For anyone concerned about the use of drones, or remotely piloted aircraft as the industry insists on calling them, the nature of recent coverage has been somewhat perturbing. With the normalisation of the use of military drones, media interest has waned and they now seem far more interested in writing about toy drones landing on the White House lawn than the White House’s use of drones for targeted assassination. Just this week, much ink has been spilt covering the arrest of an amateur pilot for thoughtlessly flying a drone near parliament, while the use of armed British drones in Syria – breaching assurances by the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, against mission creep – received far less attention.
Despite widespread ethical, political and legal misgivings, US, British and Israeli forces have carried out numerous drone strikes this year. And as military spokespeople repeat bland assurances about the precise nature of such operations, civilians continue to die.
In Somalia, there has been a surge in the use of drones, with three senior al-Shabaab figures killed in separate US-targeted assassinations in the past three months. The latest strike, confirmed by the Pentagon this week, targeted Adan Garar, who is alleged to have been behind the 2013 attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya. His predecessor as chief of external operations, Yusef Dheeq, was killed in a US drone strike last month reportedly along with four civilians.
US drone strikes also continue in Yemen despite the recent coup. It was thought they would be suspended after the ousting of the president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, as his authorisation gave them cover under international law. However, Pentagon officials strongly denied there would be any suspension and, as if to prove this, a strike took place almost immediately. This resulted in the deaths of three people including Mohammed Tuaiman, a boy whose father and brother were killed in a drone strike in 2011. The Guardian released a remarkable video with Tuaiman speaking about his life.
And while the US has officially declared the war in Afghanistan over, its forces continue drone strikes there too. One in February targeted Abdul Rauf, a former member of the Taliban who had sworn allegiance to Islamic State. Rauf was killed along with an unknown number of other people. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has recorded about 15 confirmed and reported drones strikes in Afghanistan since the beginning of 2015.
But it’s not just US drones that are carrying out targeted assassinations. Israeli drones conducted a cross-border strike against Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian section of the Golan Heights in January, which killed six members of the group as well as senior Iranian general Mohammad Ali Allahdadi.
Since last August, Iraq and Syria have been the new front in the drone wars. This week, Syrian air defences shot down a US drone when it flew near Latakia, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad. Although US drones have been flying over Syria since last August and British ones since November, this is the first time one has been shot down. It may not be the last.
Freelance reporter Chris Woods, who has been monitoring the air war against Isis, reports that there have been 2,900 strikes by manned and unmanned aircraft since August, the majority by the US. Woods has recorded 37 “incidents of concern” where civilians have reportedly been killed or injured in coalition bombing.
Compared with the large number of US strikes, the 170 British strikes are relatively small. However, they are happening at a faster rate than in Afghanistan. British Reapers have already racked up 70 drone strikes in just under five months in Iraq whereas it took almost two years to notch up that amount in Afghanistan. And although the Ministry of Defence insists that its drones are predominately used for surveillance, they are actually undertaking air strikes in Iraq at a slightly higher rate than the manned aircraft. Tornados carried out 90 strikes in 22 weeks, giving a strike rate of 4.09 per week, while Reapers have a strike rate of 4.37 per week.
Meanwhile, the recent US defence budget included plans for spending almost $3bn (£2bn) on new unmanned systems, while British spending on drones this financial year has reached almost £250m on top of the more than £2bn previously spent. Other nations are clamouring to acquire armed drones now the US has relaxed its drone export policy and recent pictures of an apparent Chinese armed drone that is claimed to have crashed in Nigeria are a worrying sign of the further spread of such systems.
While coverage of the danger of small drones in civil airspace is of course important, scrutiny of the growing use of armed drones around the globe is vital. Without it, the disconnect between us and the wars being waged in our name grows ever greater. From current reporting, you could be forgiven for thinking that drones are no more than a nuisance in the hands of a few reckless individuals. The reality is that armed drones have not only killed many hundreds of innocent civilians, but are also a growing danger to global peace and security.