Iraq: The New Drone Capital of the World

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DoD photo by Tech. Sergeant Sabrina Johnson, U.S. Air Force

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), have become sort of the ubiquitous symbol of the war formerly known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT). While officially in use by the United States since the Vietnam War, they entered American public consciousness during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bore the brunt of American offensive operations in other realms of “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) like Pakistan and Yemen, mostly against unarmored mounted and dismounted targets without anti-air capability. As such, they have become the near-perfect weapon for counter-terrorism (i.e. killing high-value targets) in the 21st Century.

In popular culture, they were featured in 2003’s Terminator 3, chasing John Connor and Claire Danes down the hallways of Skynet and are a useful and easy to obtain kill streak reward in the Call of Duty video game franchise. Additionally, in the past few years articles warning of the dangers of their use by local police have become more common.

Today, Iraq may be the drone capital of the world with drones in its skies currently operated by the US, UK, Australia, Iran, Islamic State, and of course the Iraqi military itself. It is difficult to find accurate numbers (if any numbers at all) of drone sorties flown by these actors and compare them to other countries, but if Iraq is not the drone capital by volume then surely its diverse drone community makes it the de facto capital.

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Drones in popular culture: a screenshot from Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Coffee With Games photo)

American Drones

Ironically, the US invaded Iraq in 2003 to start flying drones there in part because of the perceived threat of Iraqi drones. Former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell’s infamous address to the United Nations was about more than just aluminum tubes. The capabilities of Iraq’s drone program was specifically addressed. While Powell showed a slide of an American AAI RQ-2 Pioneer drone painted in desert camouflage, he said:

Iraq has been working on a variety of UAVs for more than a decade. This is just illustrative of what a UAV would look like. This effort has included attempts to modify for unmanned flight the MiG-21 and with greater success an aircraft called the L-29. However, Iraq is now concentrating not on these airplanes, but on developing and testing smaller UAVs, such as this. UAVs are well suited for dispensing chemical and biological weapons. There is ample evidence that Iraq has dedicated much effort to developing and testing spray devices that could be adapted for UAVs.

In hindsight, Iraq’s drone program was not much of a threat to anyone and today it is the US’s drone program that is routinely condemned by much of the world. Nonetheless, it is an interesting tidbit of history that the invasion of Iraq and subsequent global ramp up of drone usage was in part justified by the threat of drones themselves.

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Slide from Powell’s address to the United Nations showing an American drone to represent the threat of Iraqi drones (YouTube)

During OIF/OEF the General Atomics MQ-1 A.K.A. “Predator” practically became a household name. So beloved by the DoD, its big brother, the MQ-9 “Reaper” is in some instances taking the place of piloted F-16s. One wing in the Air National Guard is completely replacing their F-16s with the MQ-9s. Indeed, drone usage by the US has become so commonplace in Pakistan that the tell-tale buzz noise they produce—a continuous droning sound, if you will—keeps the people who live in areas frequented by drone strikes in a perpetual state of anxiety and fear. That is the essence of air power in a nutshell.

After the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in December, 2011, the drones went with them. But in December 2013 and again in May 2014, even before the fall of Ramadi and Mosul to IS, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested armed drones and even conceded in the second request that US troops be the ones piloting them—a humble move from the man who refused to allow immune-from-Iraqi-prosecution US troops in his country past the agreed December 31, 2011 deadline. Maliki’s request was initially denied—either to prevent the US from returning to Iraq indefinitely or to snub Maliki (or maybe a little from column A and a little from column B.) But by June of 2014 the Pentagon had confirmed that armed US drones, piloted by Americans, were indeed in Iraq, so the Obama administration changed its mind pretty quickly.

One indication of how critical drones had become to the GWOT/OCO is that in early 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new medal for drone pilots and lethal cyber operators that would rank higher than the Bronze Star.  The award was subsequently nixed by his successor, Chuck Hagel, after some public concern, mostly associated with its precedence.

However, it is not just the military (and CIA) that are flying drones overseas. Like many traditional military roles, as troops leave the theater of operations as directed by the DoD, civilian contractors replace them. In Iraq, contractors piloting drones are making $225,000 or more a year. To try and compete with the private sector, the Air Force is now offering $125,000 critical skill retention bonuses to RPA pilots to keep them.

British Drones

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Royal Air Force MQ-9 Reaper (Unknown Photographer)

Of course it’s not only the Americans who are back in Iraq operating drones. The British are flying ISR drones in Iraq, notably in support of French warplanes as they bombed IS in retaliation for the November 2015 Paris attacks. The British have the armed MQ-9 Reapers in Iraq, but Cameron has said that the RAF will not participate in air strikes without authorization from Parliament.

