Tag Archives: unmanned aerial vehicles

An Affordable and Risk Free Way to Kill: Drones

Armed drones have become ubiquitous in the Middle East, say Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi and Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think-tank, in a recent report. America has jealously guarded the export of such aircraft for fear that they might fall out of government hands, be turned on protesters or used against Israel. America has also been constrained by the Missile Technology Control Regime, an arms-control agreement signed by 35 countries, including Russia, that restricts the transfer of particularly capable missiles and drones (both rely on the same underlying technology).

China…has sold missile-toting drones to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All are American security partners…. Other countries, such as Israel, Turkey and Iran, have filled the gap with their own models.  America wants to muscle its way back into the market. In April 2018 the Trump administration began loosening export rules to let countries buy armed drones directly from defence companies rather than through official channels. Drones with “strike-enabling technology”, such as lasers to guide bombs to their targets, were reclassified as unarmed. American drones are costlier and require more paperwork than Chinese models, but are more capable. ..The flood of drones into the market is already making an impact—sometimes literally. Ms Tabrizi and Mr Bronk say some Middle Eastern customers see drones as an “affordable and risk-free” way to strike across borders… 

Drone Bayraktar made by Turkey

Non-state actors are unwilling to be left out of the party. The jihadists of Islamic State often used drones in Iraq and Syria. Hizbullah used drones when it hit 23 fighters linked to al-Qaeda in Syria in 2014. The Houthi drone that bombed Al-Anad looked a lot like an Iranian model. Last year the Houthis sent a similar one more than 100km (60 miles) into Saudi Arabia before it was shot down. ..

Excerpts from Predator Pricing: Weapon Sales, Economist,  Mar. 9, 2019

Conservation Drones Against Poachers

A South African foundation on Wednesday received a 232.2-million-rand (about 21-million-U.S.- dollar) grant for combatting unchecked rhino poaching in Southern Africa.  The grant was donated to Peace Parks Foundation from the Dutch and Swedish Postcode Lotteries. Of the total donation, 217 million rands (about 19 million dollars) came from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, while 15.2 million rands (about 13.7 million dollars) was contributed by the Swedish Postcode Lottery.

“This is the largest single contribution made by the private sector to combat rhino poaching and wildlife crime. We welcome this public-private partnership to help ensure the survival of the species,” South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa said.

The South African government and its public entities—South African National Parks (SANParks) and Ezemvelo KZN (KwaZulu-Natal) Wildlife (Ezemvelo), are working closely with Peace Parks Foundation to develop a multi-pronged approach to combat rhino poaching and wildlife crime, the minister said.

The main focus will be the devaluation of the horns of live rhino, through a combination of methods, including the physical devaluation and contamination of the horn, as well as the use of tracking and monitoring technology…In particular, the emphasis will be on intelligence gathering and on technology applications such as conservation drones and other specialist equipment. It will also include training and capacity building, as well as incentives and rewards for rangers, communities and members of the public who support the conservation of rhino…The Peace Parks Foundation was established in 1997 to assist the region’s governments in their development of transfrontier conservation areas.

South African foundation receives multi-million-dollar grant for fighting rhino poaching, Xinhua, Feb. 8, 2014

Drones: Rules and Reality

In his most comprehensive public comments yet on the US covert drone war, President Barack Obama has laid out the five rules he says the United States uses to target and kill alleged terrorists – including US citizens.  The president has also warned of the need to avoid a ‘slippery slope’ when fighting terrorism, ‘in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means.’  Obama’s comments were made in an on-camera interview with CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Only once before has the president publicly discussed the US covert drone policy, when he spoke briefly about strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Now Obama says there are five rules that need to be followed in covert US drone attacks. In his own words:

1 ’It has to be a target that is authorised by our laws.’

2 ’It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative.’

3 ’It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.’

4 ‘We’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties.’

5 ‘That while there is a legal justification for us to try and stop [American citizens] from carrying out plots… they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.’

Obama twice referred to what he claims has been ‘misreporting’ by the media of his drones policy.  Apparently responding to recent allegations that his administration prefers to kill rather than capture suspects, the president said that ‘our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence’ but that it’s sometimes ‘very difficult to capture them.’  CNN’s Yellin did not bring up the issue of civilian casualties – despite CNN itself reporting multiple civilian deaths in a suspected Yemen drone strike just hours earlier. However Obama insisted that ‘we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties, and in fact there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think there’s going to be civilian casualties involved.’

Obama also took on the contentious targeted killing of US citizens – the subject of a number of high profile legal cases. Insisting that there was ‘legal justification’ for such killings, the president conceded that ‘as an American citizen, they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.’  The US Department of Justice (DoJ) is presently trying to block publication of administration legal opinions which allegedly provided the justification for the killing of US citizen Anwar al Awlaki and others.  In a recent court submission the DoJ insisted that Obama’s January comments on the covert drone war could not be taken as an admission that it was taking place: ‘Plaintiffs speculate that the president must have been speaking about CIA involvement in lethal operations…. This is insufficient to support a claim of official disclosure.’  With Obama now publicly laying out the ground rules for the covert drone war, the DoJ’s position appears further damaged.

