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A drone strike is an attack by one or more unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) or weaponized commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Only the United States, Israel, China, Iran, Italy, India, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, and Poland are known to have manufactured operational UCAV as of 2019.
Drone attacks can be conducted by commercial UCAVs dropping bombs, firing a missile, or crashing into a target. 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, but drone warfare has increasingly been deployed by Turkey and Azerbaijan.
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. Drone attacks can be conducted by commercial UCAVs dropping bombs, firing a missile, or crashing into a target. Commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be weaponized by being loaded with dangerous payloads and then crashed into vulnerable targets or detonated above them. They can also drop hand grenades or other munitions. Payloads could include explosives, shrapnel, chemical, radiological or biological hazards. Multiple drones may attack simultaneously in a so-called "drone swarm attack".
Anti-UAV systems are being developed by states to counter the threat of drone strikes. 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."
The Economist has cited Azerbaijan's highly effective use of drones in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict 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.
United States drone strikes
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.
However, Ben Emmerson, special investigator for the United Nations Human Rights Council, said that U.S. drone strikes may have violated international humanitarian law. 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." In the United States drone strikes are used to lessen the number of casualties since there is no one that has to physically fight in combat. Being able to send drones to fight reduces the number of American lives lost substantially. The U.S had increased the use of drone strikes significantly during Obama's presidency compared to Bush's.With the help from joint defense facility at Pine Gap, which locates targets by intercepting radio signals, the U.S. is double-tap drone striking.
In August 2018, Al Jazeera reported that a Saudi Arabian-led coalition "battling Houthi rebels [in Yemen] secured secret deals with al-Qaeda in Yemen and recruited hundreds of the 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."
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 counterterrorism efforts show that militants cease communication and attack planning to avoid detection and targeting.
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.
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.
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."
Azerbaijan drone strikes
During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, UCAVs have been used extensively by Azerbaijan against the de facto Republic of Artsakh. These UCAVs include Israeli IAI Harops and Turkish Bayraktar TB2s. 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.
Notable drone strikes
- Damadola airstrike
- Datta Khel airstrike
- 2009 Makin airstrike
- Miramshah airstrike
- Anad base drone strike
- 2019 Abqaiq-Khurais attack
- 2020 Baghdad International Airport airstrike
Strikes using small UAVs
- Swarm drone attacks on Khmeimim Air Base
- Caracas drone attack, allegedly by weaponized commercial drones, while Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela, was addressing the Bolivarian National Guard.
Notable deaths from drone strikes
- Abdul Rauf (Taliban governor)
- Abdul Rauf Aliza
- Abdulrahman al-Awlaki
- Abu Khayr al-Masri
- Abu Muslim al-Turkmani
- Abu Umar al-Tunisi
- Ali Awni al-Harzi
- Anwar al-Awlaki
- Fahd al-Quso
- Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari
- Ibrahim Sulayman Muhammad Arbaysh
- Jihadi John
- Junaid Hussain
- Kamal Derwish
- Mangal Bagh
- Mohammed Atef
- Muhsin al-Fadhli
- Nasir al-Wuhayshi
- Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi
- Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi
- Qasem Soleimani
- Said Ali al-Shihri
- Saleh Ali al-Sammad
- Sally-Anne Jones
- Samir Khan
- Anti-aircraft warfare § AUDS
- Public opinion about US drone attacks
- Civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes
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