Tag Archives: laws of war

How to Fight: Laugh, Bleed, Kill

The U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks launched an Air Force special operations unit into more than 6,900 days, or nearly two decades, of continuous deployments and combat operations in the Middle East, officials said. Within weeks of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., the 17th Special Tactics Squadron deployed with Army Rangers on raids into southern Afghanistan on Oct. 19, 2001. Since then, the squadron has had no breaks in deployment. “We fight, bleed and laugh beside [the Rangers],” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Duhon, a tactical air control party operator quoted in last month’s statement. “We win as a team or fail as a team.”….

The Special Tactics community, whose airmen conduct personnel recovery, precision strike missions and battlefield surgery, is the most highly decorated in the Air Force since the Vietnam War. 

Excerpt from CHAD GARLAND, Air Force special ops members ‘fight, bleed and laugh’ on nearly 7,000 days of deployments, Stars and Stripes, Sept. 10, 2020

Killer Robots: Your Kids V. Theirs

The harop, a kamikaze drone, bolts from its launcher like a horse out of the gates. But it is not built for speed, nor for a jockey. Instead it just loiters, unsupervised, too high for those on the battlefield below to hear the thin old-fashioned whine of its propeller, waiting for its chance.

Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) has been selling the Harop for more than a decade. A number of countries have bought the drone, including India and Germany. …In 2017, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (sipri), a think-tank, the Harop was one of 49 deployed systems which could detect possible targets and attack them without human intervention. It is thus very much the sort of thing which disturbs the coalition of 89 non-governmental organisations (ngos) in 50 countries that has come together under the banner of the “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots”.

The Phalanx guns used by the navies of America and its allies. Once switched on, the Phalanx will fire on anything it sees heading towards the ship it is mounted on. And in the case of a ship at sea that knows itself to be under attack by missiles too fast for any human trigger finger, that seems fair enough. Similar arguments can be made for the robot sentry guns in the demilitarised zone (dmz) between North and South Korea.

Autonomous vehicles do not have to become autonomous weapons, even when capable of deadly force. The Reaper drones with which America assassinates enemies are under firm human control when it comes to acts of violence, even though they can fly autonomously…. One of the advantages that MDBA, a European missile-maker, boasts for its air-to-ground Brimstones is that they can “self-sort” based on firing order. If different planes launch volleys of Brimstones into the same “kill box”, where they are free to do their worst, the missiles will keep tabs on each other to reduce the chance that two strike the same target.

Cost is also a factor in armies where trained personnel are pricey. “The thing about robots is that they don’t have pensions,”…If keeping a human in the loop was merely a matter of spending more, it might be deemed worthwhile regardless. But human control creates vulnerabilities. It means that you must pump a lot of encrypted data back and forth. What if the necessary data links are attacked physically—for example with anti-satellite weapons—jammed electronically or subverted through cyberwarfare? Future wars are likely to be fought in what America’s armed forces call “contested electromagnetic environments”. The Royal Air Force is confident that encrypted data links would survive such environments. But air forces have an interest in making sure there are still jobs for pilots; this may leave them prey to unconscious bias.

The vulnerability of communication links to interference is an argument for greater autonomy. But autonomous systems can be interfered with, too. The sensors for weapons like Brimstone need to be a lot more fly than those required by, say, self-driving cars, not just because battlefields are chaotic, but also because the other side will be trying to disorient them. Just as some activists use asymmetric make-up to try to confuse face-recognition systems, so military targets will try to distort the signatures which autonomous weapons seek to discern. Paul Scharre, author of “Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War”, warns that the neural networks used in machine learning are intrinsically vulnerable to spoofing.

The 2017 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons has put together a group of governmental experts to study the finer points of autonomy. As well as trying to develop a common understanding of what weapons should be considered fully autonomous, it is considering both a blanket ban and other options for dealing with the humanitarian and security challenges that they create.  Most states involved in the convention’s discussions agree on the importance of human control. But they differ on what this actually means. In a paper for Article 36, an advocacy group named after a provision of the Geneva conventions that calls for legal reviews on new methods of warfare, Heather Roff and Richard Moyes argue that “a human simply pressing a ‘fire’ button in response to indications from a computer, without cognitive clarity or awareness” is not really in control. “Meaningful control”, they say, requires an understanding of the context in which the weapon is being used as well as capacity for timely and reasoned intervention. It also requires accountability…

The two dozen states that want a legally binding ban on fully autonomous weapons are mostly military minnows like Djibouti and Peru, but some members, such as Austria, have diplomatic sway. None of them has the sort of arms industry that stands to profit from autonomous weapons. They ground their argument in part on International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a corpus built around the rules of war laid down in the Hague and Geneva conventions. This demands that armies distinguish between combatants and civilians, refrain from attacks where the risk to civilians outweighs the military advantage, use no more force than is proportional to the objective and avoid unnecessary suffering…Beyond the core group advocating a ban there is a range of opinions. China has indicated that it supports a ban in principle; but on use, not development. France and Germany oppose a ban, for now; but they want states to agree a code of conduct with wriggle room “for national interpretations”. India is reserving its position. It is eager to avoid a repeat of nuclear history, in which technological have-nots were locked out of game-changing weaponry by a discriminatory treaty.

At the far end of the spectrum a group of states, including America, Britain and Russia, explicitly opposes the ban. These countries insist that existing international law provides a sufficient check on all future systems….States are likely to sacrifice human control for self-preservation, says General Barrons. “You can send your children to fight this war and do terrible things, or you can send machines and hang on to your children.” Other people’s children are other people’s concern.

