Doubling the Drones

The rise of the drone seems to know no bounds.  Just months after David Cameron’s pledge to double the UK’s Reaper drone fleet, the latest US military aircraft procurement plan shows that the Pentagon is also planning to double number of large US military drones over the next decade.

According to the document “the number of platforms in this category — RQ-4 Global Hawk-class, MQ-9 Reaper, and MQ-1 Predator-class unmanned aircraft systems — will grow from approximately 340 in FY 2012 to approximately 650 in FY 2021.”  Danger Room reports that

 “the U.S. aerospace industry is scrambling to meet the Pentagon’s huge appetite for unmanned planes.  In the last two years, no fewer than three new killer drones have begun flight testing. Boeing’s X-45C , Northrop’s X-47B and General Atomics’ Avenger are all vying for new Air Force and Navy contracts. Northrop and Boeing also recently unveiled new, high-flying, long-endurance spy ‘bots”.

It’s not only the major military corporation working on drones.  Many smaller companies are also working to develop small, weaponised drones such as the Arcturus T-20 UAV.  And, of course, it is not only the US and UK developing new drones with China recently testing a new unmanned helicopter, the V750.

Meanwhile drone strikes continue in Pakistan.  A drone strike on a compound on Friday 3rd June killed nine people allegedly including  Ilyas Kashmiri, a key al Qaeda operative in Pakistan.  However Kasmiri was previously announced to have been killed in a US drone strike in 2009 and the Long War Journal has raised serious doubts about the announcement of his death this time.  On Monday 6th June three separate drone strikes in North Waziristan in one day killed between 19 and 24 people.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported this week that “fissures have opened within the Obama administration over the drone program targeting militants in Pakistan.”   However it seems that while “a slowdown in drone strikes was debated  [at] a meeting on Thursday…. CIA Director Leon Panetta made the case for maintaining the current program.”   The WSJ report continues that the result of the meeting was “a decision to continue the program as is for now.”   Hardly, a fissure then.

An excellent Channel Four Dispatches documentary this week looked at the targeted killing programme in Afghanistan and Pakistan being undertaken by the US military using special forces and drones.  It can be viewed here:  America’s Secret Killers

US drone strikes return to Pakistan with a vengeance as resistance grows

After something of a lull, US drone strikes have returned with a vengeance to Pakistan over the past two weeks, the latest of which, killed six  people this afternoon.  In addition strikes have taken place on 10th, 12th, 13th and 16 May.  According to the Pakistan Observer, 238 people have been killed and 40 injured in 39 drone strikes in Pakistan  since 1st Jan 2011 (excluding today’s strike).  The Oxford Research Group has today issued an interesting paper examining the various casualty figures reported for drone strikes in Pakistan.

This weekend, thousands of Pakistanis are expected to respond to Imran Khan’s call to protest the drone strikes by blocking NATO supply routes through Pakistan for forces in Afghanistan.  A protest will also take place outside the US embassy in London tomorrow (21st May) and UK Pakistanis plan to protest drone attacks during President Obama’s  speech to UK Parliament on May 25th.

Meanwhile US Attorney General, Eric Holder, told Channel 4 news this week that US drone strikes in Pakistan were totally consistent with International  law: 

“Anybody who is the target of any of our military action is always thought to be somebody who is thought to be a threat to the US, so there is a basis to any of the action we take, on the battlefield, in the variety of ways that we do it.”

His suggestion, that It is lawful to kill someone who is merely thought to be a threat would be laughable, if it were not so awful. However, as Tara McKelvey points out in an excellent article for the Colombia Journalism Review on the reporting of drone strikes,  many journalists seem to meekly accept these bland assurances. Challenging her fellow journalists, McKelvey suggests that

“A more whole-hearted pushback is in order, with top newsrooms banding together, backed by their legal departments, to try to force a more substantive and open public policy debate on whom and how the US decides to kill with the push of a button.”

Well, we can only hope

We mustn’t ignore the fact that British drones kill too

This is my comment piece published in today’s Guardian 

Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, is right to question the morality and legality of US drone strikes in Pakistan (The Predator paradox, 6 May). As he states, in 2010 alone there were 118 US drone strikes in Pakistan with estimates of up to 1,000 people killed. Some of these may well have been aimed at so-called “high-value targets”; but as Macdonald rightly points out, “several hundred innocent people of all ages have also died”.

So it is a shame that this rare critique of unmanned drone strikes says nothing about Britain’s own use of armed drones. There is a virtual wall of silence surrounding such strikes. We do know that between June 2008 and December 2010, more than 124 people were killed in Afghanistan by British drones. We know this not because of any ministerial statement, parliamentary question, or Freedom of Information (FoI) request, but because of a boastful, off-the-cuff remark to journalists by the prime minister during his last visit to Afghanistan.

I have repeatedly tried to obtain information about the circumstances of British drone strikes under FoI legislation, but all requests have been refused as being “prejudicial to the defence of our armed forces” or, more recently, simply ignored. A parliamentary question asked by my MP, Andrew Smith, about whether British drones were firing the thermobaric variant of the Hellfire missile – a variant that British forces are known to possess – was refused as “its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of our armed forces”.

