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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 are known to have manufactured operational UCAVs as of 2019. As of 2022, the Ukrainian group Aerorozvidka have built strike-capable drones and used them in combat.
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. Drones strikes are used for targeted killings by several countries.
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.
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.
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 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.
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."
See also: Disposition Matrix
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.
Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, stated 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." The use of drone strikes by the United States substantially reduces the number of US casualties. The US increased the use of drone strikes significantly during Obama's presidency compared to Bush's. With help from the Pine Gap joint defense facility, which locates targets by intercepting radio signals, the US is double-tap drone striking.
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."
After US president Donald Trump had heavily increased drone strikes by over 400% and limited civilian oversight, his successor Joe Biden reversed course. Under Biden, drone strikes reportedly hit a 20-year low and were heavily limited. However, a Biden administration drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan in August 2021 killed 10 civilians, including seven children.
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.
Proponents of drone strikes assert that drone strikes are largely effective in targeting specific combatants. 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. 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.
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.
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."
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.
During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, UCAVs have been used extensively by the Azerbaijani Army against the Armenian Army. These UCAVs included 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.
See also: List of drone strikes in Afghanistan, List of drone strikes in Yemen, Drone strikes in Pakistan, List of drone strikes in Pakistan, and American military intervention in Somalia (2007–present)