Excerpts from Briefing Autonomous Weapons: Trying to Restrain the Robots, Economist, Jan. 19, 2019, at 22

Naming the Dead in the CIA Drone War

Naming the Dead is a project run by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit research organisation based in London. The project aims to identify those killed in CIA drone strikes on Pakistan.  Over the past nine years, the tribal region of Pakistan’s north west has been hit by hundreds of drone attacks as the CIA has sought to stamp out al Qaeda fighters and the militant groups that have given them shelter.  Missiles launched from these high-tech, unmanned aircraft have hit homes, cars, schools, shops and gatherings. At least 2,500 people have been killed, according to data already collected by the Bureau as part of our wider Covert Drone War research.

Senior US officials have described drones as highly precise weapons that target and kill enemies of the US. John Brennan, who oversaw the development of the drone campaign and is now director of the CIA, has called drone technology an ‘essential tool’ for its ‘surgical precision – the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumour called an al Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.’

Those killed by drones include high-ranking militant leaders – figures such as Abu Yahya al Libi, al Qaeda’s feared second-in-command, or Baitullah Mehsud, commander of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP).  But according to credible media reports analysed by the Bureau, the dead also include at least 400 civilians. Some were unlucky enough to be nearby when militants were attacked. Others were killed alongside their husbands or fathers, who were believed to be militants. Still others were mistaken for terrorists by drone operators sitting thousands of miles away.

In most cases, there is little information available about who the drones are really killing. Most of the dead – an estimated four-fifths of those killed – are believed to be militants. But their deaths are typically reported as a number – their names, origins and livelihoods remain a mystery.  For so many people to die in obscurity, unnamed and unacknowledged, is a tragedy. But it is a further tragedy that the public, and even policy makers, are unable to properly test whether drones are ‘highly precise weapons’ when so little is known about who is actually dying.

Through Naming the Dead, the Bureau aims to increase the transparency around this conflict and inform the public debate. Initially this project will record all names published in open-source material – in credible reports by journalists, in legal documents presented in court, in academic studies and in field investigations carried out by human rights groups.  In the future, the Bureau aims to identify more of the dead on a regular basis, and to uncover more details of those who have been killed. Where possible we will provide further identification – where they were killed, and their occupations, full names and ages. In the remote areas of Pakistan where drone strikes take place, official identification is rare. Few people possess identification cards, birth certificates, or even documents recording their relatives’ deaths. But wherever possible this project will provide documentation recording a person’s death.

Photographs of the destruction of a particular site are included in the database. Affidavits, photos, hospital records, student identification and transcripts of interviews with researchers are all provided when available. Over time, the Bureau aims to build on such currently scarce records in an attempt to properly scrutinise the little that is reported, and the claims being made – on all sides.

Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Secret Info: 94 kids killed by US drones in Pakistan

A secret document obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism  reveals for the first time the Pakistan government’s internal assessment of dozens of drone strikes, and shows scores of civilian casualties.  The United States has consistently claimed only a tiny number of non-combatants have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan – despite research by the Bureau and others suggesting that over 400 civilians may have died in the nine-year campaign.

The internal document shows Pakistani officials too found that CIA drone strikes were killing a significant number of civilians – and have been aware of those deaths for many years.  Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes outlined in the document, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.

The confidential 12-page summary paper, titled Details of Attacks by Nato Forces/Predators in FATA was prepared by government officials in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  Based on confidential reports from a network of government agents in the field, it outlines 75 separate CIA drone strikes between 2006 and late 2009 and provides details of casualties in many of the attacks. Five attacks alleged to be carried out by Nato or other unspecified forces are also listed.

The numbers recorded are much higher than those provided by the US administration, which continues to insist that no more than 50 to 60 ‘non-combatants’ have been killed by the CIA across the entire nine years of Pakistan bombings. New CIA director John Brennan has described claims to the contrary as ‘intentional misrepresentations‘.  The document shows that during the 2006-09 period covered, when Pakistan’s government and military were privately supporting the CIA’s campaign, officials had extensive internal knowledge of high civilian casualties.

Excerpt, Chris Woods, Exclusive: Leaked Pakistani report confirms high civilian death toll in CIA drone strikes, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, July 22, 2013

Hunter and Killer Drones

The Pentagon is discussing the possibility of replacing human drone operators with computer algorithms, especially for ‘signature strikes‘ where unknown targets are killed simply because they meet certain criteria. So what characteristics define an ‘enemy combatant’ and where are they outlined in law?

Drone strikes and targeted killings have become the weapon of choice for the Obama administration in their ongoing war against terrorists. But what impact is this technology having, not only on those who are the targets (both intended and unintended), but on the way we are likely to wage war in the future?

John Sifton is the advocacy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, and says that while drones are currently controlled remotely by trained military personnel, there are already fears that the roving killing machines could be automated in the future.  ‘One of the biggest concerns human rights groups have right now is the notion of a signature strike,’ he says. ‘[This is] the notion that you could make a decision about a target based on its appearance. Say—this man has a Kalashnikov, he’s walking on the side of the road, he is near a military base. He’s a combatant, let’s kill him. That decision is made by a human right now, but the notion that you could write an algorithm for that and then program it into a drone… sounds science fiction but is in fact what the Pentagon is already thinking about. There are already discussions about this, autonomous weapons systems.’‘That is to human rights groups the most terrifying spectre that is currently presented by the drones.’

Sarah Knuckey is the director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at New York University Law School and an advisor to the UN. She says the way that drones are used to conduct warfare is stretching the limits of previous international conventions and is likely to require new rules of engagement to be drawn up…The rules of warfare built up after World War II to protect civilians are already hopelessly outdated, she says. The notion of border sovereignty has already been trashed by years of drone strikes, which she estimates have targeted upwards of 3,000 individuals, with reports of between 400 and 800 civilian casualties.