The president also discussed in some detail his moral concerns regarding the campaign, admitting that he ‘struggle[s] with issues of war and peace and fighting terrorism.’  Our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence.’  He said that he and his national security team needed to ‘continually ask questions about “Are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by the rule of law? Are we abiding by due process?”‘  If that failed to happen, the president warned, there was the risk of a ‘slippery slope… in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means.’  The continuing deaths of civilians – and CIA tactics such as the deliberate targeting of rescuers – have led some to argue that the US is already bending or even breaking those rules.

Chris Woods, Obama’s five rules for covert drone strikes, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Sept. 6, 2012

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

The Alliance between CIA and Pakistan

And, perhaps most crucially, the two fractious allies’ top spies are talking again, with a view to enhancing their cooperation as the 2014 deadline for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan looms.   The relationship between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has been at the core of Washington and Islamabad’s alliance for over a decade now — and sometimes the source of the mutual misery. After 9/11, both intelligence agencies collaborated closely to capture scores of al-Qaeda suspects. But over the past two years, as suspicions have grown, the two sides have become near adversaries.

The ISI is often accused of supporting jihadist proxies attacking U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan — and is widely considered to have been either incompetent or complicit when it came to Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan. The CIA was found to be operating independently within Pakistan’s jealously guarded territory, running unauthorized contractors, recruiting local informants and showering drones at their fiercest pace yet.  But as bitter memories of those disputes begin to recede and new faces assume leadership roles, there is some cautious optimism going forward now — this despite domestic imperatives in both countries (an election year in the U.S., the heated anti-American populism in Pakistan) making rapprochement difficult. Last month the new head of ISI, Lieut. General Zaheer-ul-Islam, made his first visit to Washington, meeting with top intelligence, defense and Administration officials. Tentative agreements were made in terms of joint operations against militants in the region, the Wall Street Journal reported. But, officials from both sides say, fundamental differences linger.

Little is known about General ul-Islam, but a change at the top of ISI will please U.S. security officials. The previous ISI chief, now retired Lieut. General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, had become fiercely hostile to Washington in his final year — engaging in “shouting matches” with then CIA director Leon Panetta, cutting cooperation down to a minimum, ordering the harassment of U.S. diplomats in Pakistan and locking up Shakil Afridi, the physician who ran a vaccination program in the town where bin Laden was found hiding.

Afridi is currently serving a 33-year sentence handed down to him by a tribal court. The charges were not explicitly for spying for the U.S., but there is little doubt in observers’ minds that this is the reason he was punished. Afridi wasn’t arrested for the alleged offenses he has been convicted for until the ISI discovered his vaccination program and links to the CIA. At one point, according to a Pakistani military official familiar with the discussions, the CIA suggested that the ISI strip Afridi of his nationality and hand him over to the U.S. General Pasha angrily refused, saying it would set a bad precedent — one that could encourage others to spy for foreign countries if there were no consequences. U.S. Congressmen reacted angrily to Afridi’s imprisonment, voting to cut $33 million of U.S. assistance to Pakistan, one million for each year he’s serving in prison. The question of Afridi’s fate will likely have come up during ul-Islam’s visit to the U.S. There may be no movement soon, but if relations between Washington and Islamabad grow warmer, the ISI may eventually be persuaded to arrange for Afridi’s quiet release.

The harassment of U.S. officials hasn’t changed much, says a U.S. official. Vehicles are constantly stopped, security personnel searched with unusual rigor, and there is even pressure on the U.S. to abandon the construction of a new consulate in Peshawar. On other fronts, ul-Islam has maintained a low profile, a decision thought to be influenced by his predecessor’s controversial visibility. “Unlike General Pasha,” says a senior politician from Pakistan’s opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, “we don’t see the new head of the ISI interfering in politics — yet.”

During the new ISI chief’s visit, U.S. officials repeated their long-standing concerns about the Haqqani network, a potent jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda that is based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal territory along the Afghan border. From their sanctuary there, say U.S. officials, the group contentedly plots terrorist attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, before slipping back across the border. The ISI is widely suspected of offering the group support, with Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even describing the Haqqanis as “a veritable arm of the ISI” in his valedictory testimony before Congress last year.

The Pakistanis deny backing the Haqqanis but concede links with them and their reluctance to confront them. They plaintively cite a lack of resources and insist their priority is targeting militants mounting attacks inside Pakistan, but tellingly add that the Haqqanis will be crucial to any future Afghan settlement that Pakistan hopes to be a part of. But a series of unremitting, violent attacks in and around Kabul, authored by the Haqqanis, has intensified the pressure on the Pakistanis.

