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.

United States

Afghanistan withdrawal
The rapid U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is creating intense pressure on the C.I.A. to find new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counterterrorism strikes in the country, but the agency has few good options. 
The government in Islamabad is unlikely to sign off on any U.S. strikes against the Taliban that are launched from a base in Pakistan. Although some American officials believe Pakistan wants to allow U.S. access to a base as long as it can control how it is used, public opinion in the country has been strongly against any renewed presence by the United States.
Some current and former officials are skeptical that remote advising or combat operations will succeed. Collecting intelligence becomes far more difficult without a large presence in Afghanistan, said Mick P. Mulroy, a retired C.I.A. officer who served there. “It doesn’t matter if you can drop ordnance,” he said, “if you don’t know where the target is.” [NYT / Mark Mazzetti and Julian Barnes] [The Times UK / David Charter]
A raid on a remote village in Afghanistan kills an ageing al Qaeda leader wanted by the FBI. Messages to the group’s cells around the world are seized. Two drone strikes on militants in northwest Syria swiftly follow. Details of a little-publicized October raid targeting a senior al Qaeda militant, Husam Abd-al-Rauf, in the Afghan province of Ghazni have revealed how the terror group continues to thrive in Afghanistan under Taliban protection, and remains connected to its other franchises across the globe, according to accounts provided by Afghan intelligence officials to CNN. [CNN / Nick Paton Walsh and Evan Perez]
How the war in Afghanistan revealed an evolving drone fleet’s mettle—and shortcomings [PopSci / Wesley Morgan]

The United States is grappling with a rapidly evolving threat from Iranian proxies in Iraq after militia forces specialized in operating more sophisticated weaponry, including armed drones, have hit some of the most sensitive American targets in attacks that evaded U.S. defenses. At least three times in the past two months, those militias have used small, explosive-laden drones that divebomb and crash into their targets in late-night attacks on Iraqi bases — including those used by the C.I.A. and U.S. Special Operations units, according to American officials. [NYT / Jane Arraf and Eric Schmitt]
US air defense systems shot down two drones near Ayn al-Asad air base on Sunday. [Al-Monitor]

