Drone Warfare

“Even one child death from drone missiles or suicide bombings is one child death too many. Children have no place in war and all parties should do their utmost to protect children from violent attacks at all times.” Sarah Crowe UNICEF

US: Strikes Kill Civilians in Yemen   Youtube video by Human Rights Watch

Names and ages of some of the children killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen

Remote Killing of Civilians

Drone warfare is now an integral part of counter-terrorism with both surveillance and armed drones  being used by an increasing number of countries.  It is argued that drones allow for longer periods of surveillance and more accurate targeting. However without a presence on the ground, drone pilots can never verify their targets and the claims made of almost zero civilian casualties are hard to credit. Independent investigations are telling a very different story. A report by Reprieve concluded that US multiple  drone strikes in Pakistan  targeting just 41 named individuals had killed 1,147 unknown people  and  another study shows that in Afghanistan drone strikes have caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter aircraft.

The US alone  has used armed drones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia,  the Philippines and Syria. Drones are extending military action, not against states but against specific populations within states, where frequently all males of military age are deemed ‘combatants’ without any evidence of their status.

Over 200 children have already been killed in these strikes since 2004. See The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.  By 2011, there were 160 child deaths in Pakistan alone.

There are  around 60 military and CIA bases around the world connected to the drone programme and more are being planned.

America’s Secret Empire of Drone Bases

What are drones?

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They are aircraft which are either controlled by pilots on the ground, often thousands of miles away from the action,  or  are programmed to function autonomously without any direct human control. Drones can be  used for reconnaissance and surveillance or to drop missiles and bombs.

Pilotless aircraft have been experimented with since the World War I. The first ‘aerial torpedo’ was the Kettering Bug first flown in 1918 but developed too late to be of use in the war. By World War II, radio-controlled surveillance and assault drones had been developed by the US Navy. In 1942 an assault drone successfully delivered a torpedo attack from a distance of 20 miles but their utilisation remained limited. The use of drones for reconnaissance took off during the Vietnam war but it was the 1980s which saw a significant development in their military use.  The Predator RQ-1L, made by General Atomics was deployed in the Balkans in 1995, in Iraq in 1996 and Afghanistan from 2001.  This was followed by the development of the Reaper, (also known as Predator B) which became operational in 2007.

The drones are used for three main purposes:

Watch Youtube video

60 Minutes – Predator Drones

Armed Drones

The MQ-9 Reaper carries a variety of weapons including the GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb, the AGM-114 Hellfire II air-to-ground missiles (including the Thermobaric version AGM- 114N), the AIM-9 Sidewinder and recently, the GBU-38 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) Testing is underway to support the operation of the AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missile. The Reaper can remain for 14 – 16 hours in the air.

UK use of drones

The Royal Air Force operates General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, carrying GBU-12 Paveway 11 precision guided bombs and AGM-14 Hellfire air to surface missiles. The Government is refusing to disclose whether any of the Hellfire missiles launched from Reaper drones have been the AGM-14N (thermobaric) missiles

An RAF drones squadron has been based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire since April 2013.

The MoD has  set up an unmanned systems capability development centre (UASCDC) at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.

Iraq and Syria

The UK is currently using armed drones in Iraq and Syria.

Between September 2014 and 31st March 2016 the UK flew 869 Reaper missions in Iraq with 342 weapons fired.

365 Reaper missions were flown in Syrian airspace and 22 weapons fired.


For more information see Drone Wars UK

The UK Ministry of Defence claims to have killed almost 1000 ‘enemy combatants’ but no civilians. However, they state: “Please be aware that the figures for enemy combatants killed by RAF airstrikes have not been verified as the UK is not in a position to visit strike sites and verify the number,”. It could be equally be argued that civilian casualties can not be ruled out for this same reason.

For full article see Vice News.


Reaper drones were used by the UK in Afghanistan until 2014.   A freedom of information request by Drone Wars UK  has revealed that drone strikes took place in 16 provinces between May 2008 and November 2014.

Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, Daykundi, Ghor, Nimroz, Zabul, Paktika, Farah, Paktiya, Ghanzi, Logar, Wardak, Laghman, Kunar and Herat.

UK pilots have also piloted US drones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

The Watchkeeper

The  WK450 Watchkeeper surveillance drone is a collaboration between Thales UK and  Elbit. The first ten were built in Israel and then production was moved to Leicester in the UK and now Crawley.  Its first UK flight took place on Wednesday 14 April 2010 from ParcAberporth in Wales. An undisclosed number of Watchkeepers were sent to Afghanistan in 2014 and based at Camp Bastion. They were returned to the UK when operations there ceased and  training began at Larkhill in October 2015. 47 Regiment Royal Artillery are currently training on Watchkeeper on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.

Thales UK also provides interim tactical UAV services using unarmed Hermes 450s leased from the Israeli firm Elbit.

Drones and Death: The Israeli Connection

BAE Systems are also developing their own armed UAV, Taranis, named after the Celtic god of thunder.

How the use of drones is extending the war on terror and unaccountable killing

The US use of drones is helping to extend the war on terror into Africa whilst evading accountability to congress under the provisions of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. For example, US operations in Libya did not involve “…sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor [did] they involve U.S. ground troops.” The Obama administration is increasingly using  the CIA and Joint Service Operations Command (JSOC) to conduct drone strikes and be  the invisible army on the ground.  There are  concerns that the UK is assisting such missions with intelligence and logistical support through its intelligence services and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). The US  may also be using RAF bases at Waddington and Croughton for piloting and communication.

Risk-Free And Above The Law: U.S. Globalizes Drone Warfare

U.S. Establishes New Drone Bases for African Shadow Wars

The number of countries using armed drones for ‘counter-terrorism’ is increasing rapidly, especially in the past year.

Israel has used armed drones in Syria, Lebanon, Sudan and Palestine

Iran is  using armed drones in Syria

Iraq is using Chinese armed drones in Iraq

Pakistan has used armed drones in North Waziristan

Nigeria has used armed drones against Boko Haram

Turkey is developing armed drones to use on the Syrian border.

Saudi Arabia and UAE are believed to be using Chinese armed drones in Yemen

Russia is using armed drones in Syria

Syria is using Russian armed drones in Syria

Hezbollah is using Iranian armed drones in Syria

Is the use of armed drones compatible with International Human Rights Law?

Many people are questioning the legality of drone warfare, especially its role in  often secretive and unaccountable counter-terrorism missions.

More Than Just Drones: The Moral Dilemma of Covert Warfare

Report of Special Rapporteur on   human rights and counter terrorism to UN General   Assembly

Report of Special Rapporteur on   extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings to UN General Assembly

The   Legality of the UK’s Use of Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones)

Parliamentary Human Rights Committee report on drones and targeted killing

Share on FacebookShare via email