This roundup, curated by ReThink Media, looks at how the media is talking about drone warfare (and related topics) and what stories are being told.
With little transparency from governments on this topic, this roundup aims to be as comprehensive as possible, identifying breaking news, trends, developing stories, or interesting narratives. Rethink Media also use media coverage to compile a snapshot of strikes each week. The short version can be read here.
Biden admin pauses Trump’s foreign weapons sales
Former President Donald Trump signed a letter of agreement (LOA) with the UAE to purchase as many as 50 F-35 warplanes and 18 armed drones in the final moments of his presidency. The LOA solidifies the terms of the weapons sale between the two countries. Before taking office, Biden had said he planned to re-examine the $23bn UAE arms deal, which is being challenged in a lawsuit by the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs. [Middle East Eye / Sheren Khalel]
The State Department is pausing some U.S. weapons sales inked during the Trump administration so the deals can be reviewed by President Joe Biden’s incoming team.[POLITICO / Connor O’Brien] [Al-Monitor / Jared Szuba] [WaPo / Karen DeYoung]
Many of those packages, such as C-17 sustainment for Canada or F-16 support for Romania, will likely sail through with no problems, but the review is likely to look closely as the proposed sale of F-35 joint strike fighters, drones and munitions to the United Arab Emirates. [Defense News / Aaron Mehta]
Center for International Policy released a new report recommending that before the UAE should be eligible for such arms, it should end its support for militias in Yemen and “conduct credible, impartial and transparent investigations into alleged violations of the laws of war involving national armed forces in Yemen, and provide prompt and adequate redress for civilian victims and their families for deaths, injuries and property damage resulting from wrongful attacks.” [CIP]
Biden’s foreign policy agenda
Punchbowl News got their hands on a a document detailing a number of Joe Biden’s early plans. All of them could change, of course, but as of now, Biden is slated to sign a “forever wars” executive order, which will initiate a “review of CT operations and options to [responsibly] reduce such operations; reinstates transparency measures on civilian casualties; reinstates the policy of closing GITMO; initiates a process to migrate substantial use of force operations to Title 10″ in February. [Punchbowl]
“Amid discussions about what Biden’s foreign policy might look like, it’s worth noting that he’ll be inheriting US military actions at a post-9/11 low. The US declared around 1,000 strikes last year across four theatres – down from 13,000 under Obama in 2016. rump also appears to have paused US counter terrorism actions in Pakistan and Libya- with no recent recorded strikes. In Afghanistan, US strikes ended in February 2020. However low intensity ops continue in Iraq and Syria – and Somalia remains a concern.” [Airwars / Chris Woods]
COMMENTARY: “To be clear, spreading the cost—both financial and human—of war certainly wouldn’t rule out war. But that’s not a sensible goal, unless hard realities of the world change and states no longer need armies to deter would-be aggressors and to defend themselves if deterrence fails. Moreover, draft or not, presidents can and will initiate wars, to say nothing of less dramatic uses of force, for example, drone strikes—a casualty-free mode of war on the aggressor’s side, albeit not for noncombatants. But a more equitable distribution of the costs and risks of war might nevertheless make a difference.” [FP / Rajan Menon]
US drone strikes repeatedly attacked a Yemeni family. Now, they’re seeking justice.
The day was supposed to be joyous. On December 12, 2013, the al Ameri and al Taisy families joined together in Yemen’s al Bayda province to celebrate the marriage of Abdullah Mabkhout al Ameri and his new wife Wardah al Taisy. During the traditional wedding procession from the bride’s home, a United States drone launched four missiles and killed 12 people. Seven members of the al Ameri family and five members of the al Taisy family were killed; six more were injured. Over the next five years, members of the al Ameri and al Taisy families, and their neighbors, were victims of six more attacks.