In Just Security, Center for Civilians in Conflict and Airwars explain the deficiencies of the DoD’s annual civilian casualty report
COMMENTARY: “Disappointingly, the report for 2020 — the first to come out of the Biden administration — adds to the legacy of unrecognized harm by, once again, showing significant undercounting of civilian casualties. The report also indicates that the DoD has failed to offer amends to any civilian victims and family members in 2020, despite explicit congressional funding and authorization to do so…
The fact that DoD did not offer a single ex gratia payment in 2020 is especially outrageous given that Congress has repeatedly authorized funding for such payments, and given the large number of cases where the Department has confirmed civilian casualties and has the information necessary to contact survivors. In fact, using the $3 million appropriated for ex gratia annually, the DoD could offer ex gratia for every single civilian it confirms it killed or injured in 2020 and, at the highest payment amount of $15,000 per civilian authorized in the Department’s interim policy on ex gratia, have a whopping $2,505,000 leftover…
These failures to offer payments reflect, in part, DoD’s frustrating view of ex gratia payments as a counterterrorism tool designed to “obtain friendly relations” with local populations rather than as a way to recognize the dignity of civilians and offer contrition for harm. As such, DoD has also demonstrated a bias toward offering ex gratia in places where the U.S. has a ground presence, and against such offers in the large number of places where the U.S. undertakes operations remotely.” [Just Security / Annie Shiel and Chris Woods]
Biden joins long line of presidents to ‘woefully’ undercount civilians killed in US wars [Common Dreams / Brett Wilkins]
The U.S. military killed 23 civilians and injured another 10 in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia during 2020, according to a Pentagon report on civilian casualties that was released on Wednesday and immediately faced charges of being a whitewash. Experts said the report vastly undercounts the dead and wounded from U.S. military operations. [The Intercept / Nick Turse] [Business Insider / Charles Davis]
The tally included civilian fatalities in operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria, according to the Pentagon report. Most of the civilian casualties were in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon said it was responsible for 20 deaths, according to the public section of the report. [International Business Times / Jacob J]
The document says that although Congress allocated $3m to the Pentagon in 2020 for financial compensation to the families of civilian victims, no such compensation has been paid. The report also acknowledged that 12 additional incidents in 2017 and 2018, which left at least 50 civilians killed and 22 others injured, “were inadvertently not reported in the past.”  [Al Jazeera]
TWEET: “No payment was made despite the fact that those injured and families of those killed have suffered deeply from those losses. This VICE News video shows one young girl who was injured in a strike in Somalia. The DoD has offered justifications for why US military reporting differs from that of NGOs. They say its because they use different sources, ones we can’t access. But NGOs have information the US *chooses* not to access. t’s time to ask the hard questions, to make the call: is the US military truly trying to understand the impact of its actions on civilians? Are they taking the steps they need to get the right information? Are they correcting mistakes, improving?” [Columbia Law’s Priyanka Motaparthy]
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) track civilian deaths around the world, and regularly release figures on civilian deaths caused by the U.S. military that are higher than what the Pentagon reported on Wednesday. One such NGO group, Airwars, compiles numbers of civilian victims from air strikes. It reported that its “most conservative estimates” show 102 civilians were killed in U.S. operations around the world in 2020. [Newsweek / Jon Jackson] [TRT World]
The Pentagon admitted to one civilian death in Somalia for 2020. Airwars said the lowest estimates for Somalia suggest that at minimum, seven civilians were killed in Somalia by the US military in 2020. [ / Dave DeCamp]
STATEMENT: “Almost 20 years into our country’s unending conflicts, the Biden administration joins its predecessors in undercounting the number of civilians, likely all Black or Brown people, killed or injured in U.S. military operations overseas. Compared to credible independent media accounts, United Nations reporting, and rights groups’ investigations, it is clear that the Defense Department’s investigations and acknowledgment of civilian harm remain woefully inadequate.” [ACLU / Hina Shamsi]
TWEET: “The report spends more time on why the US in involved in conflicts, what DoD policy is on #CivilianHarmMitigation, and legal standards then it does on actual #CIVCAS. This unfortunately comes across as rather tone-deaf. As background I was Chief of High Value Targeting in 2003 and recommended dozens of airstrikes with @DefenseIntel. I know the care taken and that the military works to minimize civilian harm. I have also investigated CIVCAS for @hrw and the @UN  so I know the US can do better.” [Marc Garalsco]

COMMENTARY: “Bad habits are broken when they become difficult to get away with. To end our wars, Congress needs to stay informed and ask much harder questions, much more often. At its core, three questions need to be answered: Who is the US fighting? Is “targeted killing” really necessary? And finally, what are the true costs and who pays them?” [Fellow Travelers / Dan Mahanty and Allegra Harpootlian]
COMMENTARY: “It’s too late to undo all we’ve done, but it’s just the right time for the Biden administration to commit itself to avoiding the use of force in all contexts except when it is unavoidable. Call it the Peace Doctrine, but stop with the bombs, please. That includes drones, and giving our friends bombs to drop, too. Congress should revoke the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and reclaim its constitutional prerogative to declare war.” [Esquire / Jack Holmes]

As Gaza starts to rebuild, trauma, pain and destruction is everywhere
COMMENTARY: “I’ve never imagined that going shopping to buy diapers for my 1-year-old son and candies for my two other children would be so frightening. “What if an Israeli drone starts dropping bombs near me while I’m out walking? Should I run instead of walk? No, maybe that will attract the drones’ attention to me, make them think I’ve done something wrong,” I would deliberate at the door.” [The Nation / Mosab Abu Toha]

Biden’s move to slash dozens of older planes and drones is being met with resistance on Capitol Hill. [FP / Jack Detsch]
Top US general in the Mideast says more work needed to counter small drones [AP / Lolita Baldor]
How General Atomics is going all-in on making its drones relevant in a peer-state conflict [The War Zone / Joseph Trevithick]
New Mexico sheriff attacked by a flying dildo riding a drone [VICE / Greg Walters]