Australian Drones

Never ones to miss an American war, even the second or third time around, the Australian pilots are also flying the hunter/killer Reapers in Iraq. However, they are flying American Reapers as attachments to the USAF’s 432d Operations Group out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, but this role will likely expand as Australia has purchased its own Reapers from the United States.

Australia’s involvement in the drone war against IS in Iraq is certainly an interesting example of weird, post-modern warfare: Australian pilots are piloting American drones in Iraq from Nevada.

Iranian Drones

Many were surprised last year at Iran’s announcement that it was deploying drones to Iraq. But much like the US, this is not Iran’s first unmanned aerial rodeo in Iraq. In fact, Iran’s drone program was actually born during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

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Iranian Karrar vs German V1

Iran has a pretty impressive (in number of varieties) fleet of drones, from the aging Mohajer developed during the Iran-Iraq war to the modern Fotros based on the Predator. However, Some of their drones look a bit . . .  unsophisticated. For example, the Karrar looks a lot like a 1940s-era German V1 rocket.  And their seemingly most sophisticated drone, based on a captured American Lockeed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, is probably just a mock-up and not a fully functional copy of the CIA’s stealth drone, even after several years to backwards-engineer it.

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Iranian Fotros drone (YouTube)

Drones of the Islamic State

If Iranian drones in Iraq surprise you, then you are going to love the drones of the Islamic State. IS too is flying drones in Iraq, but not with the same capabilities as the US and its allies or even Iran. Essentially, what IS is using are civilian remote controlled aircraft—the same toys many received for Christmas in the US this year. But that has not stopped the US and its allies from targeting these RPAs in its airstrikes.

Last March, OIR spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren described an airstrike on an IS drone:

The drone was not shot down. We observed it flying for approximately 20 minutes. We observed it land. We observed the enemy place the drone in the trunk of a car and we struck the car, destroying both the vehicle and the model airplane in the trunk.

He continued:

To my knowledge this is the first time we’ve observed ISIL using these types of equipment.

Recently, three more drones were targeted. While IS may be using “Amazon.com” drones, that isn’t stopping them from getting creative. Pictures are popping up on the internet of downed drones reportedly piloted by IS—some with explosives attached to them. If (admittedly a big if) these drone-borne IEDs become as effective as their US-Humvee-turned-VBIEDs, the enemies of IS will have a significant new threat to deal with.

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IS Drone (Friends of YPG YPJ Photo)

Iraqi Drones

Obviously Iraq is still struggling with some sovereignty issues when it comes to its airspace and the drones flying in it. But that does not mean that Iraq’s fledging air force is without its own RPAs.

Iraq was trained to use and operates the small, hand-thrown AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven drones favored by American infantry companies. But the lack of armament and short range of the Raven, combined with the imminent threat of losing half of their territory to IS, resulted in the Iraqi government requesting more sophisticated drones like Predators and Reapers. As noted earlier, the US denied these requests.

Even though the US came back to Iraq and started flying its own drone missions, Iraq had still been looking for a drone supplier for its own air force. It is apparent now that an agreement was made with China to buy the Caihong (Rainbow)-4 or CH-4. It is unknown how many Iraq will be buying, but as of the sixth of this month, the Rainbow has made its first combat airstrike against an IS position.

Iraq’s need for armed drones is not likely to diminish in the near future, so it could be an opportunity for China, who has already sold CH-3s to Nigeria to use in operations against Boko Haram.

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Iraqi Air Force CH-4 (Iraqi Ministry of Defense Photo)

Iraq Wars Episode II: Attack of the Drones

There are currently a lot of drones in Iraq and it looks like soon there will be more. OIR partners Canada, Netherlands and Jordan have requested drones from the US. Earlier this year, Canada restarted its attempt to acquire a squadron of Predators and if successful, they will be operational by 2021. Northrop Grumman offered to sell Canada the strictly-surveillance RQ-4 Global Hawk specifically for arctic operations, but Canada declined. Everyone wants the hunter/killers.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force sent pilots to the US to train on Reapers this year even before they ordered any aircraft. The Netherlands expects full operational capacity of their now-ordered Reapers in late 2017. Whether or not they will deploy to Iraq or not is not clear, but why order armed drones if you are not going to use them?

Jordan, who famously bombed IS targets earlier this year, has too attempted to buy drones from the US but like Iraq has also been rebuked. And, like Iraq, they turned elsewhere. Somewhat astonishingly, Israel has agreed to provide Jordan with 12 of its flagship Heron TPs and another dozen Elbit Systems Skylarks.

Today, Iraq is home to not only its own drone program, but also the drones of at least three other countries, one quasi-state, foreign operated drones piloted by different foreigners, and more countries looking to jump into the fight. In a country with a war that seemingly no one wants to fight on the ground, Iraq is the new drone capital of the world.

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