MoD challenged at Information Tribunal on secret UK Reaper drone operations

Drone Wars appeared in court yesterday to appeal the refusal of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to give basic details of UK Reaper operations outside of its campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Judgement in the case is due to be given in around six weeks’ time.

In January 2020 the MoD refused to answer a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Drone Wars UK seeking the number of UK Reaper flights that had taken place outside of Operation Shader during 2019 and their location. The request was refused both on national security and international relations grounds. Subsequently, Ministers refused to answer questions both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords about the sorties, claiming that Reaper was an ‘intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform’ and that Ministers “do not comment on intelligence matters.”

Labour MP Clive Lewis wrote directly to the Secretary of State, Ben Wallace, about the matter and was told in response:

“REAPER is not conducting strike operations outside those theatres for which Parliament has approved the deployment of UK Armed Forces. The vast majority of REAPER missions are reconnaissance and surveillance operations and as I am sure you can understand, to reveal where it is conducting those missions would provide valuable information to our adversaries.”

Clive Lewis and crossbench Peer, Baroness Viviane Stern, member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and Modern Conflict submitted written statements to the Tribunal urging the need for transparency. Mr Lewis argued that  the refusal to answer questions about the deployment of Reaper is “a serious backward step in terms of transparency and accountability.”

Baroness Stern stated:

“Despite repeated attempts by myself and colleagues to attain even the most basic information about the UK’s drone deployments, policy, and commitments, Parliament has not been provided with the accurate and timely information needed to meaningfully carry out its constitutional scrutiny role. Whilst certain details must be kept secret in order to ensure operational and national security, the current trend of withholding information about the use of drones purely because it is seen as an “intelligence” asset, as well as withholding vital information on the UK’s growing military capabilities and commitments is deeply concerning and unjustified.”

In court, the MoD argued against the release of the information on two grounds.  Firstly, that the information was exempt from release under Section 26 of the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that the information would prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of relevant forces.  Secondly, it argued that release of the information was exempt under Section 27 of the Act, in that its release would prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other State and/or the interests of the United Kingdom abroad.  Read more

Drone Wars Select Committee submission on use of the military drones in countering migrant crossings

In Sept 2021 the prototype of the UK’s new armed drone flew from Scotland to undertake a mission involving a search pattern over the Channel.

Boris Johnson announced in mid-January that the armed forces was to take charge of limiting migrants crossing the English Channel. The announcement was described by The Times as one of a series of populist announcements by the embattled PM to save his premiership.

Soon after, the Defence Select Committee announced that it was to scrutinize the decision and sought submissions from interested parties:

“The Government’s decision that the Royal Navy should take over operations in the Channel has taken Parliament (and it seems the MOD) by surprise.  There are significant strategic and operational implications surrounding this commitment which need to be explored.”

Shockingly, both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office refused to submit evidence or send ministers to answer questions from the Committee.

Our full submission to the Committee on this issue – looking in particular at how drones are often seen as a ‘solution’ – is available on their website, while here we offer a short summary.

  • Drone Wars argues that the military should not be involved in day-to-day border control operations in the absence of any threat of military invasion. This role is primarily a policing and enforcement role centred on dealing with civilians which should be conducted by civilian agencies.  Military forces are not principally trained or equipped to deal with humanitarian or policing situations.  The UK borders are not a war zone, and civilians attempting to enter and leave the country are not armed combatants.

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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

Overview of UK air strikes in Iraq and Syria since the territorial defeat of ISIS in March 2019

UK air strikes on caves in Iraq in March 2021

More than 2½ years after the Kurdish-led, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) overran the final piece of ISIS held territory, the UK continue to undertake air and drone strikes in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Shader.

Although the MoD has published some details of these strikes, through analysis of statistical data we discovered that a number of UK strikes had gone unreported, including the targeting of an individual on a motorcycle in Syria.

Using Freedom of Information requests, we managed to gain some information about these missing strikes and so, for the first time, can detail all UK air and drone strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since March 2019.  A full list is available at the bottom of this post and and see map below.


Locations approximate. Yellow= Reaper, Blue= Typhoon. Click icons for further details

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On the horizon: drone spies coming to UK skies

SkyGuardian flight trials over the UK in September 2021

In the last few months Drone Wars and UK Drone Watch have organised protests outside RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and RAF Lossiemouth in North East Scotland. We were protesting the decision to allow US arms manufacturer General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of their SkyGuardian drone in UK airspace. SkyGuardian is a prototype of the UK’s new armed drone, named Protector, which will replace the UK’s current Reaper armed drone fleet in 2024. As we have shown, the prospect of such large drones regularly flying in UK airspace raises significant safety and accountability concerns.

In response to our actions, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, and the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Mike Wigston, went out of their way to insist that the presence of SkyGuardian in the UK was innocuous. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which manages British airspace, described SkyGuardian as a “civilian aircraft” and approved it to fly in the UK. However, dig a little deeper and the dangers posed by these flights become clear. Drones, which can provide a constant presence and are relatively economical to fly, are likely to be increasingly used for domestic surveillance by state and private operators. Rising drone surveillance poses threats to human rights, privacy and data protection. Strong regulation of such operations is therefore essential to overcome secrecy and prevent abuses of power.  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