The psychological toll of killing with drones
When people meet an Remotely Piloted Aircraft crew member, they often say, “It’s just like playing a videogame, right?” The comparison is common, but it’s also ignorant and disrespectful: Nothing about killing someone from 7,000 miles away should be considered a game. What’s more, this misconception that our RPA warriors are just playing a videogame is a barrier to taking their psychological struggles seriously.
The great tension in modern-day RPA warfare is between the need to dehumanize the target for the psychological health of the striker and the development of a certain intimacy with the target before and after the strike. The fact is, after nearly two decades of killing remotely, its toll on those who do it remains relatively uncharted territory. Responses to killing remotely are as complex and varied as other warriors’ responses to killing.
“For my own research on the subject, I surveyed 254 RPA and intelligence personnel and conducted more than 50 in-person interviews. Nearly 26% of those surveyed said that they experienced flashbacks of the event, 17% stated they had recurrent waking memories of the event, 16% stated they felt detached or numb, and 15% admitted to having difficulty sleeping.” [WSJ / Wayne Phelps]

United Kingdom
The UK government is facing a legal challenge from human rights campaigners after refusing to publish its full policy on lethal drone strikes, arguing the document is so sensitive that revealing the contents would jeopardise security ties with the US. [The Financial Times / Helen Warrell]

Blast at Iranian complex housing drone factory injures nine [The Guardian / Patrick Wintour]

Middle East awash with military drones [LAT / David Cloud]
REPORT: The policy implications for the UK and the EU of the use of armed drones [Chatham House]
Armed low-cost drones, made by Turkey, reshape battlefields and geopolitics [WSJ / James Marson and Brett Forrest]

Military drones may have autonomously attacked humans for the first time ever last year, according to a United Nations report. While the full details of the incident, which took place in Libya, haven’t been released and it is unclear if there were any casualties, the event suggests that international efforts to ban lethal autonomous weapons before they are used may already be too late. [New Scientist / David Hambling]
The incident occurred last March in Libya, a country that was in the midst of a civil war. Turkey, a key combatant in the war, deployed the STM Kargu-2 drone, according to the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Libya report. The drone, which the report refers to as a ‘lethal autonomous weapon’ then found and attacked Libya’s Haftar Armed Forces (HAF). Logistics convoys and retreating forces were “hunted down and remotely engaged by “lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2,” the report reads. “The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true ‘fire, forget and find’ capability.” [CNET / Daniel Van Boom]
Zak Kallenborn, at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism in Maryland, said this could be the first time that drones have autonomously attacked humans and raised the alarm. “How brittle is the object recognition system?” Kallenborn asked in the report. “… how often does it misidentify targets?” [NY Post / Paula Froelich]
Several human rights watchdogs and non-governmental organizations have petitioned for a global ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. However, a coalition of UN members, including the U.S., has fiercely argued that preemptive legal regulations aren’t necessary given our current technology’s limitations, effectively stalling any progress on the issue. [Gizmodo / Alyse Stanley]
The fog of war may confound weapons that think for themselves [The Economist]
A military drone with a mind of its own was used in combat, UN says [NPR / Joe Hernandez]
“The new coverage has sparked a debate among experts that goes to the heart of our problems confronting the rise of autonomous robots in war. Some said the stories were wrongheaded and sensational, while others suggested there was a nugget of truth to the discussion. Diving into the topic doesn’t reveal that the world quietly experienced the opening salvos of the Terminator timeline in 2020. But it does point to a more prosaic and perhaps much more depressing truth: that no one can agree on what a killer robot is, and if we wait for this to happen, their presence in war will have long been normalized.” [The Verge / James Vincent]
Drones take on new civilian and military roles [Nextgov / John Breeden II]
COMMENTARY: The AI arms race has us on the road to armageddon [Edelman]
LTE: Military AI needs to be kept in check [Adirondack Daily Enterprise / Ira Weinberg]
Artificial intelligence could lead to an Orwellian future if laws to protect the public aren’t enacted soon, according to Microsoft President Brad Smith. [LiveScience / Stephanie Pappas]
Germany warns: AI arms race already underway [DW / Richard Walker]
We might have AI-powered murder drones to worry about now, a U.N. report suggests [Mic / AJ Dellinger] COMMENTARY: If a killer robot were used, would we know? [Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists / Zachary Kallenborn]

Read the full roundup here, here, here and here.


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