Ten years since first deadly drone strike, industry gathers in London

The number of armed drones in operation has risen dramatically over the past decade.

The Bureau gains exclusive access to a drone trade fair in central London – and speaks with the protestors outside.

Retired Major General Kenneth Israel had little time for the dozen or so anti-drone campaigners shivering outside a central London hotel. Where, he asked, were the campaigns against weapons maiming allied soldiers daily?

‘What is the morality in indiscriminately using an Improvised Explosive Device? Is that a fair fight? There has not been one article written about the morality of IEDs,’ he told the Bureau. ‘The unmanned system with a weapon is as moral as an IED being implemented in an area where you know civilians are going to be innocently asked to give their lives.’

The unmanned system with a weapon is as moral as an IED being implemented in an area where you know civilians are going to be innocently asked to give their lives.
Major General Kenneth Israel

A former US under-secretary of defense, Israel is now a vice-president of arms company Lockheed Martin, where he handles covert projects. He was in London last week to chair an industry conference on Unmanned Aircraft Systems – or drones.

Ten years earlier and almost to the day, the first known lethal drone strike took place, in Afghanistan. The precise date is still a US state secret, since the CIA carried out the killing. The most likely first target was Mullah Akhund, the Taliban number three, who was attacked by a drone some time around November 8 2001. Akhund survived but others were reported to have died.


SMi Unmanned Air Systems Conference, London 2011 - photo by Chris Woods

Defining Weapon
In the past decade armed drones have become the defining weapon of the War on Terror. Yet there are only estimates available of how many have been killed in drone strikes. The Bureau’s own analysis suggests at least 2,300 people have died in CIA attacks in Pakistan alone.

In neighbouring Afghanistan the US military refuses to disclose its tally, though occasionally admits to civilian deaths. The British are more forthcoming, claiming to have killed around 125 alleged militants and four civilians. For Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Libya – all countries in which US combat drones operate – there is no clear idea of how many have been killed – or of who has died.

Despite their ability to dominate the headlines, combat drones represent just a small part of the estimated $6bn which will be spent globally on UAVs this year. There are more than 800 models now available, ranging from tiny nano spies to gigantic inflatables.

But the armed section of the industry is growing in both size and importance. This is the eleventh annual drone gathering in London organised by SMI Group. Conference organiser Pete Andersen explains that over the years the group has been hosting the event there has been a visible growth in the interest around armed systems. ‘To begin with it was very much based on innovation and creativity,’ says . ‘Then platforms became weaponised, with ever-increasing payloads and capabilities, and we’ve had to adapt.’

Drones flown during Operation Enduring Freedom - Flickr/Staff Sgt James L Harper Jr

Profiting from drones
General Atomics has probably profited most from this first decade of armed drones. The company makes two armed vehicles – Predators and Reapers that are used by both the UK and US forces.

Exactly how much it profits from the industry is kept secret as the company, which is a private enterprise incorporated in Delaware, does not publish any financial information, including its annual turnover and profits.

The company’s representative in London, Stephen May, is a popular man among conference-goers, but is less happy to learn there’s a sole member of the press present: ‘It’s in our contract that we can’t discuss weaponisation,’ May growls. ‘I can’t talk to you.’

He is more forthcoming in his scheduled talk. ‘Every second of every day, over 58 of our Predator-series aircraft are airborne somewhere in the world,’ May informed us. The company now makes around 180 combat UAVs a year, he says, between 50 and 60 of those the Reaper. Only two countries outside the US – the UK and Italy – have so far been allowed to buy the weapon system. Israel has deployed its own combat drones since at least 2006.

Most of the conference was still focused on surveillance. A lieutenant-colonel gave an overview of Canada’s recent experiences with unarmed drones in Afghanistan, remarking that ‘glossy brochures sometimes lie.’ A NATO spokesman explained how 13 member nations are trying to run a joint surveillance-drone project. Even NASA uses scientific research drones, we were told.

Information exchange is crucial, since any one drone can carry sensors (or weapons) built by a dozen or more other companies. The atmosphere was one of co-operation rather than rivalry. ‘Think of it as a reunion, not a conference’ said the chairman at one point.

Every second of every day, over 58 of our Predator-series aircraft are airborne somewhere in the world.
Stephen May, General Atomics

Outside the main hall, stalls promoting new technologies vied for attention. A Dutch company tried to interest delegates in a sound detection system for mini-drones. Clapping hands filled in for mortar fire. Another rep used a joystick to chase a speedboat around a screen (‘My Miami Vice moment, I like to call it’) as he showed off a flight simulator.

NATO says no
Not everyone aspires to own combat drones. Major General Stephen Schmidt, who commands NATO’s AWACS early warning fleet, noted that armed UAVs did play a role in the recent Libya campaign. Yet the Alliance has no intention of heading down that path itself: ‘NATO is not looking to go at all in that direction. Ours are unmanned systems but for surveillance purposes, for stability, for security. There’s no armed aspect and no intention in NATO today to move in that direction,’ he told the Bureau.

But lines blur in battle. During the recent capture of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, a NATO AWACS provided tactical battle management for French combat aircraft and a US Predator, according to Schmidt. NATO may not be flying combat drones anytime soon – yet it cannot avoid them either.

A growing global market

In 2000, the US had fewer than 50 drones, mostly for surveillance. Just over ten years on the US Department of Defence (DoD) has more than 7,000 unmanned aircraft in its inventory. In 2011 the DoD requested $6.1bn for the development and procurement of drones and expects to need more than $24bn from 2010 to 2015 for new drones and expanded capabilities in existing ones.

Most drones are built for surveillance and reconnaissance, but there is a growing demand for those built to carry out precise, deadly strikes – such as the Reaper and Predator, created by US defence contractor General Atomics, which now makes around 180 combat drones a year.

Lucintel, the US global management consulting and market research firm, says growth in armed unmanned aircraft is the ‘top emerging trend’ in the drone market,  ‘driven by low cost and … capability in undertaking high threat task’.

Drones manufactured with armed capability

Drone Company
Harpy Israel Aerospace Industries
Harop Israel Aerospace Industries
Hermes 450 Elbit Systems Ltd (Israel)
Predator General Atomics (US)
Reaper General Atomics (US)

Source: Drone Wars UK

This dominance by a few will not last. Russia, China, India, Iran and the United Arab Emirates all have armed drones projects well underway. And it’s not just state players involved. Hezbollah is rumoured to have access to Iranian drone technology. And al Qaeda has allegedly tried to hack the controls of an armed drone. Today’s exclusive club may be tomorrow’s proliferation nightmare.

For the dozen or so peaceful demonstrators outside, armed drones represent runaway technology in an arena where politicians fear to tread. Chris Cole, who runs the Drone Wars UK blog, accepts that not all of those in the industry are involved with warfare.

His quarrel is with those who are: ‘We don’t accept this idea of remote risk-free warfare as the drone industry likes to call it. It isn’t risk-free. There are hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties of drones. We’ve seen the US this year use drones in six countries, six different conflicts simultaneously, and many military experts say that simply wouldn’t have been possible without the use of drones. The fear is, if there is no risk, if there is no cost through using unmanned systems, then their use will only increase and we’ll see a lot more warfare in the future.’

Additional reporting by Emma Slater.