In November 2018 Drone Wars UK published ‘Off The Leash’, an in-depth research report outlining how the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was actively supporting research into technology to support the development of armed autonomous drones despite the government’s public claims that it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”. This article provides an update on developments which have taken place in this field since our report was published, looking both at specific technology projects as well as developments on the UK’s policy position on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). Read more
A new report published by Drone Wars UK reveals that, despite a UK government statement that it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is actively funding research into technology supporting the development of armed autonomous drones.
Our study, Off the Leash: The Development of Autonomous Military Drones in the UK, identifies the key technologies influencing the development of future armed drones and looks at current initiatives which are under way in the UK to marry developments in autonomy – the ability of a machine to operate with limited, or even no, human control – with military drone technology. The report maps out the agencies, laboratories, and contractors undertaking research into drones and autonomous weapon technology in support of the Ministry of Defence, examines the risks arising from the weaponisation of such technologies, and assesses government policy in this area. Read more
Over the past few years States, international organisations and civil society groups have expressed concern about the increasing proliferation and use of armed drones. To illustrate what is happening, Drone Wars has compiled details of the use of armed drones in the first three months of 2018. Due to both the lack of transparency by operators and the difficulty of reporting strikes from the remote locations where they often occur, this survey is undoubtedly incomplete. In addition the fact that multiple nations are operating armed drones to launch strikes against differing groups in Syria (US, UK, Israel, Turkey and Iran) and Yemen (US, UAE and Saudi Arabia) makes attribution and accountability for strikes there almost impossible. Nevertheless this short survey (1 Jan 2018 – 31 March 2018) gives something of an insight into the use of armed drones by multiple operators to launch strikes in multiple countries. Read more
On both sides of the Atlantic, legal challenges related to US drone use are about to hit the courts.
Tomorrow the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will take the CIA to court for refusing to comply with a Freedom of Information request for copies of documents related to the CIA’s drone strike programme.
The CIA has refused to comply with the FoIA request on the grounds that it is forbidden to talk about the secretive programme. The ACLU say that the CIA cannot on the one hand refuse documents on the grounds of secrecy while at the very same time regularly give briefings about its drone strikes. Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the ACLU told the Guardian: Read more
As reports are coming in that a British citizen has been killed by an America drone strike in Pakistan, the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow have conducted the first comprehensive public opinion survey covering sensitive military and political issues in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.
According to the survey, more than three-quarters of FATA residents oppose American drone strikes. Indeed, only 16 percent think these strikes accurately target militants; 48 percent think they largely kill civilians and another 33 percent feel they kill both civilians and militants.
This latest survey contradicts an earlier survey, reported by the BBC, by the Ariana Institute in Islamabad which suggested that 80% of FATA residents felt that drone strike were accurate.
No doubt we will hear a lot more on these two stories
The growing use of unmanned drones in armed conflicts around the world seems set to continue into the future despite calls for restraint and regulation. As legal groups in the US file lawsuits to try to prevent the drone assassination of a US citizen in Yemen, arguing that the US must stick to international law, weapons manufacturers like Raytheon are pressing ahead and designing new lighter weapons specifically for drones use. Robert Francois, vice president of advanced missile systems and unmanned systems at Raytheon told Flight Global, for example, that they are developing three new missiles specifically for drone use:
The Small Tactical Munition is about 10cm (4 inches) in diameter, 61cm long and weighs in at 5.9kg (13lbs) with GPS/inertial navigational system (INS) and a semi-active laser (SAL) seeker for targeting personnel and light vehicles.
The 15kg Griffin is a short-range, air-to-surface missile is tube launched, also featuring GPS/INS and SAL guidance and is smaller and lighter than the Hellfire.
Filling in the 45kg gap is Monsoon, for targeting buildings, trucks and personnel, with GPS/INS, otnal SAL and an 18kg warhead.
Meanwhile at the USAF Academy in Colorado, cadets are also being encouraged to design weapons for future drone wars. Ideas that have been presented to a recent gathering of UAV experts in Denver include drones spraying each other with acid and drones shooting nets to try to capture and down other drones.
Far from being a future phenomenon, however, drone proliferation continues apace. Just this week, the UK placing a further $5m order with Lockheed Martin for additional Desert Hawk III surveillance drones for use in Afghanistan. A condition of the order is that the drones must be delivered in the Autumn.
But many would argue that the proliferation of drone wars urgently needs to be stopped. A recent article in Foreign Policy Journal makes the interesting point that Mossad (and others of the ilk) cannot have failed to contrast the international furore around the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel with the virtual silence that surround the US drone assassinations and drawn the conclusion that if the US can do it silently with drones, so can they. The FPJ article goes on to call for a debate on drones that
“should engage authoritative policymakers scholars, legal experts and other people with knowledge and understanding relevant to carry out an informed and beneficial discussion aimed at the introduction of international rules that would identify constraints, introduce a well-thought out supervision, and define sanctions helpful in dealing with uncontrolled proliferation of this new form of warfare.”
The US lawsuit launched yesterday (31st August) in the US by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) argues that the US does not have the authority under international law or the constitution to carry out extrajudicial killings outside declared wars. They also reiterate the well made point that
“targeting individuals for execution by drone who are suspected of terrorism but have not been convicted or even charged – without oversight, judicial process or disclosed standards for placement on kill lists – poses the risk that the government will erroneously target the wrong people. In recent years, the U.S. government has detained many men as terrorists, only for courts or the government itself to discover later that the evidence was wrong or unreliable.”
Current lawsuits not withstanding, it is highly likely that drone wars and drone assassinations will continue until public opposition grows, and they are specifically outlawed. In the recent past anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs have been outlawed despite the best efforts of, and huge oppostion from, military planners and the defence industry. For campaigners, it’s time to get back in the saddle.