Drone warfare

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A drone strike is an airstrike delivered by one or more unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) or weaponized commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Only the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, France, India, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, and Poland [1] [2] are known to have manufactured operational UCAVs as of 2019. [3] As of 2022, the Ukrainian group Aerorozvidka have built strike-capable drones and used them in combat. [4]


Drone attacks can be conducted by commercial UCAVs dropping bombs, firing a missile, or crashing into a target. [5] Since the turn of the century, most drone strikes have been carried out by the US military in such countries as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen using air-to-surface missiles, [6] but drone warfare has increasingly been deployed by Turkey and Azerbaijan. [7] Drones strikes are used for targeted killings by several countries. [8] [9]

In 2020 a Turkish-made UAV loaded with explosives detected and attacked Haftar's forces in Libya with its artificial intelligence without command, according to a report from the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Libya, published in March 2021. It was considered the first attack carried out by the UAVs on their own initiative. [10] [11] [12]

Drone warfare

Weaponizing of DJI Phantom commercial videography UAVs Soldier with commercial drones.jpg
Weaponizing of DJI Phantom commercial videography UAVs

The Economist has cited Azerbaijan's highly effective use of drones in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and Turkey's use of drones in the Syrian Civil War as indicating the future of warfare. Noting that it had previously been assumed that drones would not play a major role in conflicts between nations due to their vulnerability to anti-aircraft fire, it suggested that while this might be true for major powers with air defences, it was less true for minor powers. It noted Azerbaijani tactics and Turkey's use of drones as indicating a "new, more affordable type of air power". It also noted that the ability of drones to record their kills enabled a highly effective Azerbaijani propaganda campaign. [7]

Commercial UCAVs may be equipped with such weapons as guided bombs, cluster bombs, incendiary devices, air-to-surface missiles, air-to-air missiles, anti-tank guided missiles or other types of precision-guided munitions, autocannons and machine guns. [13] Drone attacks can be conducted by commercial UCAVs dropping bombs, firing a missile, or crashing into a target. [5] Commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be weaponized by being loaded with dangerous explosives and then crashed into vulnerable targets or detonated above them. They can conduct aerial bombing by dropping hand grenades, mortar shell or other improvised explosive munitions directly above targets. Payloads could include explosives, shrapnel, chemical, radiological or biological hazards. Multiple drones may attack simultaneously in a drone swarm. [14] Drones have been used extensively by both sides for recon and artillery spotting in the Russo-Ukraine War. [15]

Anti-UAV systems are being developed by states to counter the threat of drone strikes. [16] This is, however, proving difficult. According to James Rogers, an academic who studies drone warfare, "There is a big debate out there at the moment about what the best way is to counter these small UAVs, whether they are used by hobbyists causing a bit of a nuisance or in a more sinister manner by a terrorist actor." [17]

United States drone strikes

A Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile Predator and Hellfire.jpg
A Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile

In 1991, both AAI RQ-2 Pioneer and AeroVironment FQM-151 Pointer drones were used for surveillance during the Gulf War. In 1993, General Atomics Gnat UAVs were tested for surveillance in the Yugoslav Wars. In 2001–2002, General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drones were equipped with missiles to strike enemy targets. [18]

Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, stated that U.S. drone strikes may have violated international humanitarian law. [19] [20] The Intercept reported, "Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes [in northeastern Afghanistan] killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets." [21] [22] The use of drone strikes by the United States substantially reduces the number of US casualties. [23] The US increased the use of drone strikes significantly during Obama's presidency compared to Bush's. [24] With help from the Pine Gap joint defense facility, which locates targets by intercepting radio signals, the US is double-tap drone striking. [25] [26] [27]

Estimates for the total people killed in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, range from 2,000–3,500 militants killed and 158–965 civilians killed. [28] [29] 81 insurgent leaders in Pakistan have been killed. [30] Drone strikes in Yemen are estimated to have killed 846–1,758 militants and 116–225 civilians. [31] [32] 57 Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leaders are confirmed to have been killed [33]

In August 2018, Al Jazeera reported that a Saudi Arabian-led coalition combating Houthi rebels in Yemen had secured secret deals with al-Qaeda in Yemen and recruited hundreds of that group's fighters: "... Key figures in the deal-making said the United States was aware of the arrangements and held off on drone attacks against the armed group, which was created by Osama bin Laden in 1988." [34] [35] [36]

