new briefing, published in collaboration with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), looks at the UK’s emerging military space programme and considers the governance, environmental, and ethical issues involved.

Space based operations affect many aspects of modern life and commerce.  The global economy relies heavily on satellites in orbit to provide communication services for a variety of services including mobile phones, the internet, television, and financial trading systems. Global positioning system (GPS) satellites play a key role in transport networks, while earth observation satellites provide information for weather forecasting, climate monitoring, and crop observation.

Space is also, unfortunately, a key domain for military operations. Modern military engagements rely heavily on space-based assets. Space systems are used for command and control globally; surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance; missile warning; and in support of forces deployed overseas.  Satellites also provide secure communications links for military and security forces, including communications needed to fly armed drones remotely.  Many precision-guided munitions use information provided by space-based assets to correct their positioning in order to hit a target.

The falling cost of launching small satellites is driving a new ‘race for space’, with many commercial and government actors keen to capitalise on the economic and strategic advantages offered by the exploitation of space. However this is creating conditions for conflict. Satellite orbits are contested and space assets are at risk from a variety of natural and artificial hazards and threats, including potential anti-satellite capabilities.  Satellite systems are defenceless and extremely vulnerable and losing an important satellite could have severe consequences. The loss of a key military or dual use satellite (such as one used for early warning of missile attack) – through an accident, impact of debris or a meteorite, technical failure, or a cyber-attack or similar on critical ground-based infrastructure – at a time of international tension could inadvertently lead to a military exchange, with major consequences.  Read more

Loitering munitions, the Ukraine war, and the drift towards ‘killer robots’.

Switchblade loitering munition flies towards target area. The operator views video feed and then designates which  target the munition should strike.

Loitering munitions are now hitting the headlines in the media as a result of their use in the Ukraine war.  Vivid descriptions of ‘kamikaze drones’ and ‘suicide drones’ outline the way in which these weapons operate: they are able to find targets and fly towards them before crashing into them and exploding.  Both Russia and Ukraine are deploying loitering munitions, which allow soldiers to fire on targets such as tanks and heavy armour without the predictability of a mortar or artillery round firing on a set trajectory.   Under some circumstances these ‘fire and forget’ weapons may be able operate with a high degree of autonomy.  For example they can programmed to fly around autonomously in a defined search area and highlight possible targets such as tanks to the operator.  In these circumstances they can be independent of human control. This trend towards increasing autonomy in weapons systems raising questions about how they might shape the future of warfare and the morality of their use.

Loitering munitions such as these have previously been used to military effect in Syria and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.  Although they are often described as drones, they are in many ways more like a smart missile than an uncrewed aircraft.  Loitering munitions were first developed in the 1980s and can be thought of as a ‘halfway house’ between drones and cruise missiles.  They differ from drones in that they are expendable, and unlike cruise missiles, have the ability to loiter passively in the target area and search for a target.  Potential targets are identified using radar, thermal imaging, or visual sensor data and, to date, a human operator selects the target and executes the command to destroy the target.  They are disposable, one-time use weapons intended to hunt for a target and then destroy it, hence their tag as ‘kamikaze’ weapons.  Dominic Cummings, former chief advisor to the Prime Minister describes a loitering munition as a “drone version of the AK-47: a cheap anonymous suicide drone that flies to the target and blows itself up – it’s so cheap you don’t care”.  Read more