Excerpt from Annabelle Quince, Future of drone strikes could see execution by algorithm, May 21, 2013

Lethal Operations Against US Citizens Lawful: secret memo

A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects abroad, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes….The undated memo is entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force.” It was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June by administration officials on the condition that it be kept confidential and not discussed publicly.

Although not an official legal memo, the white paper was represented by administration officials as a policy document that closely mirrors the arguments of classified memos on targeted killings by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides authoritative legal advice to the president and all executive branch agencies. The administration has refused to turn over to Congress or release those memos publicly — or even publicly confirm their existence. A source with access to the white paper, which is not classified, provided a copy to NBC News.

“This is a chilling document,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, which is suing to obtain administration memos about the targeted killing of Americans. “Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. … It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated.”…..

The completeness of the administration’s public accounts of its legal arguments was also sharply criticized last month by U.S. Judge Colleen McMahon in response to a lawsuit brought by the New York Times and the ACLU seeking access to the Justice Department memos on drone strikes targeting Americans under the Freedom of Information Act. McMahon, describing herself as being caught in a “veritable Catch-22,” said she was unable to order the release of the documents given “the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for the conclusion a secret.”  In her ruling, McMahon noted that administration officials “had engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of citizens.” But, she wrote, they have done so “in cryptic and imprecise ways, generally without citing … any statute or court decision that justifies its conclusions.”……..

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” the white paper reads. “In the Department’s view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban. Similarly, the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban.”

Excerpts from Michael Isikoff. EXCLUSIVE: Justice Department memo reveals legal case for drone strikes on Americans, NBC News, Feb. 6, 2012

What is the High Energy Liquid Laser?

Enemy surface-to-air threats to manned and unmanned aircraft have become increasingly sophisticated, creating a need for rapid and effective response to this growing category of threats. High power lasers can provide a solution to this challenge, as they harness the speed and power of light to counter multiple threats. Laser weapon systems provide additional capability for offensive missions as well—adding precise targeting with low probability of collateral damage. For consideration as a weapon system on today’s air assets though, these laser weapon systems must be lighter and more compact than the state-of-the-art has produced.

The goal of the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) program is to develop a 150 kilowatt (kW) laser weapon system that is ten times smaller and lighter than current lasers of similar power, enabling integration onto tactical aircraft to defend against and defeat ground threats. With a weight goal of less than five kilograms per kilowatt, and volume of three cubic meters for the laser system, HELLADS seeks to enable high-energy lasers to be integrated onto tactical aircraft, significantly increasing engagement ranges compared to ground-based systems.

The program has completed laboratory testing of a fundamental building block for HELLADS, a single laser module that successfully demonstrated the ability to achieve high power and beam quality from a significantly lighter and smaller laser. The program is now in the final development phase where a second laser module will be built and combined with the first module to generate 150 kW of power.

The plan is for the laser to be transported to White Sands Missile Range for ground testing against rockets, mortars, surface-to-air missiles and to conduct simulated air-to-ground offensive missions.

High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS)

Torture in Afghanistan: following the master

The UN report (2013), titled “Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghan Custody,” offered a grim tour of Afghanistan’s detention facilities, where even adolescents have reported abuse like beatings with hoses and pipes and threats of sodomy.

In the case of the intelligence service, the United Nations reported a lower incidence of torture. But it was not clear whether that finding reflected improved behavior as much as it did a decrease in the number of detainees handed over to the intelligence service by the international military coalition. And some detainees have alluded to new secret interrogation centers.

The Afghan government rejected the report’s specific allegations but said that there were some abuses, and that it had taken numerous steps to improve the treatment of detainees. The government gave United Nations officials access to those held in all but one detention facility.Among the questions raised by the report is whether the pervasiveness of torture will make it difficult for the American military to hand over those being held in the Parwan Detention Facility, also known as Bagram Prison, as required under the agreement reached last week in Washington between President Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.  The United Nations did not look at the Parwan Detention Facility, in part because it is not yet wholly under Afghan control….

After a United Nations report on torture in 2011, the international coalition suspended transfers of battlefield detainees to 16 Afghan detention sites. ISAF resumed transfers to most of those centers after certifying that they were complying with human rights protocols. Then, in October 2012, the coalition received new reports of torture and abuse and halted some of the transfers that it had restarted only months before, the United Nations report said. The United Nations has briefed ISAF at several points in the course of its research, which included interviews with more than 600 detainees as well as employees of the Afghan intelligence service, the Afghan police, judges and prosecutors….The Afghan government’s 20-page response, which is included in the United Nations report, rejected all specific allegations, including “beating with rubber pipes or water pipes, forced confession, suspension, twisting of the detainees’ penises and wrenching of the detainees’ testicles, death threats, sexual abuse and child abuse.”

ALISSA J. RUBIN, Anti-Torture Efforts in Afghanistan Failed, U.N. Says, NY Times, Jan. 20, 2012

See also Convention against Torture

Cost per Kill of Drones Armed with Cheap Weapons

Guided missiles are ludicrously expensive. A Tomahawk cruise missile costs about $1.5m, and even the Hellfire, an air-to-ground rocket that weighs a mere 50kg, is $115,000 a pop. In exchange for, say, an enemy tank, that is probably a fair price to pay. To knock out a pick-up truck crewed by a few lightly armed guerrillas, however, it seems a little expensive, and using its shoulder-fired cousin the Javelin ($147,000) to kill individual soldiers in foxholes, as is often the case in Afghanistan, is positively profligate. Clearly, something has to change. And changing it is.

