Ukraine drones may grab all the headlines, but armed drones are enabling lethal force around the globe

President Zelensky stand with a ‘suicide drone’ in Kyiv, Oct 2022

As we reach the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you could be forgiven for thinking that the on-going conflict in eastern Europe has become the epicentre of the use of drones.

However, while the use of UAVs by Ukrainian and Russian forces has been very significant, it is important to be aware that there are real and important differences between the use of mainly small drone systems by parties in that conflict, and the use of large armed drones by other states such as the US, UK, Israel and Turkey even since the beginning of 2023.

Drones use in the Ukraine war

Over the past year, hardly a report on the war has failed to mention Ukraine’s use of surveillance drones to zero in Ukrainian artillery and rocket attacks on Russian forces or more recently, Russia’s use of Iranian  so called ‘suicide drones’ to attack Ukrainian targets.

Early on in the conflict, Ukraine deployed a number of larger armed Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones.  Media reports at the time lauded the use of these as a game-changer and some even went so far as to suggest that use of armed drones would be strategically significant in the conflict.  However it quickly became apparent that the Bayraktar drones were very vulnerable to air-to-ground missiles as many were shot-down or crashed (see our crash database) and they quickly disappeared from the battlefield.  Some suggest that a few Bayraktars remain hidden and are being used covertly or kept for future operations but it is impossible to verify such claims.

Russia has at least one type of the larger armed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone in its inventory – the Inokhodets or Orion (not to be confused with the much smaller and ubiquitous surveillance drone, the Orlan).  However, like the Bayraktar, the armed drone seems to have disappeared from the skies after one was shot down in April 2022.

Both sides have also occasionally used very old, soviet-era unmanned aircraft such as the Tupolev Strizh or Reys as missiles.

More recently, Russia has also used systems acquired from Iran. These have mainly been the Shahed 131/136 which are  technically loitering munitions that can only be used once, and have gained the moniker of ‘suicide drones’ in the press.  Alongside Russia is known to have acquired Iranian Mohajer-6 armed drones (one was filmed being fished out of the Black Sea after it was shot down/crashed) and, according to US sources, the Shahed 191 /129 armed UAVS, but these have not been seen in use.

Alongside the use of loitering munitions, both sides have primarily used small, short range drones for reconnaissance and  surveillance as well as targeting of artillery and rocket systems. While the use of drones in this way has been very significant – indeed perhaps the most significant use of drones for this purpose in any conflict until now – it is very different to how some states are using armed drones elsewhere.

Armed drone attacks outside of Ukraine virtually ignored

Even since the beginning of 2023, let alone the start of the Ukraine war, there has been significant use of armed drones by the states including the US, Israel and Turkey to conduct unlawful attacks.  These strikes, however, only get a fraction of the amount of media attention that drone use in Ukraine has, and are virtually ignored by the international community.  Read more

A snapshot of permanent war: drone strikes in the first six weeks of 2015

The use of armed drones to launch lethal strikes around the globe is rapidly becoming normalised. Despite widespread ethical, political and legal misgivings and the danger to global peace and security from the precedent that such strikes set, US, British and Israeli drones carried out numerous strikes in the first few weeks of 2015. Pictures of an apparent Chinese armed drone that had crashed in Nigeria also surfaced in a worrying sign of the further spread of such systems. Read more

The idiocy of drone strikes

An unnamed military source confirmed to the Washington Post yesterday that last week’s airstrike in Somalia was carried out by a US drone. While there have been previous reports of drone strikes in Somalia, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports, this is the first time that such a strike has been confirmed.

The drone strike was aimed at members of al-Shabab group which the US alleges is building close ties with al-Qaeda.  A ‘senior US military official’ told the Post that “they have become somewhat emboldened of late, and, as a result, we have become more focused on inhibiting their activities.”

‘Inhibiting the activities of groups which have become emboldened’ is a fine euphemism for a drone strike – and one that we may hear more often due to the new counter terrorism strategy that was revealed by the White House this week.

Unveiling the new strategy, John Brennan, counter terrorism advisor to President Obama, stated (while heroically keeping a straight face) that “Al Qaeda seeks to bleed us financially by drawing us into long, costly wars that also inflame anti-American sentiment.”   Cleverly avoiding this trick (!) the US will instead, as the LA Times put it:

 “pursue a war in the shadows, one relying heavily on missile strikes from unmanned aerial drones, raids by elite special operations troops, and training of local forces to pursue terrorists.” 

When challenged about whether targeted killing was appropriate, Brennan, a former CIA officer went on to argue that in the past year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.”  However, as even the LA Times itself pointed out, it was just last month that two US servicemen were mistakenly killed by a US drone strike. Tactfully the LA Times suggested that Mr Brennan must mean drone strikes in Pakistan.  However even if Brenan’s claim is limited to drone strikes in Pakistan, it is extremely difficult to square with the myriad of civilian casualty reports from there.

The Pakistani lawyer, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who is suing the CIA on behalf of civilian victims of drone strikes, was refused entry into the US this month to take part in a human rights conference at Colombia Law School.

Mr Akbar wrote in the Guardian this week that

“If seeking justice through the law – instead of violence – is the reason for banning my travel, then mine is another story of how government measures in the name of “national security” have gone too far…  Why would the US government want to prevent me from discussing these cases at Columbia law school? Perhaps, it is because our legal challenge disrupts the narrative of “precision strikes” against “high-value targets” as an unqualified success against terrorism, at minimal cost to civilian life.”

Trying to prevent angry Pakistanis from using lawful means to pursue claims against the CIA for drone strikes instead of turning to violence seems to be purely idiotic.  Clive Stafford Smith, renown lawyer and founder of Reprieve, the organisations supporting Mr Akbar and other layers in Pakistan, took this theme up  in a short interview with Newsweek  when asked for his opinion on US drone strikes:

“Drones are idiotic. When you fire a drone, the odds are you’re wrong when you identify someone as a terrorist. Our experience in Guantanamo is that the Americans get it wrong more than two thirds of the time. The second thing the Americans have to do when they fire a drone is to identify where [the target is in real time]. The chances of getting that right are slim to none. The third thing they’ve got to get right is hit the right place. When you add these things together, the odds that they’re going to hit the right person are very small. The odds that they’re going to kill innocent people, really annoy people in Pakistan, and provoke people to hate them are very, very high. So not only is it immoral, it’s very stupid.”

Unfortunately, pointing out the stupidity of a particular policy to the military never seems to be enough.  Thankfully more and more people are beginning to take action to stop the idiocy of drone strikes.