EU borders agency must improve information access arrangements following complaint by Drone Wars UK

The European Ombudsman has ruled that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, should reform its access to information arrangements following complaints about difficulties in obtaining information made by Drone Wars UK and German open government platform FragDenStaat.

The Ombudsman’s ruling follows a two year investigation which examined how Frontex deals with requests for public access to documents, and particularly requests submitted by email and through civil society access to information websites such as FragDenStaat and AskTheUK.org.  At present Frontex only accepts communications through its own difficult-to-use communication portal and  refuses to communicate by e-mail or third party information access websites – a complicated and unnecessary hurdle for anyone seeking information about the organisation.

As well as investigating the portal requirement and the ability to submit and to receive documents by e-mail the Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly also inquired into concerns about restrictions imposed by the copyright of Frontex documents, long-term accessibility of documents through the portal, and Frontex’s requirement for those requesting information to submit personal identification and the lack of routes to allow this.

Border Drones

Drone Wars UK submitted an information request to Frontex in July 2020 as part of our ‘Crossing A Line‘ investigation, in which we highlighted the growing use of drones for border control operations and the threats to human rights which this poses.  Read more

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri:  the tip of the targeted killing iceberg

President Biden announcing the targeted killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri

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.

Over-the-Horizon

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 boxRead more

UK Government release ‘Drone Ambition Statement’ to renew push to open UK skies to drones

Amidst the hoopla of the Farnborough Airshow last week, the Government launched what it described  as it’s ‘Drone Ambition Statement’.  However, ‘Advancing airborne autonomy: Commercial drones saving money and saving lives in the UK’ is in reality, a hodgepodge of previous announced policies, ‘refreshed’ statistics and pleas to business and regulators to ‘get on with it’.  The frustration in the document – both with the public’s scepticism about the benefit of drones and the regulators hesitance on safety grounds to throw open the skies to drones – is palpable.

Fantasy Figures

Underpinning the government’s push to open UK skies to drones is the belief  that it will bring huge financial benefit to the UK.  A 2018 report from consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) sought to put a figure to this conviction and came up with the suggestion that drones ‘could’ give a £42bn “uplift” to the UK economy by 2030. While this figure has been quoted so many times in the media that its now almost taken as fact, in reality it is basically guess work.

As part of this renewed push on drones, the government asked PWC to update its report (hence, Skies Without Limits v2.0) and the consultants now suggests that by 2030 drones could contribute up to £45bn to the UK economy. However as PWC makes clear, this figures is dependent on “best case adoption” and notes that “many challenges must be addressed to unlock this potential estimate.”  Indeed.  These ‘challenges’ include developing the necessary technology to allow many more drones to fly within UK airspace –  and in particular, to allow them to fly ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ (BVLOS); putting in place a new regulatory framework that would allow drones to fly alongside crewed aircraft; and finally changing the public’s negative perception of drones.  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

Drones with European components significantly impact Ethiopian conflict

Satellite image of Bayraktar TB2 drone at Harar Meda air base, Ethiopia:  Credit: Pax.

It is now widely known that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, has depended on the use of military drones to turn the tide in a bloody internal conflict waged against Tigrayan rebels. Fighting began in November 2020 after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) declared the nation’s general elections to be illegitimate. The elections were scheduled to be held in August 2020 but were postponed by the Ethiopian government until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The New York Times has stated that “Abiy has built his drone arsenal by tapping the sympathy of foreign autocrats and a booming segment of the global arms trade.”

The impact of drones in the conflict has been dramatic, fully reversing the southward offensive of Tigrayan forces which had been rapidly advancing on the city of Debre Birhan, less than 150 km from the capital Addis Ababa. Despite successfully halting the Tigrayan drive south, the Ethiopian government has now been forced to soften its previous stance against entering peace negotiations. This is partially due to the immense strain the conflict has placed on the nation’s economy in addition to international diplomatic pressure including ongoing mediation efforts from the African Union. The two sides are now observing an uneasy ‘humanitarian truce’ declared on 25th March this year. Exact details on the nature of the ceasefire are decidedly scarce but it is clear that it remains far from a formally agreed and lasting peace agreement. William Davison, a senior analyst for Ethiopia at Crisis Group, a regional conflict resolution organisation, has stated that “It is not yet clear that either the federal or Tigray authorities are willing to make the necessary concessions to make this peace process work.” Read more

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