An early sign of this change came in March 2012, with the deployment in Afghanistan of the APKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) made by BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman. The APKWS II is a smart version of the old-fashioned 70mm (2.75-inch) rocket, which has been used by America’s armed forces since 1948. It is also cheap, as guided missiles go, costing $18,000 a shot.  The APKWS II is loaded and fired in the same way (pictured above) as its unguided predecessors, from the same 19-round pods, making its use straightforward. The difference is that it can strike with an accuracy of one metre because it has been fitted with a laser-seeking head which follows a beam pointed at the target by the missile’s operators. This controls a set of fins that can steer the missile to its destination.  Standard practice with unguided 70mm missiles is to use as many as two pods’ worth (ie, 38 rockets, at $1,000 a round) to blanket a target. That means the APKWS II comes in at less than half the cost per kill. It also means that many more targets can be attacked on a single mission.

BAE and Northrop are merely the first to market with this sort of device. ATK, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are all close behind. Meanwhile, the American navy has been working on its own cheap guided missile, the Low-Cost Imaging Terminal Seeker (LCITS), which it tested successfully last year.  The LCITS is another upgraded 70mm weapon, but instead of laser guidance it picks out its targets by their heat signature. Because the operators do not need to keep pointing a laser at the target, they can fire several missiles in quick succession—a useful feature if a ship is being attacked by a swarm of boats.

Smaller precision weapons are useful, too, in circumstances where weight is a crucial factor. Shadow, a drone used by the American, Australian and Swedish armies, is too light to be able to carry Hellfires and is thus, at the moment, restricted to reconnaissance duties. But not for much longer. Shadows are now being armed with a small, still-classified guided missile. This follows the earlier success of arming Hunter drones with Viper Strike, a laser-guided glide bomb weighing 20kg originally developed by Northrop Grumman as an anti-tank weapon and now owned by MBDA. Viper Strike, along with Raytheon’s Griffin, a similar weapon, also arms the marines’ Harvest Hawk, an aerial gunship based on the Hercules transport aircraft. Viper Strike means these aircraft are capable of hitting a large number of targets with great precision from a distance of several kilometres.

The most determined effort to develop a small, cheap guided weapon, though, is the Forward Firing Miniature Munition (F2M2, or Spike missile), from the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California. Steve Felix, the F2M2’s project manager, wanted to make such a weapon for just $5,000, using off-the-shelf components. The result, which weighs less than 3kg and is the size of a baguette, is claimed to be the world’s smallest.  Spike has been tested successfully as a shoulder-launched missile, and also fired from drones. It has an ingenious optical-guidance system—a camera that can either lock on to an operator-designated object or can pick up a laser spot and home in on it. It has a range of 1,500 metres and, though the warhead is too small to damage a tank, it can destroy cars and other light targets far more cheaply than the alternatives.

Precision weapons have already changed warfare radically, even though they have sometimes raised the price of battle. Low-cost guided missiles, often carried on small drones rather than expensive piloted aircraft, will change it further still. When such missiles cost a thousand dollars rather than a million, no target will be too cheap to engage.

Excerpts, Cheap smart weapons: Rockets galore, Economist, Sept. 29, 2012, at 85

Covert Ops in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia: Civilians Killed

From the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Pakistan September 2012 actions: Total CIA strikes in September: 3 Total killed in strikes in September: 12-18, of whom 0-3 were reportedly civilians; All actions 2004 – September 30 2012: Total Obama strikes: 294;Total US strikes since 2004: 346; Total reported killed: 2,570-3,337; Civilians reported killed: 474-884; Children reported killed: 176; Total reported injured: 1,232-1,366

After seven strikes in August – the most in a single month since October 2011 – September saw a pause in the bombing which lasted 20 days. The respite coincided with many and sometimes violent anti-US protests around the world. Muslims were inflamed by a blasphemous film, produced in the US and posted online. Up to 17 people died in riots across Pakistan as public outrage at drone strikes reportedly added to the violence.

On September 24 two named al Qaeda militants were killed by the CIA. Saleh al Turki ’was not on the FBI’s bounty list, but was a mid level AQ guy’. However Abu Kahsha al Iraqi was described as ‘a liaison between al Qaeda and the Taliban’ and ‘long a target of Western counterterrorism agencies.’

Yemen September 2012 actions:Confirmed US drone strikes: 0; Further reported/possible US strike events: 4-5′ Total reported killed in US operations: 0-40;Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 0-12  All actions 2002 – September 30 2012: Total confirmed US operations: 52-62; Total confirmed US drone strikes: 40-50; Possible additional US operations: 117-133; Of which possible additional US drone strikes: 61-71; Total reported killed: 357-1,026; Total civilians killed: 60-163; Children killed: 24-34

US and Yemeni officials were unusually reticent in September in attributing air strikes to United States air assets, including drones. That may have been due to the deaths of eleven named civilians in a botched airstrike in Radaa in central Yemen, the worst loss of civilian life since at least 12 civilians were killed in May. Victims of the strike were buried 18 days later in Dhamar with police pallbearers.  Abdulraouf al Dahab was the supposed target of the strike. But it missed the alleged militant leader’s car and hit civilian vehicles. A ten-year-old girl Daolah Nasser was killed with her parents. Two boys – Mabrook Mouqbal Al Qadari (13) and AbedalGhani Mohammed Mabkhout (12) – were also among those killed.  Some reports said US drones carried out the strike. The Yemen Air Force publicly claimed responsibility for the attack but it lacks the technical capability to strike a moving target.  That fact was confirmed by President Hadi on a visit to Washington, where he also claimed to approve every US strike carried out in Yemen, and downplayed civilian deaths  A suspected US drone killed at least six people, eight days after the Radaa strike. Said al Shehri was initially reported among the dead. But subsequent reports say the former Guantanamo inmate and al Qaeda’s number two in Yemen survived the attack.

