Long read: Six strikes that show the reality of drone warfare today

Weddings. Hospitals. Refugee camps. Aid workers. All have become the target of lethal strikes this year due to the spreading use of drones by a growing number of states.  Here we detail six particular strikes and, below, reflect on what they show about the reality of drone warfare today.

1. January 3, 2021: French strike targeting a gathering of people, Mopti, Mali
Charred ground where French strike occurred according to UN investigation report.

Following surveillance by a French Reaper drone “spanning several days”, two French Mirage jets operating in conjunction with the drone fired three laser guided bombs at what was said to be a gathering of around 40 armed militants. French military spokesperson Col. Frederic Barbry told Associated Press that the strike followed an intelligence mission which showed a “suspicious gathering of people.”

The gathering, however, was a wedding party and, according to a subsequent UN investigation, 19 civilians, including the father of groom were killed. The detailed report concluded that around 100 people were at the wedding celebration including 5 men who were alleged to be members of an armed group, only one of whom visibly carried a weapon. The report stated:

“Of the 22 people killed, 19 were directly killed by the strike, including 16 civilians, while the three other civilians died of their injuries during their transfer for medical treatment. At least eight other civilians were injured in the strike.  The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are people protected against attacks under international humanitarian law.“

France rejected the results of the UN investigation and continues to dispute that any civilians were killed in the strike.  [Further details.]

 2. May 4 2021: US strike targeting vehicle and occupant, Deir Ezzor, Syria

A US Reaper drone strike targeted the occupant of a vehicle in eastern Syria with the man killed instantly. The Coalition tweeted:

“CJTFOIR conducted an air strike removing a Daesh terrorist from the battlefield near Dayr az Zawr, Syria today. Coalition and our partners will continue our mission to defeat Daesh, disrupt their resources and eliminate Daesh remnants.”

However, locals disputed that the man killed, identified as Bassem Atwan Al-Bilal, was involved with ISIS or any other militant group, stating that he worked in the gas industry, refining oil.  They also revealed that the man had only bought the vehicle two days previously and suggested that target of the drone strike was likely to have been the previous owner. Read more

Drone Proliferation Update, July 2021

In the seeming absence of any political will at the international level to control the export and use of armed drones, their proliferation continued unabated during the first half of 2021.

The three main exporters of these systems – Turkey, China and the US –  all signed significant deals, with Israeli companies also exporting large drones, although, as always, Israel never officially admits that its drones can be armed. A number of other countries are attempting to develop indigenous armed drones although it is much harder to gain information on these programmes.

Turkey

Morocco:  The Moroccan armed forces confirmed in April that it had signed a deal with Turkey for the purchase of 13 armed Bayraktar drones at the cost of $70m, with deliveries “to begin within the year” according to news reports.  Reuters had reported late last year that the Trump administration was considering authorising the sale of SkyGuardian drones to Morocco, but this deal may have fallen by the wayside. Morocco also has Israeli Heron drones acquired via France in 2020. Reports circulated in April that Morocco had used a drone to undertake the targeted killing in the Western Sahara region of Polisario commander Addah Al-Bendir, however these reports have been unconfirmed and may be mistaken.

Poland: The Polish President, Andrzej Duda, signed a deal for 24 Bayraktar drones during a state visit to Turkey in May. The four sets of six drones will each have two ground control stations and three ground data terminals at a cost of $270m. The deal includes missiles, training ammunition and operator training.  Poland becomes the first NATO country to purchase Turkish armed drones which are expected to delivered in 2022.  Poland had previously considered the UK’s Watchkeeper drone and has been developing the Zefir UAV as a MALE drone, but it is now unclear whether this programme will continue.

Saudi Arabia: During a press conference In March, Turkey’s President Erdogan revealed that Saudi Arabia also wanted to acquire the Bayraktar armed drones.  While Turkey has been at odds with Saudi since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and some nations have imposed an arms embargo on Saudi due to its war in Yemen – Turkey’s recently report to UN Register of Conventional Weapons shows that 3 UAVs have been exported to the country.  Read more

Turkey driving drone proliferation in its quest for market supremacy

Poland confirms purchase of 24 Bayraktar drones from Turkey: Credit Polish MoD

As the mass-produced version of Turkey’s new Akinci drone passed its maiden flight test, Poland announced that it will buy several models of its ancestor, the Bayraktar TB2.

“We negotiated a contract for the purchase of four sets, that is 24 aircraft, armed with anti-tank missiles,” Poland’s defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak told state radio in a May interview. The first are to be delivered in 2022.

Poland is the fifth of six nations to buy the TB2, following Azerbaijan, Morocco, Qatar and Ukraine, but preceding fellow NATO member, Albania. The unmanned aircraft has also taken to the skies over the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, where it played a decisive role for the Government of National Accord against the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar.

The development of Turkish drone technology has been a generational effort and the result of a two-decade drive toward indigenous design and production across the country’s defence sector. In 2018, Turkey generated around $2.2 billion in sales, making it the world’s 14th largest arms exporter at the time. And while many analysts believe that several challenges – such as a nationwide brain drain – could slow the industry’s growth, the UAV programme has made Turkey an important player in the global drone market.

For decades, the United States and Israel have been the leading producers and sellers of surveillance drones, effectively holding a de facto monopoly over the industry. Figures from 2019 show that 49 countries were operating at least one UAV made in the U.S. and 39 had acquired at least one from Israel. Both, however, have been reluctant to export armed drones during their years at the top, although today, Washington is working to expand its policy so that previously prohibited governments can purchase their large, strike-capable crafts. Read more

Drone Proliferation Update, January 2021

Armed Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drone

Over the last few months have seen a number of significant developments in relation to the increasing proliferation of armed drones. The most significant of these have been the use of Turkish Bayraktar TB-2’s in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh which turned the military engagements in Azerbaijan’s favour and, secondly,  the Trump administration’s decision to unilateral reinterpret the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) agreement in order to allow it to export more armed drones.

  • This latest update details new operators and other significant developments around the proliferation of armed drones.  For our complete list of states operating, or close to operating, armed drones see Who Has Armed Drones?

Read more

The use of drones in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

As the hostilities between and Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region reach their worst levels since the end of the 1992-94 war, daily reports of drones and loitering munitions being used in strikes or shot down pile up on social media, and the truth and extent are hard to clarify. This post takes a long view and looks at the protagonist’s acquisitions and use of drones and loitering munitions in the last few years and what their introduction means for peace and security in the region.  Read more

Drone Proliferation Update, July 2020

Serbia acquires Chinese CH-92 drones
  • This latest update details new operators and other significant developments around the proliferation of armed drones.  For our complete list of states operating, or close to operating, armed drones see Who Has Armed Drones?

Over the last six months, Libya has continued to be the focus for the use of armed drones. France has increased its activity in the Sahel, and several Asian nations, plus Russia, edge closer to operating armed drones. Turkey and Iran also continue to promote their indigenous developments, and the US appears to have decided to unilaterally reinterpret the MTCR guidelines to allow it to increase its export of armed drones.

Meanwhile, UN Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard, has urged action on drone proliferation during her annual report to the UN Human Rights Council, arguing of the need for the international community to  “undertake effective measures to control their proliferation through export and multilateral arms control regimes and/or under international treaties” in order to tackle effectively the many challenges posed by armed drones, particularly for targeted killings. Read more