This is the first in a short series of posts about British drones.
Earlier this month the Ministry of Defence provided new figures detailing the number and type of weapons fired – sorry, “released” – by British Royal Air Force Reaper drones in Afghanistan since May 2008 to April 2013. The data was released to Chris Cole at Drone Wars UK in response to a FoI request and this is the first time that we have been able to see a breakdown of the data month-by-month. A separate FoI response provided the total number of weapon releases in 2013 and Drone Wars UK has usefully done the calculations for us and has produced the graph (above) and table (below). In total this amounts to 455 weapons – we’re talking GBU-12 bombs and Hellfire missiles – fired by British Reapers in Afghanistan to the end of 2013. Seen in the context of all drone strikes in Afghanistan the number is actually quite high. The Combined-Forces-Airpower-Statistics from 2009 to 2012 (note the difference in dates here) put the number of weapons releases from ISAF drones at 1,160. We need to be careful with these numbers, however, as the relatively low statistics of drone weapons releases by ISAF is only a fraction of the total number of weapons fired by conventional ISAF aircraft: i.e. around 4-5,000 per year from 2009-2012 – see the colourful slide below.
This is some of what we do know, but what those statistics importantly do not include is a) RAF pilots who flew Reaper drones that they borrowed from the U.S. Air Force, and b) UK personnel embedded with USAF on operations in Afghanistan (and Libya). Drone Wars UK tried to get answers to both, but on February 4th 2013 the MoD sent them the following response, clarifying a but avoiding b:
Of the 2,150 missions flown by UK personnel, there were 271 missions in Afghanistan when UK personnel utilised a US Reaper as a UK Reaper was unavailable. During these missions, UK personnel released 39 weapons. I am withholding information about weapons released by UK personnel embedded with the United States Air Force on operations in Afghanistan and Libya under Section 27 [of the Freedom of Information Act].”
Drone Wars UK reports that RAF pilots have flown US Reaper or Predator drones a further 1,800 times while embedded with the USAF. The actual number of weapons fired from drones either by British pilots or using British drones is thus likely to be significantly higher than those statistics that have been provided to the House of Parliament and disclosed publicly. Compounding the problem is that we have no information about weapons fired in Libya and the MoD has claimed that “information is not held for operations in Iraq.” Drone Wars UK point out that the latter is “bizarre”, but it’s more than that: it is either untrue or else requires immediate explanation, not least because it is a requirement under international law to investigate cases of wrongdoing – and that can’t be done without keeping track of who and how many are killed during each strike.
We know a few other things about Britain’s drones and their use:
- Drones are now flown from the UK in RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Since late 2007, when the UK first purchased five Reapers, the RAF flew missions out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, but in October 2012 it moved operations to the UK. In 2010 the RAF purchased a further five drones, bringing the total to ten. On April 30th 2013 the RAF 13 squadron (formerly 39 squadron) conducted their first strike in Afghanistan from Britain. War on Want has been leading protests outside of the RAF base since 2012, one of which lead to the conviction of protesters over the destruction of a fence. The defendants ‘not-guilty’ plea reasoned that they were attempting to prevent far worse crimes from occurring in Afghanistan.
- The British military has over 500 drones, but at present only the Reeper is armed. This is in keeping with the MoD’s strategic vision for 1/3 of the RAF to consist of ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ by 2030. Other surveillance drones, such as the Watchkeeper are being tested at Aberporth in Wales: thanks to Pete Adey for alerting me to this.
- The MoD insists that British drone strikes have killed very few civilians. In fact, the MoD has confirmed only one UK strike that involved civilian casualties. In a letter to Chris Duncan of Speak Campaign in October 2012, the MoD said:
“We are aware of only once incident where individuals not classified as insurgents have been killed by a UK Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System. On 25 March 2011 a Reaper operating in support of ISAD forces was tasked to engage and destroy two pick up trucks. The strike resulted in the deaths of two insurgents and the destruction of a significant quantity of explosives being carried on the trucks but, sadly, four Afghan civilians were also killed and a further two Afghan civilians were injured. In line with current ISAF procedures, an ISAF investigation was conducted to establish if any lessons could be learned or if errors in operational procedures could be identified. In that case, the report concluded that the actions of the Reaper crew had been in accordance with extant procedures and UK Rules of Engagement.”
And that was that. The study has not been made public.
- As detailed in the Snowden files, but reported as early as 2010, it is alleged that the General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) provides “locational intelligence” to US authorities for use in drone strikes in various places, including Pakistan (see here – and click on the first link). The UK Government has reused to confirm or deny whether it shares such intelligence. The question was put to the UK courts recently by Noor Khan, a Pakistani who lost his father, a local elder, to a 2011 drone strike in North Waziristan. But unfortunately we’re still none the wiser. The Court of Appeal in London ruled on January 20th 2014 that despite Mr Khan’s arguments being “persuasive,” they accepted the British Government’s claims that the case should not proceed as “a finding by our court that the notional UK operator of a drone bomb which caused a death was guilty of murder would inevitably be understood…by the US as a condemnation of the US.” The lawyers at Leigh Day & Co and legal charity Reprive who supported and represented Khan saw the decision as a worrying intrusion of geo-strategic politics into the court: “It is shameful that the risk of embarrassing the US has trumped British justice in this case”, reported Kat Craig, legal director Reprieve. The one thing the British Government has committed to concerning drone strikes in Pakistan is a an opinion poll in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the popularity of drone strikes in the region. According to those surveys, the number of respondents in the tribal areas who believed drone strikes were “never justified” rose from 59% in 2010 to 63% in 2011, and again it is Kat Craig who stole the comment of the year on this:
” The UK should not need to carry out polling to determine that a campaign of illegal killing is wrong,”
But we don’t know much else. For a succinct overview of the basic facts about the use of British drones that we still don’t know see here. Importantly, we don’t know if the RAF conducts pre-planned targeted killings with its drones, or whether all strikes are close air support (protecting troops on the ground). Releasing data about weapons ‘releases’ doesn’t tell us anything about the way that these weapons are being used, the circumstances of their use or how many they are killing and injuring. If anything, relinquishing this data is a way of masquerading both the cause and effect of weapons releases and it raises more questions than it answers.
And for the little more that we do know, stay tuned.