Somalia September 2012 actions:  Total reported US operations: 0;All actions 2007 – September 30 2012 Total US operations: 10-23; Total US drone strikes: 3-9; Total reported killed: 58-170;  Civilians reported killed: 11-57; Children reported killed: 1-3

Once again no US combat operations were reported for September, although a former UN official told the Bureau that as much as 50% of secret actions by various forces operating in Somalia go unreported. Two previously unrecorded operations have been added to the Bureau’s data. These relate to possible US strikes on al Shabaab bases in Puntland in August, and in Kismayo in October 2011.  Kenyan Defence Force (KDF) troops finally struck al Shabaab’s last stronghold, Kismayo, in Operations Sledge Hammer alongside soldiers of the Somalia National Army. The KDF is fighting in Somalia as a part of the Amisom peacekeeping force and attacked Kismayo from the land and sea before dawn on September 28. Initial reports said they met with some resistance from al Shabaab but had taken control of the city’s port. It is possible that US forces assisted the operation.  A Somali diplomat told the Bureau that the outgoing Transitional Federal Government opened its doors to the US and others to fight al Shabaab, and in doing so allowed them ‘a licence to completely ignore any local or international law.’ US Special Forces and CIA are operating across Somalia. And the US is supporting proxy forces with training and weapons

Jack Serle and Chris Woods, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, September 2012 update, Oct. 1, 2012

Drones: the Politics of Fear and Complacency

Excerpt from the Executive Summary Living Under Drones Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (Stanford and NYU, Sept. 2012)

In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false…

The US publicly describes its drone program in terms of its unprecedented ability to “distinguish …effectively between an al Qaeda terrorist and innocent civilians,” and touts its missile-armed drones as capable of conducting strikes with “astonishing” and “surgical” precision. First, while civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians. In public statements, the US states that there have been“no” or “single digit” civilian casualties.” It is difficult to obtain data on strike casualties because of US efforts to shield the drone program from democratic accountability, compounded by the obstacles to independent investigation of strikes in North Waziristan. The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization.

TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid- September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children. TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals….

US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury. Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves….

Publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best. The strikes have certainly killed alleged combatants and disrupted armed actor networks. However, serious concerns about the efficacy and counter-productive nature of drone strikes have been raised. The number of “high-level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%. Furthermore, evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks…..

Drone strikes have also soured many Pakistanis on cooperation with the US and undermined US-Pakistani relations. One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.

Current US targeted killings and drone strike practices undermine respect for the rule of law and international legal protections and may set dangerous precedents. This report casts doubt on the legality of strikes on individuals or groups not linked to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, and who do not pose imminent threats to the US. The US government’s failure to ensure basic transparency and accountability in its targeted killing policies, to provide necessary details about its targeted killing program, or adequately to set out the legal factors involved in decisions to strike hinders necessary democratic debate about a key aspect of US foreign and national security policy. US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments….

In light of these concerns, this report recommends that the US conduct a fundamental re-evaluation of current targeted killing practices, taking into account all available evidence, the concerns of various stakeholders, and the short and long-term costs and benefits. A significant rethinking of current US targeted killing and drone strike policies is long overdue. US policy-makers, and the American public, cannot continue to ignore evidence of the civilian harm and counterproductive impacts of US targeted killings and drone strikes in Pakistan….

The US should fulfill its international obligations with respect to accountability and transparency, and ensure proper democratic debate about key policies. The US should.

–Release the US Department of Justice memoranda outlining the legal basis for US targeted killing in Pakistan;

–Make public critical information concerning US drone strike policies, including as previously and repeatedly requested by various groups and officials: the targeting criteria for so-called “signature” strikes; the mechanisms in place to ensure that targeting complies with international law; whichlaws are being applied; the nature of investigations into civilian deathand injury; and mechanisms in place to track, analyze and publicly recognize civilian casualties;

–Ensure independent investigations into drone strike deaths, consistent with the call made by Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism in August 2012

–In conjunction with robust investigations and, where appropriate,prosecutions, establish compensation programs for civilians harmed by US strikes in Pakistan.

–The US should fulfill its international humanitarian and human rights law obligations with respect to the use of force, including by not using lethal force against individuals who are not members of armed groups with whom the US is in an armed conflict, or otherwise against individuals not posing an imminent threat to life. This includes not double-striking targets as first responders arrive.

–Journalists and media outlets should cease the common practice of referring simply to “militant” deaths, without further explanation. All reporting of government accounts of “militant” deaths should include acknowledgment that the US government counts all adult males killed by strikes as “militants,” absent exonerating evidence. Media accounts relying on anonymous government sources should also highlight the fact of their single source information and of the past record of false government reports

Excerpt from the Executive Summary Living Under Drones Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (Stanford and NYU, Sept. 2012)
See also http://livingunderdrones.org/

The Legality of Targeted Killings

The CRS memorandum, entitled “Legal Issues Related to the Lethal Targeting of U.S. Citizens Suspected of Terrorist Activities,” was prepared in May 2012 by legislative attorney Jennifer K. Elsea. It presents an overview of the pertinent legal context, and then carefully parses official Administration statements in an attempt to infer a detailed legal rationale for lethal targeting. A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

“This memorandum is an effort to clarify the debate by providing legal background, setting forth what is known about the Administration’s position and identifying possible points of contention among legal experts and other observers,” the memo states.  In the end, CRS concludes that none of the established legal frameworks is a perfect fit for the Administration’s lethal targeting operations because the current U.S. practice of lethal targeting involves features that are improvised, inconsistent or otherwise questionable.

