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.

As drones continue to kill, drone protests go global

Tariq Aziz attending the drone meeting in Islamabad. Photo: Reprieve

We reported two weeks ago on the killing of 16 year-old Yemeni teenager Abdul-Rahman, the son of Anwar al-Alwaki  who was himself the victim of a drone strike a few weeks previously.  However Abdul-Rahamn was not the only 16 year-old killed in a drone strike this month.

A few thousand miles away 16 year-old Tariq Khan and his 12 year-old cousin Waheed were killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan on October 31.  A few days before being killed, Tariq had attended a meeting on the drones organised by British human rights group, Reprieve with the aim of encouraging local people to document the strikes taking place in their area.  Lawyer and campaigner, Clive Stafford Smith talks about the Jirga and meeting Tariq in his piece for the New York Times piece: 

Tariq was a good kid, and courageous. My warm hand recently touched his in friendship; yet, within three days, his would be cold in death, the rigor mortis inflicted by my government.  And Tariq’s extended family, so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile — most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile.

Two thousand miles west and Israeli drones fly constantly over Gaza with the latest strike killing seven members of Islamic Jihad.  The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an eye-opening interview this week with a ‘Lt Col Ido’ (his surname was withheld for security reasons) who teaches ethics to Israeli drone operators.   The Lt Col says “When people are killed by mistake, we are tormented, and that’s how it should be… I’ve met some people who had a very hard time with it. Some coped, and others wanted to leave. I told them, ‘This is dirty work. Who would you like to have do it? We would all like to be professors.'”

The whole article, looking at how Israel uses drones for “everything from gathering intelligence in what the air force calls the “third circle” – namely, the Iranian sector and its satellites – to assisting fire-fighters in the Mount Carmel forest fire and guarding worshipers at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus” is well worth reading.  Israel is also about to deploy the giant Eitan drone for use in Gaza and Lebanon as Ynet news reports.

Fifteen hundred miles south of Israel is the Ethiopian city of Arba Minch from where, according to a recent  report in the Washington Post,  the USAF are flying Reaper drones over Somalia.  While the US say the drones based in Ethiopia are for surveillance purposes only (the Ethiopian government are refusing to admit the drones are even in Ethiopia) US drones are undertaking strikes against al-Shabab in Somalia.

Meanwhile it has been confirmed this week that US drones in Iraq are to be move to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey from where they will be used to ‘monitor’ Kurdish separatists in Iraq and presumably Turkey.

But it is not only the drones that are circling the globe.  Resistance to the drones is growing and going global too.  We have repeatedly reported on the anger in Pakistan against US drone strikes and the many protests taking place there, the latest of which saw some 2,000 people protests outside the Parliament building in Islamabad.

For the first time (as far as we know) anti-drone protests have also taken place in Yemen, with some extremely brave people coming together in Sana’a to protest the strikes there (see video below)

In the US, protestors have recently gone on trial  following a civil  disobedience action at the main entrance of Hancock Air National Guard Base on  April 22, 2011, where 38 people were arrested at a die-in protesting the  drones.  The verdict will be handed down on 1st December (see http://www.upstatedroneaction.org/  for lots more info.

And  in London tomorrow (16 November) protestors will gather outside a hotel in  central London where the drone industry will gather for two days to discuss, plan and, as there publicity states discuss ‘how to stop the public hysteria surrounding UAV operations in  the 21st Century?’   As human rights lawyer Jules Carey put it on twitter: There should be more hysteria about UAVs not less!   At our protest we shall remember Abdul-Rahman, Tariq, Waheed and all the other victims of drone  strikes young and old.  Why not join us?

Drone Strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, Proliferation Elsewhere

A US drone strike in Yemen on Thursday (5th May), was an attempt to assassinate US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, said to be head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Two Saudi brothers were killed in the strike but Al-Awlaki apparently escaped.  Al-Awlaki has been placed on a list of people approved for targeted killing by President Obama. This was unusual in that he was a US citizen.  Ai-Awlaki’s father and the US civil rights group ACLU have attempted to have him removed from the list but failed.

On Friday (6th May) four US drones attacked a compound in North Waziristan killing at least 17 people.  While most press reports concentrated on the fact that this was the first drone strike in Pakistan since the killing of Bin Laden, it is also the first strike since Imran Khan threatened further civil disobedience against NATO supply routes if drone strikes did not cease.

Meanwhile drone proliferation continues as military companies push drones in Africa, Europe, South America and India.  As we have reported previously, Israel is a key exporter of drones and drone technology and a recent report suggests that they are  currently negotiating to sell – or perhaps rent – Heron drones to Angola.  The report also suggests that Kenya may be a future customer.  

In Europe, defence industry officials are pressing governments and companies to “get on with it” and push forward with developing the next generation of drones.  BAE Systems CEO told shareholders at the companies AGM to expect a decision on development of a new Anglo-French drone within the next six months.   In India, development work on an autonomous combat drone has begun.  India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) told press that the aim is to develop the UCAV within seven to eight years . 

In Latin America, at least 11 countries are using surveillance drones with many drones flying over other nations territories and borders.  Most, if not all, the drones have come from Israeli companies or been built with Israeli technology.  The proliferation has led to calls for a ‘code of conduct’ to prevent the arming of drones and it will be interesting to see if this is taken up.