The families, led by Aziz al Ameri, a family patriarch, are filing a petition on January 25 against the U.S. government through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States that observes and investigates human rights conditions throughout the Western Hemisphere. With the assistance of Reprieve, an international human rights organization that has worked with and represented drone strike victims, al Ameri is asking for accountability. [VICE / Leah Feiger and Nick Turse]
A determination in favor of the Yemeni petitioners by the commission, an independent body affiliated with the Organization of American States, would not necessarily force changes in U.S. military operations or policy. But it could have symbolic importance in highlighting the unintended outcome of counterterrorism operations.
The military actions cited in the petition date to the Obama administration, when a U.S. drone struck a wedding convoy in December 2013 and, according to the filing, killed several members of the Ameri family and five of the Taisy family. The Yemeni government paid more than $1 million in compensation to the families of those killed and injured, money that Reprieve has suggested may have come from the United States. The other six actions occurred during the Trump administration.
Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on the petition but said the U.S. military sought to minimize civilian harm when planning and conducting operations. [WaPo / Missy Ryan and Soad Mekhennet] [Al Jazeera]
The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General is launching a review of US Central Command and US Special Operations Command to probe the recent record of both in following Pentagon “law of war” requirements.
The probe will begin this month, and will “determine the extent to which U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) developed and implemented programs in accordance with DoD Law of War requirements to reduce potential law of war violations when conducting operations,” an Inspector General memo explained.
The initial contacts listed by the IG for the evaluation suggest that the focus will be on the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The evaluation will begin with CENTCOM and SOCOM at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida; U.S. Forces-Afghanistan; and Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. [Military.com / Richard Sisk]
Both CENTCOM and SOCOM troops have been accused of war crimes during deployments in the Middle East. CENTCOM, in particular, was mired in such allegations during peaks of activity in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Most recently, CENTCOM’s push to dislodge ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria involved air and artillery strikes in urban areas like Mosul and Raqqa, which inflicted significant civilian casualties. A detailed review of how both commands dealt with such incidents could reveal tough truths about America’s long-running and unpopular foreign wars. [Newsweek / David Brennan]
A former senior defense official told Task & Purpose that the inspector general’s office review should not be construed as confirmation that U.S. troops have committed war crimes. The U.S. military makes more of an effort to abide by the law of armed conflict than any other force, said the senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. [Task & Purpose / Jeff Schogol]
US Africa Command says one of its drones, an apparently armed Gray Eagle, malfunctioned in Niger [Military Times / Howard Altman]
COMMENTARY: “Last week, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor published a dissent in a death-penalty case that flagged the striking number of killings taking place in the last months of the Trump administration. “After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the Government has executed twelve people since July,” she wrote, calling it “an unprecedented, breakneck timetable of executions.” As an opponent of capital punishment, I am pleased to see it criticized. But Sotomayor’s claim that the federal government went 17 years without executing anyone is misleading, because the federal government does not exclusively kill men and women who are on death row. It maintains a kill list of people whom it condemns to die in secret and kills with drones.” [The Atlantic / Conor Friedersdorf]
A newly formed militant group calling itself the “Righteous Promise Brigades” published a statement claiming responsibility for a drone attack against Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Saturday. The assault was in response to a double suicide bombing carried out by ISIS at a Baghdad market on Thursday. [FDD’s Long War Journal / Joe Truzman] [The National / Robert Tollast]
Russian news media are reporting a deal to supply Orlan-10E drones to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The transaction with a military widely condemned for its actions against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority represents Russia’s first step into the unmanned aircraft market. [Forbes / David Hambling]
Judges from Germany’s Federal Court of Justice (BGH) on Thursday ruled that courts in the country can continue to hear cases about abuses of international law committed outside of Germany. In a landmark decision, the court ruled that foreign soldiers are not protected from prosecution for war crimes in Germany and that they cannot invoke a right to immunity. [DW]
General John Murray, head of Army Futures Command, told a webinar audience at the Center for Strategic & International Studies that humans may not be able to fight swarms of enemy drones, and that the rules governing human control over artificial intelligence might need to be relaxed. [Forbes / David Hambling]