For example, CRS says the Administration appears to have redefined the meaning of “imminence,” one of the required elements for justifying the use of force in self-defense on the territory of another country. The standard definition of imminence refers to an overwhelming threat that allows “no moment for deliberation.” But the Administration uses imminence idiosyncratically “to refer to the window of opportunity for striking rather than the perceived immediacy of the threat of an armed attack.” This novel usage “may pose some challenge to the international law regarding the use of force,” CRS said.

The CRS memo notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled — in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld — that when a U.S. citizen is detained as a suspected enemy combatant he must be given notice of the factual basis for his detention and an opportunity to rebut it. Yet, in contrast, when a citizen-suspect is to be killed rather than detained the Administration’s position is that no such notice or opportunity is required.  This embrace of unchecked executive authority may prove difficult to reconcile with the majority holding in Hamdi, the memo suggests.  In fact, CRS says, the Administration’s position “seems to conform more with Justice Thomas’s dissenting opinion in Hamdi, in which Justice Thomas argued that in the context of wartime detention for non-punitive purposes, ‘due process requires nothing more than a good-faith executive determination’.”

By withholding its own Office of Legal Counsel opinion on the legality of lethal targeting of suspected terrorists who are U.S. citizens, the Obama Administration seems intent not on protecting sensitive operational details but on suppressing public awareness and debate. The CRS memo is not a substitute for the OLC opinion, but it nonetheless can serve to advance public understanding of the underlying issues.

Excerpt, Steven Aftergood, Legality of Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists Reviewed by CRS, SecrecyNews.com, Sept. 10, 2012

CIA Operations in Syria: the leaks

The U.S. is ramping up its presence at Syria’s Turkish border, sending more spies and diplomats to help advise the rebel forces in their mismatched fight against the better armed Syrian regime, and to watch for possible al-Qaida infiltration of rebel ranks.  U.S. officials briefed on the plan said the modest surge in U.S. personnel in the past few weeks — estimated at fewer than a dozen people — has helped improve rebels’ political organizing skills as well as their military organization. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the plans publicly.

It’s part of a two-pronged effort by the Obama administration to bolster the rebels militarily without actually contributing weapons to the fight, and politically, to help them stave off internal power challenges by the well-organized and often better-funded hardline Islamic militants who have flowed into the country from Iraq and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region.  The increased intelligence gathered is intended to help the White House decide whether its current policy of providing only non-lethal aid is enough to keep momentum building in the nearly 18-month revolt against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Spokesmen for the Pentagon and White House declined to comment Thursday.

The diplomats and intelligence operatives from the CIA and other agencies stay outside war-torn Syria and meet with rebel leaders to help them organize their ranks, while also studying who makes up those ranks, how they are armed and whom they answer to, the officials say.  Information is also gathered from Syrian defectors and refugees as well as rebel troops, officials say.  “The model is to keep case officers away from conflict, and you collect through local forces,” said former CIA officer Reuel Gerecht, now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based policy group that focuses on terrorism.

The effort is concentrated on the Turkish border instead of the border with Jordan where many Syrian refugees are fleeing, a U.S. official said, because the traffic between Syria and Turkey is still far greater…. Syrian rebels have complained they are outgunned by the Syrian military and must rely on contributions in money and small arms from Gulf countries, and increasingly from hardline Islamic militants, including Iraq’s branch of al-Qaida.

US sends more spies, diplomats to help organize, train and study Syria’s rebel ranks, Associated Press, Sept. 6, 2012

Laser Weapons

The notion of using energy as a weapon of war dates back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the idea was revived when American strategists began thinking in earnest about the technologies they would need to shoot down nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Among the more fanciful ideas taken up by Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (more commonly known as Star Wars) was the X-ray laser, which aimed to harness the energy of an atomic explosion to generate powerful laser beams….

The main appeal of using an energy beam to shoot things is that it travels at the speed of light, which means, in practice, that it will hit whatever it is aimed at. Trying to shoot down an incoming missile or warhead with a physical projectile, by contrast, is much more difficult. The guidance challenges of trying to “hit a bullet with a bullet” are enormous and are only gradually being solved using complex radars and missiles equipped with expensive sensors. A second attraction of lasers and other energy weapons is that in most cases they cannot run out of ammunition, and can keep firing for as long as they are plugged into a power source. The initial costs may be quite high, but each shot may then cost only a few dollars, compared with a price-tag of $3m or more for the latest missiles used to shoot down aircraft or other missiles.

Yet until very recently, despite the billions of dollars invested in them, military lasers have had a less than glowing record. The most famous (and expensive) experiment was America’s Airborne Laser Test Bed. This programme, which cost the Pentagon about $5 billion over more than 15 years, was an effort to cram a huge laser gun into a Boeing 747. It was intended to shoot down ballistic missiles in their “boost phase”, after their launch but before they had picked up enough speed to leave the atmosphere. The logic was that this is a particularly vulnerable time for a missile, since it is moving relatively slowly and because even minor damage to an accelerating rocket could prove fatal given the enormous stresses it is subjected to.

The airborne laser showed some promise in tests, but the programme was ignominiously zapped in 2011 by the Pentagon, which couldn’t quite work out how it would be able to keep a big, slow-moving jumbo jet airborne around the clock, deep within enemy territory, while waiting for a missile to blast off nearby.  Another laser that came close to being practical enough to use was the Tactical High Energy Laser, also known as the Nautilus laser which was designed to shoot down incoming artillery rounds. It was successfully tested in Israel, where it intercepted incoming rockets and shells, but Israel and America decided to pull the plug on it. One reason that it and the airborne laser were shot down was that military planners fell out of love with chemical lasers. These are very large and not especially portable lasers that are powered by a chemical reaction. As well as being bulky, they require large amounts of toxic and perishable chemicals, which can run out, limiting the number of shots that the laser can fire.

