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

Drones, targeted killing and the Soleimani Strike

Remains of vehicle following US drone strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport

A week ago, a US air strike that officials (speaking off-the-record) acknowledged was carried out by a Reaper drone, killed senior Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and up to 10 others, travelling in a two-car convoy outside Baghdad airport. The targeted killing of a senior Iranian military officer sent shock waves around the globe and appalled many. International law scholars argued strongly that the strike was unlawful, politicians and diplomats articulated the dangerous impact both locally, regionally and internationally and military officials braced themselves for the inevitable retaliation.  Read more

Global Hawk Down

At 11.35pm (GMT) on 19 June, an Iranian surface to air missile struck and downed a US RQ-4A Global Hawk drone operating over the Straits of Hormuz.  According to the US, the drone, operated by the US Navy (which calls it a Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV – hence some initial confusion about the exact type of drone) was flying in international airspace, although Iran was equally insistent it was flying in Iranian airspace, with the Iranian Foreign Minister tweeting what he said was the GPS location of the strike. Read more

Three-month snapshot shows expanding use of armed drones

Over the past few years States, international organisations and civil society groups have expressed concern about the increasing proliferation and use of armed drones.  To illustrate what is happening, Drone Wars has compiled details of the use of armed drones in the first three months of 2018.  Due to both the lack of transparency by operators and the difficulty of reporting strikes from the remote locations where they often occur, this survey is undoubtedly incomplete.  In addition the fact that multiple nations are operating armed drones to launch strikes against differing groups in Syria (US, UK, Israel, Turkey and Iran)  and Yemen (US, UAE and Saudi Arabia) makes attribution and accountability for strikes there almost impossible.  Nevertheless this short survey (1 Jan 2018 – 31 March 2018) gives something of an insight into the use of armed drones by multiple operators to launch strikes in multiple countries. Read more

Drone strikes spread as proliferation surges

A new wave of users have launched drone strikes either on their own territory or across borders over the past 15 months.

bayraktar-armed
Turkish armed drone – The Bayraktar TB2

While the majority of attention on armed drones has focused on US use (and to some extent on the UK and Israeli), growing proliferation of these systems has meant that a number of other countries have acquired or developed armed drones and are beginning to regularly use them to launch strikes.

Most of these second wave of countries have acquired their armed drones from China – either the slightly older ‘Wing Loong (‘Pterodactyl’) developed by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group Read more

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.