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Armed drones: war by remote control

by Chris Cole and Jim Wright
This article first appearing in Peace News February and March 2010
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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are aircraft either controlled by “pilots” from the ground or, increasingly, autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. While there are dozens of different types of drones, they basically fall into two categories: those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes; and those that are armed with missiles and bombs.

The use of drones has grown quickly in recent years because unlike piloted aircraft they can stay aloft for many hours (Zephyr, a British drone under development, has just broken the world record by flying for over 82 hours nonstop); they are much cheaper than military aircraft; and they are flown remotely so there is no danger to the flight crew.

While the British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are controlled remotely via satellite from Nellis and Creech USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada.

Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens in specially-designed trailers in the Nevada desert. One person “flies” the drone; another operates and monitors the cameras and sensors; while a third person is in contact with the “customers”, ground troops and commanders in the war zone.

While armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the CIA’s undeclared war in Pakistan.

Only game in town

The US has two separate “squadrons” of armed drones – one run by the US air force and one run by the CIA. Using drones, the USAF has increased the number of combat air patrols it can fly by 600% over the past six years.

At any one time, there are at least 36 armed US UAVs over Afghanistan and Iraq. It plans to increase this number to 50 by 2011. CIA director Leon Panetta has recently said that drones are “the only game in town.”

The CIA have been using drones in Pakistan and other countries to assassinate “terrorist leaders.” While this programme was initiated by the Bush administration, it has increased under Obama and there have been 41 known drone strikes in Pakistan since Obama became president.

Analysis by the US think tank, the Brookings Institution, of drone attacks in Pakistan, has shown that for every militant leader killed, 10 civilians also have died.

Drones UK

The UK has several different types of armed and surveillance drones in Iraq and Afghanistan – and others in the production or development stage.

Britain began using armed drones in Afghanistan in October 2007 after purchasing three Reapers from General Atomics in 2007 at a cost of £6m each. The MoD confirmed in June 2008 that a British Reaper UAV had fired its weapons for the first time, but refused to give any details. In March 2009, the Daily Telegraph reported that British drones had been used ten times in armed strikes.


As well as armed drones, the UK has several types of surveillance drones, most notably Watchkeeper, a drone jointly produced by Israeli company Ebit and Thales UK. The UK is purchasing 54 Watchkeeper drones and ground stations at a cost of £860m. The first 10 will be built in Israel and then production will transfer to a specially-built facility in Leicester.

Testing is taking place at Aberporth in Wales, and Watchkeeper is due to enter service this year. There have recently been reports that Watchkeeper may be armed in the future.

Serious concerns

The UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, has said that the use of drones is not so much combat as “targeted killing”. Alston has repeatedly tried to get the US to explain how they justify under international law the use of drones to target and kill individuals. This the US has so far refused to do.

In a report to the UN, Alston has said the US government (and by implication the UK government) “should specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture particular individuals…. and should make public the number of civilians killed as a result of drone attacks, and the measures in place to prevent such casualties”. A further question is the extent to which operators become trigger-happy with remote controlled armaments, situated as they are in complete safety, distant from the conflict zone.

Keith Shurtleff, an army chaplain and ethics instructor at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, worries that: “as war becomes safer and easier, as soldiers are removed from the horrors of war and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is very real danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide.” Increased surveillance

Military drone manufacturers are looking for civilian uses for remote-sensing drones to expand their markets and this includes the use of drones for domestic surveillance. Drones will no doubt make possible the dramatic expansion of the surveillance state. With the convergence of other technologies it may even make possible machine recognition of faces, behaviours, and the monitoring of individual conversations.

The sky, so to speak, is the limit.

Campaign against military drones

Drones are the hot new weapons of the 21st century. While drones have been around for decades, mostly as small, short-range and unreliable surveillance planes, a convergence of technological factors in the last decade have taken them to the forefront of the arms race.

With the rapid emergence of sophisticated drones in the last few years, Britain was caught flat-footed without a capable domestic drone system. The response was two-fold. Firstly, Britain bought US Predator drones and rented Israeli drones for use in Britain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secondly, the government poured resources into expanding the domestic drones industry.

