HRW: Israeli drone strikes killed Palestinian civilians and violated laws of war

A woman sitting in rubble after her Rafah home was flattened by an Israeli strike. Photo: AP
A woman sitting in rubble after her Rafah home was flattened by an Israeli strike. Photo: AP

Yesterday Human Rights Watch (HRW) released important information detailing 18 separate airstrikes by drones and other aircraft during ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’ in November 2012  which appeared to violate the laws of war.  At least 43 civilians including 12 children were killed in the airstrikes.

The report provides rare detail into the impact of the use of Israeli drones but shockingly has so far received almost no Read more

Gaza under drones

One week after a ceasefire came into effect, it is not yet possible to detail with any certainty the use of drones in the latest Israeli war on Gaza.  As well as armed drones, Israel used F-16s, Apache helicopters, tanks and ships to launch over 1,500 strikes on Gaza during its latest eight-day war. However according to one Israeli military source the use of drones during ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’ was “unprecedented“.

The bombardment of Gaza opened with the targeted killing of Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari  by what appeared to be an Israeli drone.  Footage of the assassination of Jabari – who was reportedly involved in ongoing peace negotiations – was posted immediately to YouTube  and began an on-line social-networking war. Read more

A Century of Drone Crashes

This week  the USAF released an accident investigation report into the crash of a US Predator drone in Afghanistan in April 2012.  This crash brings the number of drone crashes in our updated database  to 100 (see full database here) and so we thought it a good time to do some data crunching.

Our database primarily contains details of crashes of  Class 2 and Class 3 UAVs (i.e. medium and large drones – see here for explanation of drone class and size) since January 2007.  However  there are a few occasions when small drone crashes have been included for some notable reasons (i.e. crashed with another aircraft).  We continue to maintain this database  as, although safety and reliability is a key issue in the growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles, nobody appears to be publicly compiling  drone crash information.   We are not claiming that our database is complete.  Given the secretive nature of drone operations and development, it is highly likely that other drone crashes have occurred and not been publicly reported. Read more

Drone developments accelerating

A number of announcements made in the past two weeks to coincide with the Farnborough airshow show the quickening pace of developments around the use of drones and unmanned systems.  Perhaps the most significant was the UK MoD’s announcement that it was setting up a new unmanned systems capability development centre (UASCDC)  to be based at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire

Click image to see presentation: UAS CDC info from slide 19 onwards

The new centre, which will be run in conjunction with defence giant QinetiQ,  aims to develop new drone programmes “from concept to deployment” as well as “facilitate engagement between industry and the MoD to make the best use of collective expertise and facilities.” Although there is as little public information available as yet, some slides about the new centre were included as part of a recent general presentation to industry by the MoD.

It was also announced that the new Unmanned Systems Centre will join with ADS, the UK Aerospace, Defence and Security trade association, and Farnborough Airshow to hold a new ‘expo’ on autonomous unmanned systems at Farnborough in July 2013.   Although shy of using the word ‘autonomous’ (substituting the more acceptable phrase ‘intelligent systems’,  the week-long event is clearly focused on autonomy as ADS Director, Kevin Jones states in a filmed interview (below) “Yes…. we are talking about systems that have the technology and the capability to make their own decisions…”   The event planned for 2013, is a “precursor to a complete Intelligent Systems Air and Ground Expo that will occur at the Farnborough International Airshow 2014 where, as a show-within-a-show, this event will have command of the global aerospace stage.”

The push towards arming smaller drones – and therefore making armed drones more ‘useable’ in crowded urban and civilian areas – also continues.  MBDA announced a “concept vision” of a new range of small missiles for UAVs including Gladius with a launch weight of only 7kg, including a 1kg blast/fragmentation warhead

Meanwhile Raytheon announced that its new purpose-built bomb for small tactical drones, (imaginatively called the Small Tactical Munition) may, following more live testing, enter service within a few months . Raytheon recently issued this video showing the bomb being test launched from a small drone.

Another example of the growing proliferation of drone technology can be seen in the Israeli company IAI’s announcement that it was in discussions with a number of organisations and academic institutions around the world to set up drone training academies.  The academies will offer training on IAI’s own UAVs including Heron, Panther and Hunter which can serve as training for pilots going on to fly those drones or as a generic training course.  According to Defense News:

“IAI has been training customers at a campus in Israel for nearly 40 years but only recently started referring to the site — which the company refers to only as “a secure location near Tel Aviv” — as an academy. It also conducts UAV training flights from Ein Shemer, an army airfield in northern Israel.”

Although BAE Systems had hinted that an announcement (and possible contract signing) in regard to the proposed joint UK-French Telemos drone would take place at the Farnborough airshow in the end nothing happened and a scheduled press conference was cancelled.   President Hollande of France did meet with David Cameron and in the subsequent joint press conference  President Hollande said “We want to work in common on drones. The defence minister is coming to London on July 24, when two arrangements will be signed regarding drones.”

Meanwhile the political case for drones continues to be made in the US as well as the UK.  Two articles extolling the virtues of drones – and challenging those who are critical of them – appeared over the past few days few days.  First Washington think-tank the American Security Project argued that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere were perfectly legal and rather than not having a legal argument, the US was deliberately not explaining its legal position: 

 “It is of strategic value for the US to refrain from providing justification [for the drone strikes] because to acknowledge any legal framework is to implicitly agree to be bound by its terms. By remaining formally unaccountable to international frameworks, the US can operate unimpeded by the red tape of the international legal community. From any angle, such a strategy is in the best interest of US national security. It is also important to note that a lack of public justification does not mean the US is not acting in accordance with international legal frameworks.”