Last October, Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, discussed the possibility of “limiting the space” given to the Haqqanis in North Waziristan with Clinton during her visit to Islamabad. The Pakistani army said it had certain contingency plans in place for limited, surgical operations to reclaim territory in some of North Waziristan’s main towns. These plans were shelved soon after, with the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers in November 2011. Now, as pressure builds again, with enduring attacks and Congressmen calling for the Haqqani network to be designated as a foreign terrorist organization, the plans will have to be revisited. The new U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, told U.S. lawmakers during his confirmation hearings last month that he will be committed to taking on the Haqqanis.

Without a Pakistani military operation against the Haqqanis, the CIA has focused on drone strikes against them and other militants in the region. The strikes, U.S. officials insist, are effective. Some Pakistani military officials also have conceded improved accuracy. But there are limits to what can be achieved by a drone-only strategy, and there are political costs. Drone strikes have not only become hugely unpopular in Pakistan, where the parliament has united in denouncing them, but also across the world. A Pew Research Center survey published in June found that majorities in countries as diverse as France, Germany, the Czech Republic, China, Japan, Brazil and Turkey opposed the widespread use of drone strikes.

An acknowledgment of the accumulating political costs may temper the frequency with which the CIA uses drone strikes. General David Petraeus, the new CIA director, is said to appreciate that the program is unsustainable. Previous CIA director Panetta was seen as being indulgent of “the CT guys and their shiny toys,” says the official. Drone strikes increased to a pace of one every four days at their height.

But there are certain points at which they are seen as a necessity — and they will continue to be used despite ul-Islam’s insistence last month in Washington that they stop. Just days after Clinton’s apology and the reopening of the NATO supply lines, a drone strike in North Waziristan reportedly killed 20 suspected militants. The actual figure, the U.S. official says, was lower. But it was a truck packed with explosives heading across the border. “It was a clear shot,” the official says. “We had to take it.” And that is one of the many differences in opinion that both sides will somehow have to learn to live with.

Omar Waraich.The CIA and ISI: Are Pakistan and the U.S.’s Spy Agencies Starting to Get Along?, Time, Aug. 7, 2012

Kamikaze Drones: Shortening the Kill Chain

The 2-foot-long Switchblade drone [unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)] is so named because its wings fold into the fuselage for transport and spring out after launch. It is designed to fit into a soldier’s rucksack and is fired from a mortar-like tube. Once airborne, it begins sending back live video and GPS coordinates to a hand-held control set clutched by the soldier who launched it.  When soldiers identify and lock on a target, they send a command for the drone to nose-dive into it and detonate on impact. Because of the way it operates, the Switchblade has been dubbed the “kamikaze drone.”

The Obama administration, notably the CIA, has long been lambasted by critics for its use of combat drones and carelessly killing civilians in targeted strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. In 2010, a United Nations official said the CIA in Pakistan had made the United States “the most prolific user of targeted killings” in the world.

The Switchblade drone appears to be an improvement as an alternative to traditional drone strikes, in terms of minimizing civilian harm, but it also raises new concerns, said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School.  She pointed out that when a drone strike is being considered there are teams of lawyers, analysts and military personnel looking at the data to determine whether lethal force is necessary. But the Switchblade could shorten that “kill chain.”  “It delegates full responsibility to a lower-level soldier on the ground,” she said. “That delegation is worrisome. It’s a situation that could end up in more mistakes being made.”  Arms-control advocates also have concerns. As these small robotic weapons proliferate, they worry about what could happen if the drones end up in the hands of terrorists or other hostile forces.

The Switchblade “is symptomatic of a larger problem that U.S. military and aerospace companies are generating, which is producing various more exotic designs,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn. “This technology is not always going to be in the sole possession of the U.S. and its allies. We need to think about the rules of the road for when and how these should be used so we can mitigate against unintended consequences.”

The Switchblade is assembled in Simi Valley by AeroVironment Inc., the Pentagon’s top supplier of small drones, which include the Raven, Wasp and Puma. More than 50 Switchblades will be sent to the war zone in Afghanistan this summer under a $10.1-million contract, which also includes the cost of repairs, spare parts, training and other expenses. Officials would not provide details about where the weapons would be used, how many were ordered and precisely when they would be deployed.  AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, developed the weapon on its own, thinking the military could use a lethal drone that could be made cheaply and deployed quickly by soldiers in the field, said company spokesman Steven Gitlin.

“It’s not inexpensive to task an Apache helicopter or F-16 fighter jet from a base to take out an [improvised explosive device] team when you consider fuel, people, logistics support, etc.,” he said.

About a dozen Switchblades were tested last year by special operations units in Afghanistan, according to Army officials, who said the drone proved effective.  The Army is considering buying $100 million worth of the drones in a few years under a program called the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System, Nichols said. The Air Force and the Marine Corps have also expressed interest in the technology.

AeroVironment is not the only company pursuing small, lethal drones. Textron Defense Systems is also working on a small kamikaze-style drone. Named the BattleHawk Squad-Level Loitering Munition, the drone is being tested at an Army facility in New Mexico.

Excerpts, W.J. Hennigan, Pentagon to soon deploy pint-sized but lethal Switchblade drones, LA Times, June 11, 2012