For the moment, the idea of shooting down big nuclear-tipped missiles with lasers has been put on hold, and proponents of laser weapons are aiming instead at more flammable targets. Much of the work in this field is now being done by the American navy….

The big trend now is to try to scale up three other sorts of laser that are far more compact than chemical lasers and can fire away merrily as long as they have power and don’t get too hot. The first sort is the fibre laser, in which the beam is generated within an optical fibre. Because this is already used in industry for welding and cutting, prices are falling, power output is increasing and reliability has been steadily improving. Industrial lasers can be turned into weapons pretty easily, simply by strapping them to a weapons mount.  But they are not very powerful. The Tactical Laser System being developed for the American navy by BAE Systems, a British firm, has an output of just 10kW, enough to run a few household kettles. Even so, it might be useful for frightening off (or burning holes in) small boats that look threatening but wouldn’t warrant a hail of machinegun fire. A slightly bigger version puts out about 33kW of power and fits neatly on existing turrets that house the rotary cannons used to shoot down incoming anti-ship missiles. It could blind optical or heat-seeking sensors on enemy missiles, or puncture small boats.  Plans are afoot to scale military fibre lasers up to about 100kW, which would enable them to shoot down small unmanned aircraft. The technology is relatively mature: a study by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an American government-research body, (pdf) reckons it would cost around $150m to develop a prototype, and that such lasers could be in service by 2017.

The second technology being worked on is the slab laser… It would be less useful for shooting down targets flying directly at the laser because of “thermal blooming”….The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, argues that various sorts of solid-state lasers could be in service on American ships by 2018. It thinks that they could also be used to counter cruise missiles flying directly at a ship, using relay mirrors mounted on nearby unmanned aircraft.

To be really suitable for shooting down ballistic missiles, however, a laser with a power level of more than a megawatt would be needed. That would mean using a third technology, called a free-electron laser….

Although lasers have many advantages, in short, they also suffer from quite severe limitations. The main one is their relatively low power output. So much energy is needed to burn through the armour of a tank, for instance, that it is easier simply to fire a rocket at it. Even people do not make particularly good targets for lasers: human bodies can absorb a lot of energy before heating up substantially. (Eyes make a better target, but international conventions ban lasers designed to blind.)

A further limitation is that laser light can be absorbed or scattered by pollution, fog or smoke. Missiles or other targets can also be protected by coating them with mirrors or wrapping them with insulation. In addition, laser beams travel in a straight line, which means they are less useful than conventional artillery when shooting at something on the other side of a hill. It seems likely that laser weapons will have been deployed on ships by the end of the decade. They will have their uses, but they remain rather less fearsome than their science-fiction reputation might suggest.

Excerpts, Energy weapons: Zap, crackle and pop, Economist Technology Quarterely, Sept. 1, 2012, at 12

Mini Bombs: the CLAW

Textron Defense Systems, announced  that it has entered into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Program Executive Office (PEO) Fixed Wing for development of standoff precision guided munition capability. Initial activities will focus on Textron Defense Systems’ Guided Clean Area Weapon (G-CLAW), a cost-effective, lightweight, guided precision unitary weapon providing anti-personnel and anti-material capabilities, as well as features for low collateral damage and hazardous unexploded ordnance (UXO) prevention.

Under the CRADA, the organizations intend to integrate the G-CLAW into PEO Fixed Wing’s common launch tube dispenser and complete the required testing to secure flight and weapons safety certifications. From there, Textron Defense Systems and USSOCOM will conduct inert and live-fire demonstrations of precision unitary munition delivery from a tactical carrier aircraft such as the MC-130W Dragon Spear. Integration activities will culminate in an end-to-end, live-fire demonstration.

Our G-CLAW allows users to shape the attack over a broad area, and to achieve precision effects using GPS targeting and a powerful warhead,” says Senior Vice President and General Manager Ellen Lord of Textron Defense Systems. “Further, it incorporates all of the safety features we’ve carefully designed, developed, tested and demonstrated to prevent UXO. Integrating this unitary system into the USSOCOM common launch tube could bring G-CLAW capabilities and performance to multiple new aircraft platforms for the gamut of irregular warfare missions.”

Textron Defense Systems’ weapons incorporate multiple, redundant safety features, including self-destruct and self-neutralization mechanisms, to eradicate the threat of UXO. The G-CLAW is designed for flexible integration into tactical munitions dispensers, as well as from unmanned aircraft platforms.

Textron Defense Systems and USSOCOM Enter CRADA for Standoff Precision Guided Munitions, Globe Newswire, Aug. 27, 2012

International Law-Making by Tacit Consent: Drone Killings

When Thomas de Maizière, the German defense minister, told a gathering of army reservists last month that he considered the U.S. strategy of using drones for targeted killings a “strategic mistake,” his remarks received almost no coverage.  Only the online news edition of the German public television broadcaster ARD carried the story.  According to their reporter, Mr. de Maizière said he thought it was unwise to have U.S. commanders direct such attacks from their base in the United States.  Repeated requests to the reservists’ association for a full transcript of the speech went unanswered. Nor did the Defense Ministry publish the remarks.  Mr. de Maizière is not the only politician in Europe to feel uneasy with the United States’ frequent use of unmanned drones to target what it says are terrorism suspects in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. But many are reluctant to speak out about their doubts.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel; the E.U. foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton; and the new French president, François Hollande, are among the many officials unwilling to publicly criticize the practice of remote control, targeted killings….Even when several German nationals — accused of being militants who had undergone training in terrorist camps in Pakistan — were killed in a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan in 2010, the German government played down the incident.  In an official reply to queries by opposition parties in the German Parliament, the government said on nearly every count that either it had no reliable information or that the information it did have was confidential.

