Five years on from UK’s first drone targeted killing, increasing secrecy needs serious challenge

Secret British drone operations getting little scrutiny

The long delay to the release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report showed all too clearly just how much control the government can wield over Parliament’s weak powers of scrutiny.  While the ramification of this latest setback to parliament’s role of holding the executive to account are still being worked out, the consequences of a similar failure five years ago – when MPs attempted to investigate the use of drones by British forces for targeted killing –  are now apparent.  This should act as a salutary reminder of the need for MPs to constantly push to strengthen their oversight powers.

Five years ago today (21 August 2015), an RAF Reaper drone operating over Syria launched a missile at a vehicle travelling along a dusty road in Raqqa, killing its three occupants including the target of the strike, 21-year old Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan. The targeted killing caused a storm of controversy when then PM David Cameron reported it to parliament three weeks later. The government had not only for the first time launched a lethal strike in a country in which it was not at war, but had also defied a resolution supporting use of force in Iraq though specifically ruling it out in Syria. The government insisted that the operation was necessary as Khan was instigating and encouraging terror attacks in the UK. Read more

Drone Wars at Ten #2: A decade of challenging drone secrecy

We were excluded from our 2017 Information Tribunal when it went into closed session

A key aspect of our work over the past decade has been to challenge the secrecy that surround the use of armed drones. The Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) insist that many aspects of these operations must remain secret in order to protect lives and national security.  And in some cases, that is no doubt true. However, it is also without question that some of the secrecy that surrounds the use of drones is to enable these systems to be used without awkward and difficult questions being asked by parliamentarians, press and the public.

A narrative has been created around the use of armed drones to try to negate criticism – that they protect troops lives, that they are, in effect, no different from traditional aircraft, that they enable careful and precise airstrikes that ‘take out’ bad guys and leave the innocent untouched. Information and data that could challenge this framing, or enable us to have a better understanding, is often amongst the information refused.  Here are some examples from our work over the past decade: Read more

FoI reveals UK flying Reaper drone missions outside of operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has revealed in response to an FoI request from Drone Wars UK that British Reaper drones are undertaking missions outside of Operation Shader, the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The MoD has refused to say how many ‘non-Shader’ sorties there have been, or where they are taking place.

There has been no suggestion until now that British drones are undertaking operations elsewhere.  Answers to previous parliamentary questions and FoI’s requests about the use of RAF Reapers have all indicated that since late 2014, they have only been used as part of Operation Shader. The one exception was the mission that undertook the targeted killing of Reyaad Khan in August 2015, which the MoD subsequently insisted was not part of Operation Shader. Read more

New report: Falling Short: An analysis of the reporting of UK drone strikes by the MoD

Click to open report

Drone Wars is today publishing ‘Falling Short: An analysis of the reporting of UK drone strikes by the MoD‘. Since the beginning of air attacks against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (Operations Shader), the MoD has periodically published reports of the RAF strikes on its website. Law lecturer and member of the Drone Wars Steering Committee, Max Brookman-Byrne, has undertaken quantitative analysis of these reports and examined them in the light of international law.

The report finds that while the MoD’s attempts to be transparent in this area are to be welcomed, too often insufficient information is given. The fact that nearly half of all reports of drone strikes fail to convey sufficient information for even cursory or superficial assessments in light of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is highly concerning. It means that while the MoD’s reports provide an apparently transparent framework, in reality they fall short in this regard. Read more

MoD accidentally reveals British drones firing thermobaric missiles in Syria

The Ministry of Defence has revealed for the first time – seemingly accidentally – that British drones are firing thermobaric weapons in Syria.  The disclosure comes in an Freedom of Information (FoI) response to Drone Wars detailing the use of Reaper drones over the previous three months.

In the response, officials give a breakdown of the type of Hellfire missiles fired, stating that 19 AGM-114N4 and 44 AGM-114R2 had been used. Read more

Cost of UK air and drone strikes in Iraq and Syria reach £1.75 billion

Analysis of figures released in response to Freedom of Information requests by Drone Wars UK indicate that the UK has spent £1.75bn on armed air missions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since August 2014. It should be noted that the overall cost of UK military operations in Iraq and Syria will be much higher.

Strikingly, the data shows that at £268 million, the cost alone of the weapons fired over the last 3½ years is more than the total amount the UK has spent on humanitarian assistance in Iraq (£210 million) in the same time period.  The full cost of flying the UK’s armed aircraft (Tornado, Typhoon and Reaper) for more than 42,000 hours is almost £1.5 billion. Read more