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.

Drones Wars 2010: Proliferation, Pushing Autonomy and Prangs

Northrop Grumman's X-47B Drone: first flight due before end of year

As the year draws to a close against a background of increasing drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan – between 50 and 60 people were killed in a number of separate drone strikes in Pakistan’s Khyber region this week  – the development of drone wars continues right around the world.   Three of the key themes that have emerged on this blog in the past six months –proliferation, the push to increased autonomy and drones crashes  –  are illustrated by developments this week.

Proliferation:  As was clear through the Wikileaks cables, every dictator and military leader has the latest drones on their Christmas wish list and many companies, are happy to oblige.    This week we learned that Israel are bidding to sell various drones to Chile  and India  while Peru has acquired micro drones from Israeli company Innocon.

The push to greater autonomy in drones has also been a regular theme this year and the year ends with Northrop Grumman announcing that its  X-47B combat drone is about to make its first flight.   The X-47B is designed to fly from an aircraft carrier and unlike current drones in service, the X-47b will fly mostly autonomously once aloft and, indeed its planned that it will be able to refuel in-flight autonomously. 

Prangs!  Finally the Drone Crash database illustrates how often drones, for all their supposed ‘smart technology’ sometimes simply fall out of the sky.  Two more examples have been added to the database.  Firstly two Australian drone crashes in Afghanistan have recently been revealed while a Mexican drone crashed in Texas last week.   The drone, an Israeli made Orbiter mini UAV, crossed the border into  the US and then crashed into the backyard of an El Paso resident.

And finally…  Channel Four has a very good report on 2010: – The Year of the Drone

Drones: See No Border, Hear No Victims, Speak No Peace

“You expect us to open the skies for anything that you can fly… in which country can you do that?”    Unnamed Pakistani Intelligence Official

The Washington Post reports today (Nov. 20th) that further pressure is being put on the Pakistani government  to widen the area that US drones are allowed to strike within Pakistan

Unsurprisingly, after more than 100 drone strikes this year alone in the area in which they are operating, the Pakistani government has refused the request.  This stance has, to put it mildly, annoyed the powers that be with one senior anonymous NATO military official quoted as saying  “If they understand our side, they know the patience is running out.”

Also barely reported this week (and anytime it happens) was Israel’s incursion by unmanned drone into Lebanon.  The flight, which pass within almost 50 miles of the capital Beirut, was  in direct violation of UN resolutions (as Israel regularly is).   

While neither the US nor Israel are famed for their respect of international law, there does seem to be something about unmanned drones that appears to mean a decrease in respect for  international borders and sovereignty.  Perhaps it’s the fact that the drone is unmanned and so ‘no body’ is actually crossing a border makes a difference to the military mind.

With more than forty countries developing unmanned drones these precedents of armed drones crossing international borders seemingly at will makes for a worrying future and suggests that a ban on armed drones is more important than ever.

Drones: Stressful for some, fatal for others

An Israeli drone launched an assassination strike in Gaza this week killing two people and injuring three more. The two fatalities, killed in their vehicle as it drove along al-Wihda Street in the centre of Gaza City, were named locally as brothers Islam Yassin and Mohammed Yassin, members of the Army of Islam. According to Al-Jazeerah an Israeli military spokesperson claimed responsibility for the assassination and stated that the attack was carried out after close collaboration between the army and the Israeli Security Agency Shabak, as the men were “plotting to attack Israeli citizens in the Sinai”. The dramatic photos in this report of the aftermath of the attack give some insight into the drone assassinations taking place in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Meanwhile British MoD Minster Andrew Robathan, confirmed this week that a study into the psychological health of British drone operators based in the US is currently underway. Previous reports focusing on US drone operators have suggested that drone pilots operating at great distances from the battlefield, are suffering from stress.

On the other side of the world, the sudden appearance of many new Chinese drones at a Chinese air show are causing Western defence officials a fair amount of stress. According to the Wall Street Journal

Western defense officials and experts were surprised to see more than 25 different Chinese models of the unmanned aircraft, known as UAVs, on display at this week’s Zhuhai air show in this southern Chinese city. It was a record number for a country that unveiled its first concept UAVs at the same air show only four years ago…. China is investing considerable time and money to develop drone technology, and is actively promoting its products on the international market …. It is of particular concern to the U.S. and Israel, whose drones are unrivalled in the world today.

