Drone Wars at Ten #2: A decade of challenging drone secrecy

We were excluded from our 2017 Information Tribunal when it went into closed session

A key aspect of our work over the past decade has been to challenge the secrecy that surround the use of armed drones. The Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) insist that many aspects of these operations must remain secret in order to protect lives and national security.  And in some cases, that is no doubt true. However, it is also without question that some of the secrecy that surrounds the use of drones is to enable these systems to be used without awkward and difficult questions being asked by parliamentarians, press and the public.

A narrative has been created around the use of armed drones to try to negate criticism – that they protect troops lives, that they are, in effect, no different from traditional aircraft, that they enable careful and precise airstrikes that ‘take out’ bad guys and leave the innocent untouched. Information and data that could challenge this framing, or enable us to have a better understanding, is often amongst the information refused.  Here are some examples from our work over the past decade: Read more

Happy birthday to us! Drone Wars UK is ten

Rather unbelievably, Drone Wars UK is ten years old this week. Although I had been researching and writing about drone warfare earlier, Drone Wars UK as a blog, an organisation, an entity came into being on 1st June 2010.  In the decade since, the use of armed drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles – or ‘remotely piloted air systems’ as we are pressed by some to call them – has (ahem) taken off.  As we and many others feared and predicted, the use of these systems has become virtually normalised and are spreading across the globe, and yet this is still only, I would suggest, the beginning of the drone war era.

While the existence of Drone Wars UK does not, of course, coincide with the existence of drone warfare itself – unarmed UAVs have been used in warfare in various ways for decades with the first air strike from a drone taking place soon after 9/11 – the past decade has undoubtedly seen drones established as a key tool of modern warfare.

We had a public event planned for this week, bringing experts together to discuss and reflect on drone warfare – and with cake to mark the anniversary – but sadly due to Covid-19 restrictions, that has had to be postponed till later in the year. In the meantime, I answered a few questions about our work over the past decade and our future plans in a video interview, and I’ll be sharing a short series of reflections, taking stock of where we are now, what has changed over the past decade, and where we are likely headed in the near future.  As always, we rely on donations to keep our campaign work going. If you are able to make a contribution to our 10th birthday appeal we would be extremely grateful.  

Reflections #1: Are ‘drones’ (still) a thing to focus on?

Throughout the past decade, with perhaps the exception of an 18-month period in 2012/3, we’ve been repeatedly told that drones are not something to focus on.

At the very beginning this was because they were thought too obscure and irrelevant to what was happening at the time and there were other issues around peace and security to work on.  As time went on and the use of drones became more prominent, we began to be told that drones were in fact no different from other forms of air power so there was little point on limiting our work to simply drones. Later still, as the media coverage of the US use of drones to carry out targeted killings in Pakistan and Yemen grew, and the UK followed down this path, Read more

Book review: ‘Visibility equals death’ – living under the martial gaze

In 1978 the then-US under-Secretary of Defense, William Perry, declared that the Pentagon was seeking the ability “to be able to see all high-value targets on the battlefield at any time, to be able to make a direct hit on any target we can see, and to be able to destroy any target we can hit.”  In ‘The Eye of War‘, author Antoine Bousquet argues that military technology is increasingly allowing this objective to be achieved at virtually any time and in virtually any place around the world.

‘The Eye of War’ is the story of the evolution of what Bousquet calls ‘the martial gaze’ – a gaze that threatens anything which falls under it with obliteration.  Today’s military drones are a high profile, modern manifestation, of an ability to spot and destroy a target which has been emerging since the Middle Ages, and ‘The Eye of War’ sets out in vivid terms the histories of the various technologies involved and how they have converged to create a world which, in the words of military scholar Martin Libicki “visibility equals death”.  Read more

XLUUVs, Swarms, and STARTLE: New developments in the UK’s military autonomous systems

Behind the scenes, the UK is developing a range of military autonomous systems. Image: Crown Copyright

In November 2018 Drone Wars UK published ‘Off The Leash’, an in-depth research report outlining how the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was actively supporting research into technology to support the development of armed autonomous drones despite the government’s public claims that it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”.  This article provides an update on developments which have taken place in this field since our report was published, looking both at specific technology projects as well as developments on the UK’s policy position on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). Read more

Book Review ‘Eyes In The Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare’ by Arthur Holland Michel

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

Armed Drone Proliferation Update, January 2020

The third of our twice-yearly updates details new operators and other significant developments around the proliferation of armed drones.  For our complete list of states operating, or close to operating, armed drones see Who Has Armed Drones?

France undertakes first drone strikes

As has long been expected, the French Reaper fleet started to undergo weaponization in October 2019, with Jane’s reporting that this process will continue to run until Nov 2021 under a contract worth $17.87m.  A mere two days after completing a first test launch with its new missiles, the French air force carried out its first drone strike in Mali.  The strike, on 23 December, was part of an operation that reportedly killed 40 ‘terrorists’. A further drone strike in Mali on 19 January was reported by the French Ministry of Defence, killing five alleged armed militants.  This represents a clear escalation in the use of force. Read more