Macdonald suggests that “tossing a dime would be a better way of identifying a ‘high-value terrorist’ than relying on US military intelligence”, and that “Guantánamo proves the tragic inability of the US military to differentiate between an enemy and an incidental bystander”.

I have heard similar sentiments in my investigations from British military officers and officials – the implicit assumption being, of course, that British forces would never be so inaccurate with their targeting or reckless with their drone strikes.

However, without accountability and scrutiny, without proper information about the circumstances of these strikes, we cannot pretend to be legally or ethically superior to the US in this matter. Macdonald would no doubt agree with Philip Alston, the then UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, writing for the Guardian website last year, who said of drone strikes that “accountability is an independent requirement of international law. When complete secrecy prevails, it is negated”.

With controversy growing, it is high time that the defence secretary, Liam Fox, makes a full statement to the House of Commons, giving as much detail as possible about Britain’s drone strikes. In particular we need to know whether all those killed in the strikes were directly participating in hostilities at the time; whether the UK has or would use drones for assassinations of so-called high-value targets; and whether any civilians are known to have been killed or injured by UK drones.

You can read the comments on this article – and post your own – here.

Drones everywhere

Obama: Sending Drones to Bomb Libya

It’s been a busy week!  On Monday the Guardian highlighted the MoD’s  new document on the need for serious discussion on the ethics and legality of using drones (see post below), a story which was taken up by the Daily Mail, The Telegraph  and many others. 

On Wednesday evening  James Cameron tweeted that this was the week –  in his Terminator movies – that autonomous armed machines rose up against humanity.  This sparked a lot of interest in autonomous weapon systems, including an article on drones on the BBC website

And then on Thursday night Barack Obama approved the use of armed Predator drone in Libya. In between media interviews I’ve been watching this blog’s stats go through the roof!

Meanwhile drone strikes continue in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The MoD confirmed last week that UK drone have now conducted 167 armed drone strikes in Afghanistan.  US strikes continue intermittently in Pakistan with the latest strike killing 25 people, including  according to some reports five children.  This strike comes almost a month after a strike on March 17th killed 44 people including many civilians.   Relations between the US and Pakistan have reached crisis point over the drone strikes with many Pakistanis calling for the air force to shoot the drones down.   Coincidently, Col Grant Webb, Commander of the US Joint UAS Centre of Excellence announced that Operation Blue Knight, this year,  a regular drone training exercise, will this year feature F15’s and F16s trying to shoot down drones

UK Drone Strikes in Afghanistan

However, a story that has passed almost unnoticed in the mass of recent drones stories is the killing of two US servicemen by a US drone in Afghanistan in the first week of April.   A key argument of those who support drone strikes is that they do not make mistakes as the drone’s incredibly accurate cameras can show the target in great detail allowing strikes to be made with pin-point accuracy.  US spokespeople, when denying civilians have been killed, use this argument  time and again. The killing of two US soldiers by a US drone  in a so-called ‘friendly fire’ incident  shows that drones are far from infallible.

Talking of fallibility, another Reaper drone has crashed – this time on a training mission in New Mexico.  Time to update the drone crash database.

I’ll be back…..

MoD releases ‘drone porn’

The Sun: Drone Porn

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has released two videos showing attacks by British Reaper drones.   

The two videos, released via youtube, shows a drone missile “neutralising” a ‘Taliban bomb factory’  and another killing someone allegedly planting an improvised explosive device.  

While the US regularly releases what has become known as ‘drone porn’, this is the first time that the British MoD has done so.  Already, that bastions of good taste, The Sun, has lapped up the footage and is reporting that the alleged IED planter was turn ‘to pink mist‘.

Over the past two years the MoD has so far flatly refused to give any details about the circumstances of the 120+ attacks by British Reaper drones saying repeatedly that to do so would endanger the lives of British servicemen.  These concerns however seem to have been forgotten in order to release mere propaganda proclaiming the accuracy and lethality of their latest weapons system.

Unnamed Sources and Drones: A Deadly Combination

There are a number of deeply disturbing issues about the reports that Abdul Jabbar, a British Citizen killed in US drone strike in North Waziristan was to lead British terrorist cell. Firstly the suggestion that he was in fact to lead a terrorist cell in the UK appears to come from one unnamed “senior Pakistani security source” via a BBC Newsnight report

It is of great concern that a single unnamed source who, it could be argued, has a vested interest in justifying the death of Mr Jabbar and raising fears about terrorism has such an influence on the media. Indeed other ‘unnammed sources” are dismissing the story. Sky News for example are reporting that their sources, this time unnamed government officials are saying that the stories are something “to be”rather cautious of”.   And indeed as the Guardian reports one key element of the story is very suspicious – the idea Abdul Jabbar was chosen at a gathering of 300 Taliban and al-Qaida militants in North Waziristan. “It’s unthinkable that 300 people could meet in one location in the tribal belt. Maybe 10 or 20, but 300 is too much. It would be too much of an easy target for the drones,” said Imtiaz Gul, author of a book on militancy in the frontier regions.

 But perhaps even more disturbing about this whole story is the fact that the execution of a British citizen accused of being involved in terrorist activity”at very early stages” without any due legal process seems acceptable to many in the media and beyond – indeed it passes without even comment.