One of the Chinese drones, WJ600, will caused considerable anxiety as a video animation showed it helping “to attack what appeared to be a U.S. aircraft carrier steaming toward an island off China’s coast that many visitors assumed to be Taiwan”.  Another, dubbed ‘the Chinese Predator’ by the aviation magazines, has undergone a series of flight trials, including weapons launches.

This week – two more drones crashed in Afghanistan – one on Kharvar city on 12th November and another in the Kharwar district of Logar Province on Wednesday 17th November. So many drones are crashing that I plan to put up a separate list of drone crashes in the next few days.

UK Extends Drone Deal with Israel as Drone Crashes Continue

British Hermes Drones in Afghanistan

This week the UK MoD extended its contract to operate Israeli Hermes 450 surveillance drones in  Afghanistan by a further eighteen months. The contract extension, with U-TacS , the Leicester-based company jointly owned by Elbit systems and Thales UK is worth $70 million according to Elbit . The UK, which has been operating the Hermes drones in Afghanistan since July 2007,  is developing the Watchkeeper drone to replace the Hermes on a permanent basis.  However the Watchkeeper is currently around eight months behind schedule and not expected to enter service until late 2011/early 2012.

Meanwhile drones continue to crash at an alarming rate.  In the last ten days alone a Predator has crashed  and a Reaper drone has crashed at Hollman AFB in separate incidents, and an Israeli Skylark surveillance drone crashed in the Gaza strip.  These come just days after an  unknown drone crashed on the Afghan-Pakistan border on October 7.

PS:  What happens when you protest Predator drones?

More Drone Strikes, More Drone Proliferation

Children in North Waziristan with debris from drone missile. Copyright: CIVIC

Unmanned CIA drones strikes have continued this week in Pakistan with seven people killed in a strike on an Afghan refugee camp in North Waziristan on Sunday (10th Oct) , eight killed in a strike on Wednesday (13th Oct) four of whom were alleged to be from Turkmenistan and early reports suggesting between three and six people killed in a strike today (15th Oct).  Meanwhile a new report this week from American NGO CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict) challenges the official line that civilian casualties from drone attacks are very low.  CIVIC researchers spent a year on the ground interviewing victims of conflict including drone strike victims:

Gul Nawaz, from North Waziristan, was watering his fields when he heard the explosion of drone missiles: “I rushed to my house when I heard the blast. When I arrived I saw my house and my brother’s house completely destroyed and all at home were dead.” Eleven members of Gul Nawaz’s family were killed, including his wife, two sons and two daughters as well as his elder brother, his wife, and his four children. “Yes, the drone strikes hurt the Taliban. Most of the strikes are effective against the Taliban but sometimes innocent people also become the victim of such attacks. Take my case … ” said Gul Nawaz.   “I blame the government of Pakistan and the USA … they are responsible for destroying my family. We were living a happy life and I didn’t have any links with the Taliban. My family members were innocent … I wonder, why was I victimized?”

 As Middle Eastern history Professor  Juan Cole says in a piece this week by Johann Harri of The Independent “When you bomb people and kill their family, it pisses them off. They form lifelong grudges… This is not rocket science. If they were not sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida before, after you bomb the shit out of them, they will be.”

There continues to be no information released about the use of armed drones in Afghanistan although it is certain that they are being used with pictures of the newest British Reaper drone arriving at Kandahar appearing today.


Drone proliferation also continues with Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) signing a $400m deal this week to supply Russian company Oboronprom with drone ‘kits’ for assembly in Russia.

“The main aim of our project is to develop a centre or competence of world-class unmanned vehicle manufacturing in Russia,” says Oboronprom director general Andrey Reus. “In co-operation with IAI we expect to become a major player in the market within the shortest possible time.”

Writing in the Financial Times this week, just two days before suspended from the parliamentary Labour Party over allegations about his expenses, former European Minister Denis MacShane argued that European governments need to combine to build ‘Eurodrone’ to export around the world. 

“The model should be that of a Kalashnikov [machine gun]: a robust, simple to make and easy to use design to which other specifications can be added as needs arise. This will require some surrendering of national military-industrial prerogatives. But just as the Airbus successfully replaced failed national aircraft such as the Comet or Caravelle, a Eurodrone could showcase Europe’s ability to produce a world-class model for worldwide export.”

Hopefully, with MacShane as its advocate, ‘Eurodrone’ will remain stuck on the drawing board.