Many might say that operating purely in your own national security interests and regarding international law as mere ‘red tape’ would put you in the same class of rogue state as Syria, for example, but obviously the American Security Project does not agree 

In the same vein, a New York Times op-ed tried to make the moral case for drones arguing that not only was using drones ethically permissible, but it also might be ethically obligatory  due to their advantage in identifying targets and striking with precision. In a quick and strong rebuttal Jeremy Hammond of the Foreign Policy Journal demonstrated that it was in fact making the immoral argument for drones.  Rather than summarise his piece I’d really recommend you read the whole article.

Despite ongoing serious moral and legal doubts, behind the scenes the development of armed drones and unmanned systems by the military and the defence industry is proceeding at a frightening pace.  As always there is need for more transparency, accountability and a proper public debate.

Is Drone Proliferation about to Explode?

Over the past few months we have been compiling information about which countries have large drones in military service.  We have posted the results of our research here in our new database of large drones in military service.  According to our research 31 countries currently have Class 3 or Class 2 military drones in their inventories.  Many others are working to develop or acquire large drones or will have the smaller Class 1 drone in their inventory. (see here for a general guide to drone sizes)

Out of the 31 counties that currently have large drones in military service, 28 have either directly purchased some or all of their drones from another country or manufactured their drones with the help of another country.  The primary exporter of drones and drone technology is Israel.  Israel has directly exported the larger types  of drones to  13 countries and assisted 4 others in developing their own drones.  The US has directly exported larger drones to 6 countries while assisting in the development of 1 other; France has directly exported to 3 other countries, while South Africa has exported to 1 (see table below).

Countries which have exported drones & drone technology

While some of these exports and drone programmes reach back over many years, there are indications that drone proliferation is set to explode.   Just over the past weeks for example there have been a number of press reports about drone sales agreed or being explored.

Firstly NATO signed a contact with US company Northrop Grumman to purchase five Global Hawk UAVs.  The $1.7 billion deal, which has long been discussed, was signed at the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this week. NATO expects to spend another $2 billion to operate the aircraft over the next two decades.

After the NATO summit officials briefed journalists that President Obama had told the Turkish President Abdullah Gul, that the US was willing to sell armed drones to Turkey but had to get approval through congress.  Iraq has also announced this week that it is purchasing US drones to protect Iraqi oilfields.  Although most press articles carried pictures of Reaper or Predator drones to accompany the story it is highly unlikely the drones concerned will be armed.

Meanwhile the most prolific exporter of drones, Israel, continues to make sales.  This week Israel company Elbit Systems announced it had secured a $160m contract to supply drones to a European country but wouldn’t say who, while a senior Russian defence official said Russia may also be buying $50m of Israeli UAVs in the near future.  Also this weeek Singapore announced that it had inaugurated their first Heron drone into the Air Force.

There have also been recent reports that Switzerland and the UK are evaluating Israeli drones with a view to purchase.  Both countries already possess drones built in conjunction with Israeli companies.

The proliferation of drones  is supposed to be controlled under  the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) but it is a non-binding, voluntary agreement which seems close to being ignored in relation to drones.

Two years ago the then US Defense Secretary said it was ‘in the United States interest to share drone technology with allies despite the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)’  while manufacturers are lobbying hard to ease the so-called ‘tough restrictions’ on exports of drones.

Some are suggesting that the MTCR, which is not primarily aimed at controlling drones, may no longer be the appropriate mechanism to regulate their proliferation.  However if a new control regime is to be developed, it needs to happen very quickly – or it will simply be too late.

Later this year, the 34 partner nations of the MTCR will meet for their annual plenary review and it is vital that there is progress on curtailing the growing proliferation of drones.

Legal action initiated in UK as drone strikes continue in Pakistan, Yemen and Gaza

It was announced yesterday that a legal proceedings will be initiated in the High Court in London to challenge British complicity in US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Reprieve together with Leigh Day & Co, acting on behalf of the family of Malik Daud Khan, one of 40 people killed in a CIA drone strike on a tribal gathering in North Waziristan in March 2011, are suing Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, William Hague over British intelligence agency support for the strikes. Richard Stein, Head of Human Rights at law firm Leigh Day & Co said:

“We believe that there is credible, unchallenged evidence that the Secretary of State is operating a policy of passing intelligence to officials or agents of the US Government; and that he considers such a policy to be “in ‘strict accordance’ with the law”. If this is the case the Secretary of State has misunderstood one or more of the principles of international law governing immunity for those involved in armed attacks on behalf of a state and/or the lawfulness of such attacks; and his policy, if implemented, involves the commission of serious criminal offences by employees of GCHQ or by other officials or agents of the UK Government in the UK.”

So far the Foreign Office has yet to respond. Meanwhile drone strikes have continued in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past weekend.

On March 9th between 8 and 12 people (reports vary) were killed in a US drone strike in South Waziristan.  Yemeni officials and local witnesses also reported US drone strikes on Friday in Baydar, in the South of Yemen and again on Sunday in Jabal Khanfar. US military sources however refused to comment on these drone strikes .

At least 20 Palestinians, including a 12-year old boy have also been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza over the weekend. On Friday Israel carried out the ‘targeted killing’ of Zuhair Al-Qaissi, the leader of the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC). Two other people were also killed in what witnesses said was a drone strike although this has not been possible to confirm. Responding to the Israeli targeted killing, rockets were fired at Israel which led to further Israeli airstrikes, which are continuing.  Israeli drones are reported to be carrying out some of the airstrikes.