In contrast, the Obama administration has had to start explaining the issue of drone attacks as human rights organizations, security experts and the military have begun asking the White House to justify their legality. John O. Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism chief, gave a major speech on the issue in April. He said that the targeted attacks did not breach international law because the United States has been acting in self-defense since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.  Mr. Brennan added that the White House was doing everything possible to balance security and transparency.

Legal experts say, however, that most of the targeted killings are carried out by the C.I.A. The agency is not subject to the same transparency or accountability as the military would be.  “The laws of war do not prohibit intelligence agencies from taking part in combat operations,” said James Ross, legal adviser to Human Rights Watch. “But states are obligated to investigate credible allegations of war crimes and actually provide redress for victims of unlawful attacks, and that is difficult in the case of intelligence agencies.”

Apart from the legal issues, the Obama administration has also been accused of leaking details from secret drone attacks to reap political mileage during the presidential election campaign.  Republicans sharply criticized the White House’s announcement last week that Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, had been killed during a drone attack in Pakistan.

Analysts suggest that European governments prefer to turn a blind eye to the drone attacks because they see the Islamist militants targeted by the United States as a danger to Europe, too. Having this threat eliminated outweighs what qualms they may have about the method employed.  “E.U. countries have their own interests in tacitly condoning these tactics,” said Nathalie Van Raemdonck, a guest researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, an independent research center in Rome. “Since they are not involved in any such operations, they cannot be accused of playing any role in targeted killings. The Europeans are content with letting the U.S. do their dirty work.”

European governments, however, are not united on this issue. Britain has armed drones in Afghanistan, and other European countries also employ them for surveillance purposes so the issue of targeted killings does not directly concern them. Government officials point to this to explain their silence.  Analysts say this approach is short-sighted. The United States intends to arm Italian surveillance drones in Afghanistan beginning next year. France has plans for military drones for reconnaissance and attack missions. NATO is trying to get member states to finance surveillance drones that eventually may also be armed.  Even more importantly, China, Russia and other non-Western countries are also working on developing armed drones.  This could lead to a free-for-all situation unless standards for the use of these weapons are agreed upon, legal experts say. It is time, said Mr. Bütikofer, the European Parliament lawmaker, for Europe to break its silence.

Excerpts, JUDY DEMPSEY, Europe Stays Quiet Despite Unease About Drones, NY Times,June 11, 2012

SOCOM: United States Special Operations Command

Admiral McRaven’s [head of the SOCOM] broad goal is to obtain new authority from the Defense Department to move his elite forces faster and outside normal Pentagon deployment channels. That would give him more autonomy to position his personnel and their fighting equipment where intelligence and world events indicate they are most needed. It would also allow the Special Operations forces to expand their presence in regions where they have not operated in large numbers for the past decade, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

At a time of declining Pentagon budgets and a waning public appetite for large wars of occupation, the Obama administration hopes to rely more on foreign troops and security forces to tackle extremist threats abroad. These new realities have led to a larger debate within the military about its future priorities, and not all senior officers welcome Admiral McRaven’s ambitious proposals, suspecting a power grab that might weaken the authority of regional commanders.  “I was trying to figure out how to stand in front of this juggernaut that is the Special Operations Command, particularly in today’s world,” Adm. Timothy J. Keating, a former head of the military’s Northern and Pacific commands, said at a Special Operations conference in April in Washington. “I don’t fundamentally understand what needs fixing.”

While it is not unusual for branches of the armed services or combatant commands to lobby Congress for troop benefits or weaponry, like new fighter jets or artillery systems, the Special Operations Command’s hurried pitch because of the pending legislation did not go down well.  In its request in April 2012, the command sought a new $25 million fund to buy uniforms, build barracks and ferry foreign troops rather than using existing Pentagon and State Department aid programs that could have added months to the process. That required changes in the law, so the command asked to tuck them into a Pentagon budget bill the House was poised to pass.

In a three-page, confidential draft legislative proposal, the command argued that by coupling the proposed changes with its existing special fast-track acquisition authorities, it could provide “a fast turnaround resource for dealing with breaking issues.” Special Operations officers would work closely with American ambassadors in each country and the State Department to support foreign policy goals.  The legislative draft filled in some details of a plan sketched out for Congress on March 27 by the Pentagon’s top civilian Special Operations policy official, Michael A. Sheehan. Citing Africa as a prime example, Mr. Sheehan, a West Point graduate who is assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and low-intensity conflict, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “We will need different authorities, we will need different types of programs in order for us to engage with the range of countries, from Libya down through Mali, which is obviously in the middle of chaos right now, to Mauritania, all the way — and, quite frankly, all the way over to Nigeria.”

But lawmakers and State Department officials were puzzled. Only last year, Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton, backed by Congress, agreed to pool resources from their two departments in a new fund to respond more quickly to counter emerging threats from Al Qaeda and other militants in places like Yemen and the Horn of Africa.  The program, the Global Security Contingency Fund (pdf), is small as government programs go — $250 million a year, mostly from the Pentagon — but it is meant to address many of the needs the command’s proposal outlined.

A report accompanying the military budget bill that the House approved last month summed up the objections of not only lawmakers in the House and Senate, but also high-ranking administration officials who met on May 7 at the White House to work out the dispute. “The committee is concerned that the proliferation of similar, overlapping and/or competing building partner capacity authorities creates unnecessary confusion and friction,” the House report said.

Excerpt, ERIC SCHMITT, Elite Military Forces Are Denied in Bid for Expansion, New York Times, June 4, 2012