After US president Donald Trump had heavily increased drone strikes by over 400% and limited civilian oversight, [37] [38] [39] his successor Joe Biden reversed course. Under Biden, drone strikes reportedly hit a 20-year low and were heavily limited. [40] [41] [42] [43] However, a Biden administration drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan in August 2021 killed 10 civilians, including seven children. [44] Later, a drone strike killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri under the Biden administration. [45]


Scholarly opinions are mixed regarding the efficacy of drone strikes. Some studies support that decapitation strikes to kill a terrorist or insurgent group's leadership limit the capabilities of these groups in the future, while other studies refute this. Drone strikes are successful at suppressing militant behavior, though this response is in anticipation of a drone strike rather than as a result of one. Data from the US and Pakistan's joint counter-terrorism efforts show that militants cease communication and attack planning to avoid detection and targeting. [46]

Proponents of drone strikes assert that drone strikes are largely effective in targeting specific combatants. [47] Some scholars argue that drone strikes reduce the amount of civilian casualties and territorial damage when compared to other types of military force like large bombs. [47] Military alternatives to drone strikes such as raids and interrogations can be extremely risky, time-consuming, and potentially ineffective. Relying on drone strikes does not come without risks as U.S. drone usage sets an international precedent on extraterritorial and extrajudicial killings. [47]

Islamic State drone strikes

Small drones and quadcopters have been used for strikes by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. A group of twelve or more have been piloted by specially trained pilots to drop munitions onto enemy forces. They have been able to evade ground defense forces. [48]

During the battle for Mosul, the Islamic State was able to kill or wound dozens of Iraqi soldiers by dropping light explosives or 40-millimeter grenades from numerous drones attacking at the same time.

In 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray stated at a Senate hearing that "We do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones ... We have seen that overseas already with some frequency. I think that the expectation is that it is coming here, imminently." [48]

Drone expert Brett Velicovich discussed the dangers of the Islamic State utilizing off the shelf drones to attack civilian targets, claiming in an interview with Fox News that is was only a matter of time before ISIS extremists use of drones to strike civilian targets would become more prevalent and sophisticated. [49]

Azerbaijan drone warfare

Turkish made Bayraktar TB2 at Baku Victory Parade of 2020, Azerbaijan Bayraktar TB2 at 2020 Victory Parade in Baku.jpg
Turkish made Bayraktar TB2 at Baku Victory Parade of 2020, Azerbaijan

During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, UCAVs have been used extensively by the Azerbaijani Army against the Armenian Army. [50] These UCAVs included Israeli IAI Harops and Turkish Bayraktar TB2s. [51] As the Bayraktar TB2 uses Canadian optics and laser targeting systems, in October 2020 Canada suspended export of its military drone technology to Turkey after allegations that the technology had been used to collect intelligence and direct artillery and missile fire at military positions. After the incident, Aselsan stated that it would begin the serial production and integration of the CATS system to replace the Canadian MX15B. [52]

Notable drone strikes

Strikes using small UAVs

Notable deaths from drone strikes

See also

Related Research Articles

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Family of unmanned aerial vehicles

The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator is an American remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) built by General Atomics that was used primarily by the United States Air Force (USAF) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Conceived in the early 1990s for aerial reconnaissance and forward observation roles, the Predator carries cameras and other sensors. It was modified and upgraded to carry and fire two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles or other munitions. The aircraft entered service in 1995, and saw combat in the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the NATO intervention in Bosnia, 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the Iraq War, Yemen, the 2011 Libyan civil war, the 2014 intervention in Syria, and Somalia.

In its war on terrorism in Yemen, the US government describes Yemen as "an important partner in the global war on terrorism". There have been attacks on civilian targets and tourists, and there was a cargo-plane bomb plot in 2010. Counter-terrorism operations have been conducted by the Yemeni police, the Yemeni military, and the United States Armed Forces.

Unmanned combat aerial vehicle Unmanned aerial vehicle that is usually armed

An unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), also known as a combat drone, colloquially shortened as drone or battlefield UAV, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is used for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance and carries aircraft ordnance such as missiles, ATGMs, and/or bombs in hardpoints for drone strikes. These drones are usually under real-time human control, with varying levels of autonomy. Unlike unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance aerial vehicles, UCAVs are used for both drone strikes and battlefield intelligence.