Home-grown drones

While there are many British companies undertaking research and development work in this area, there are two major domestic programmes: the Watchkeeper system for surveillance, and two separate BAE armed drones. Watchkeeper developed out of a contract awarded to UtacS, a consortium of Elbit Systems of Israel, and Thales UK, to adapt Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone into a domestic UK surveillance drone. Watchkeeper is now undergoing final testing in Wales, to be ready in early 2010 (see below for more details).

BAE Systems are developing and testing two armed drones; Taranis and Mantis. Mantis will probably be armed with four Paveway 500lb laser-guided bombs and two Brimstone anti-tank missiles. Mantis flew succesfully for the first time in November 2009. It’s designed to fly as autonomously as possible to “reduce the risk of accidents due to human error”. Taranis has grown out of a four-year, £124m MoD programme called Project Morrigan, and is undergoing development at BAE’s factory in Warton.

The challenge

Drones, even unarmed versions, enhance the capacity to carry out extra-judicial assassinations. Small, manoeuvrable and unmanned, drones can go where no soldier could go. They can operate unseen, unheard and often unidentified. No assassin risks their life when a drone is used. Either by marking locations or by directly attacking targets, drones have revolutionised assassination.

Israel has used drones to assassinate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and the US has used them in Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan.

Who determines who gets assassinated? Who is accountable for the hundreds of noncombatants killed by drones? Who keeps records of the attacks made by machines that can barely be detected? Drones are going to proliferate as the newest addition to the arms race, a relatively cheap technology available even to small countries. Many drone companies operate low-cost turn-key drone rental programmes, even providing or training operators if required. Georgia used Israeli drones recently in its dangerous conflict with Russia.


With their covert capacity and ability to stay in the air for many hours at little cost, drones are ideal for domestic surveillance. With peaceful protest now often rebranded as “domestic extremism”, it is easy to see why this development represents a threat to democracy.

The Guardian recently reported that British police wanted to use drones for routine monitoring of “antisocial motorists, protesters, agricultural thieves, and fly-tippers”.

Already Essex authorities are negotiating for drones to carry out police work. Merseyside police have been illegally using a small drone for months, and it is believed that the UK government wishes to use drones for surveillance during the Olympics. Civil aviation regulations, which currently forbid use of drones in civilian areas, are being changed.

Future drones may be armed with Tasers and other “non-lethal” weapons for crowd control, including small remotely controlled helicopters that can herd crowds.

The Israeli connection

Even as it was admonishing Israel over its attack on Gaza in January 2009, Britain was in the final stages of a contract to purchase £850m of Israeli drone technology under the Watchkeeper program. Based on the Hermes 450 drone, battle-tested in the West Bank and Gaza, the Watchkeeper already has a long association with death and repression in Palestine.

The source of Watchkeeper technology, Elbit Systems, is a major Israeli arms company, selling arms to many countries around the world. The money spent by the UK goes not only to supporting the Israeli military economy, it goes toward the research and development of new weapons. Leaders in the Israeli arms industry are recycled back and forth between the Israeli military and the Israeli government. Elbit Systems has become a target of the pro-Palestinian BDS (“boycott, divestment, sanctions”) movement, not only because of the use of its Hermes drones in action over the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza, but because its subsidiaries provide security equipment for the separation wall and for illegal West Bank settlements.

New hazards

In September 2009, the Watchkeeper drone was test flown at Parc Aberporth, in Wales. One of the purposes of the flight was to help to help clear the way for large drones to use civilian air space. However sophisticated the technology, the use of unmanned aircraft in civilian airspace poses an increased hazard to people on the ground. Both government and the arms industry are rushing to have UAVs (“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”) certified safe for civil airspace to capture the huge market in remote sensing and civil surveillance.

Grounding the drones

It may be too late to stop the UK Watchkeeper contract, but it’s not too late to ask your MP why the UK has relations with Elbit, a company so linked to the repression of Palestinians. We can also support the BDS campaign against Elbit. We can also support BEPJ (Bro Emlyn for Peace and Justice), the local peace group which monitors Parc Aberporth in west Wales, the Welsh government-sponsored site where many drone models are tested.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation continues to investigate Britain’s use of armed drones. Through a Freedom of Information Act request we have discovered that UK drones have been used in 84 attacks over the past 18 months. We have appealed against a refusal by the MoD to disclose other information about Britain’s drones.

Chris Cole is Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. FoR will be launching a campaign on drones in the spring.
Jim Wright is an anti-war activist living in Sussex and Canada.

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