Waiting for the Watchkeeper?

The UK's Watchkeeper drone being tested in Israel: Copyright Thales

News of the progress (or rather lack of it) on the UK’s Watchkeeper drone programme has emerged over the last few days.   Due to enter service in February 2010, delayed to Spring 2011, the latest information according to Flight International,  is that it will not be deployed in Afghanistan “before the end of the year” due to, as Thales executives helpful put it “technical difficulties.”

Watchkeeper is being built under a £900m MoD contract (the latest NAO report shows that £625m has already been spent on the project !) by a joint British–Israeli venture company (U-TacS) owned by Thales UK and Elbit Systems.  It is based on the Israeli Hermes 450 drone which the UK is currently renting in an innovate ‘pay by the hour’ operation for use in Afghanistan.  Watchkeeper will (eventually) replace the Hermes in Afghanistan.

Flight tests of Watchkeeper are being undertaken from Parc Aberporth in West Wales and on 17 April 2010 Watchkeeper went on her maiden UK flight.   A  500 square mile test zone for UAVs between Parc Aberporth and Epynt Mountain is currently being considered (See correction below).   Thanks to a helpful FoI inquiry we know that up until mid-February 2011, 13 test flights have take place in the UK since then (till Feb 2011).  Other flight tests of Watchkeeper are taking place in Israel.  Incidentally the Welsh Assembly has also applied for planning permission to use Llanbedr Airfield in Harlech for “research, development, testing and evaluation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).” (Thanks David)

Parc Aberporth

The first ten Watchkeepers, which were due to be assembled in Israel, have already been built according to the Flight International article and training of armed forces personnel for the new drone will begin at Larkhill Artillery Training Centre in May.   Following initial training there will then be operational exercise for Watchkeeper using temporary restricted airspace above Salisbury Plain after taking off from the MoD’s Boscombe Down test centre.

In an interesting sideswipe at the project , The Register argues that at a cost of £16.5m each, the 54 Watchkeepers are hugely expensive and, possibly, not even wanted by the Royal Artillery.   Watchkeeper “isn’t about jobs or British industry or weapons for the armed forces”, it says ”it’s mainly [about] pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into French and Israeli arms companies .”

Wandering Raven has more information (including a helpful list of Watchkeeper component manufacturers) and regular updates on the Watchkeeper drone – see the Wandering Raven Watchkeeper stream. 

Correction: The orignal post said that this testing area had already been approved.  It has been pointed out (thanks JG) that the consultation is still on going as of May 2011)

Proliferation and protests

Apologies for the recent silence but I was, as they say, unavoidably detained.

Proliferation of drones continues apace with Israel’s recent delivery 12 drones to Russia in a $400m deal and Brazil ordering further Hermes 450 drones.   Meanwhile the USAF continues to increase its UAV capability by ordering a further 24 Reaper drones from General Atomics as Israel and India have inaugurated new drone squadrons.

On the technological development side, Gorgon Stare, the new drone surveillance capability, has been dammed in an internal draft USAF report as “not operationally effective” and “not operationally suitable.”  Danger Room however reports an ‘updated’ report suggesting that ‘fixes are in place”.  

The new X-47B US Navy stealth bomber drone had its first flight this week.  The X-47B is one of the new autonomous drones that is not remotely piloted, but rather follows a pre-programmed mission.

There have been large protests against US drone strikes in Pakistan with some reports of thousands attending protest marches.   In the US, 14 protestors who trespassed at Creech AFB to protest drone strikes were found guilty and sentenced to time served.  John Dear, one of the 14, reports here on testimony from the court.

Finally should mention Drone Wars UK  letter published in Guardian on call for inquiry into use of British drones.

British troops learn drone war in Israel as Reaper replacement battle starts

‘UK Troops Use ‘War Crime Drones’ In Israel was a rather surprising headline this week from the sensational Sun Sky News.  Behind the headline was the news that British troops are being trained by Israeli company Elbit to use Hermes and its Watchkeeper drones replacement in Israel.

 As is well known the UK is currently renting Hermes drones for use in Afghanistan until the new Watchkeeper drones, built under a joint UK-Elbit venture, can be deployed next year.  (see British Drones the Israeli Connection)

In 2008 the UK government insisted that trials for the Watchkeeper should not be undertaken in the occupied territories but was seemingly happy enough for the testing to take place in Israel. Amnesty International was quoted in the Sky News article as saying “It would seem wholly inappropriate for UK forces to be trained in the use of drones by a country with a track record of applying this technology in grave abuses of people’s human rights.”  Quite. No one could disagree with that (except perhaps commentators on  The Jersualem Post version of the story)?

Meanwhile the battle to replace the British Reaper drone is sparking into life.  EADS, which is developing the Talarion drone, urged decision makers to ‘make a choice’ with regard to the future armed UAV.   Two drones, BAE’s Mantis and EADS Talarion are the main contenders but there are also other possible candidates which could be developed to fulfil the Scavenger requirement to be in service around 2015-2018.  The joint UK-France treaty signed late 2010 seems to imply that these two main programmes will somehow be merged but it seems progress is slow and frustrating for EADS.