History of unmanned combat aerial vehicles

The history of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) is closely tied to the general history of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). While the technology dates back at least as far as the 1940s, common usage in live operations came in the 2000s. UCAVs have now become an important part of modern warfare, including in the Syrian civil war, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Militant Sunni Islamist and Islamic terrorist organization

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, abbreviated as AQAP, also known as Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, is a militant Sunni Islamist terrorist group primarily active in Yemen and Saudi Arabia that is part of the al-Qaeda network. It is considered the most active of al-Qaeda's branches that emerged after the weakening of central leadership. The U.S. government believes AQAP to be the most dangerous al-Qaeda branch. The group established an emirate during the 2011 Yemeni Revolution, which waned in power after foreign interventions in the subsequent Yemeni Civil War.

Between 2004 and 2018, the United States government attacked thousands of targets in Northwest Pakistan using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) operated by the United States Air Force under the operational control of the Central Intelligence Agency's Special Activities Division. Most of these attacks were on targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border in Northwest Pakistan. These strikes began during the administration of United States President George W. Bush, and increased substantially under his successor Barack Obama. Some in the media referred to the attacks as a "drone war". The George W. Bush administration officially denied the extent of its policy; in May 2013, the Obama administration acknowledged for the first time that four US citizens had been killed in the strikes. In December 2013, the National Assembly of Pakistan unanimously approved a resolution against US drone strikes in Pakistan, calling them a violation of "the charter of the United Nations, international laws and humanitarian norms."

CAIG Wing Loong Type of aircraft

The Chengdu Pterodactyl I, also known as Wing Loong, is a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group in the People's Republic of China. Intended for use as a surveillance and aerial reconnaissance platform, the Pterodactyl I is capable of being fitted with air-to-surface weapons for use in an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) role. Based on official marketing material released by CADI, the Pterodactyl can carry the BA-7 air-to-ground missile, YZ-212 laser-guided bomb, YZ-102A anti-personnel bomb and 50-kilogram LS-6 miniature guided bomb.

Targeted killing Murder or assassination by governments against perceived enemies

Targeted killing is a form of murder or assassination carried out by governments outside a judicial procedure or a battlefield.

CASC Rainbow is a series of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) developed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, an entity under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). The China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics is also known as the 11th Academy of CASC, or 701st Research Institute.

United States drone strikes in Yemen started after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, when the US military attacked Islamist militant presence in Yemen, in particular Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula using drone warfare.

Since the September 11 attacks, the United States government has carried out drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

UAVs in the U.S. military

As of January 2014, the U.S. military operates a large number of unmanned aerial systems : 7,362 RQ-11 Ravens; 990 AeroVironment Wasp IIIs; 1,137 AeroVironment RQ-20 Pumas; and 306 RQ-16 T-Hawk small UAS systems and 246 MQ-1 Predators and MQ-1C Gray Eagles; 126 MQ-9 Reapers; 491 RQ-7 Shadows; and 33 RQ-4 Global Hawk large systems.

Yemeni Civil War (2014–present) Ongoing civil war in the country of Yemen

The Yemeni Civil War is an ongoing multilateral civil war that began in late 2014 mainly between the Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi-led Yemeni government and the Houthi armed movement, along with their supporters and allies. Both claim to constitute the official government of Yemen.

Shabwah Governorate offensive Insurgent campaign by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

The Shabwah Governorate offensive is an insurgent campaign by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) forces to take control of Shabwah Governorate during the Yemeni Civil War.

The following is a timeline of the Second Yemeni Civil War, which began in September 2014.

A loitering munition is an aerial weapon system category in which the munition loiters around the target area for some time and attacks only once a target is located. Loitering munitions enable faster reaction times against concealed or hidden targets that emerge for short periods without placing high-value platforms close to the target area, and also allow more selective targeting as the attack can easily be aborted.

American military intervention in Somalia (2007–present) US military intervention against extremist groups in Somalia

Beginning in the late 2000s, the United States Military has supported the Federal Government of Somalia in counterterrorism as part of the ongoing Global War on Terror that began in wake of the September 11th attacks. Support, mostly in the form of drone and airstrikes, advising, training, and intelligence, increased during the Obama administration and Trump administration, with hundreds of drone strikes targeting the terrorist group al-Shabaab. Two U.S. special operations personnel and a CIA paramilitary officer have died during operations in Somalia.

The 2022 Abu Dhabi attack was a terrorist attack against three oil tanker trucks and an under construction airport extension infrastructure in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates conducted by the Houthi movement using drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. The attack was called "Operation Hurricane of Yemen" by the Houthis. Although several missiles and drones were intercepted, 3 civilians were killed and 6 were injured by a drone attack.


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