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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The Fall of Mosul One Year Later

IS parade through Mosul in June 2014. (Associated Press photo)

I have been spending a lot of time over the past few days thinking about the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State. While I have no particular attachment to Mosul, I cannot help but realize that its capture by the Islamic State has been nothing less than world changing. Looking back, its significance is undeniable.

Let’s examine the the world we lived in before IS captured Mosul:

  1. Nouri al-Malaki was Prime Minister of Iraq
  2. IS was still calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Da’ash/Daesh moniker was only used by Arabs
  3. Few, if any, maps of the territory controlled by the IS were being produced for consumption on the internet
  4. There were no propaganda videos of IS beheadings
  5. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had made no public appearances
  6. There were no photos of IS driving American Humvees or firing American artillery
  7. Kirkuk was not under Kurdish control
  8. There were no Americans or other Westerners volunteering for Kurdish militias
  9. Iran was not openly sending advisors and military hardware to Iraq and their influence was less overt
  10. There were no American military in Iraq except for the embassy complex
  11. The general Americans public were not aware of IS unless they had read about them in the context of being an AQ splinter group

These are just a few observations from an American 7,000 miles away. I would be very interested to see a list like this made by an Iraqi to understand better how the fall of Mosul changed life for Iraqis—both inside and outside of IS territory. But looking at this list, it’s obvious that the fall of the Mosul was the defining moment for IS as we know it today.

It’s telling that on the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul, the IS of today is the most famous and easily recognizable IS. Like all important moments in history, the world before it is almost hard to imagine.

Before the fall of Mosul, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still ran Iraq with a Saddam-esque authoritarianism. A year ago Western journalists were questioning the brutal treatment of protestors and the general Western sentiment seemed that it was time for Maliki to go, should Iraq become an even quasi-democratic state. Today, Haider Abadi is Prime Minister and that strong leadership is gone. The Iraq of today is a failed state with a central government that can barely maneuver its military to crush dissent, let alone battle organized enemies.

It’s also important to note that a year ago, “IS” wasn’t “IS”. This is relevant because the battle for what this group is to be called has been waging ever since. Before the fall of Mosul there were few Muslims asking Westerners not to use the term “Islamic” to describe the group because few Westerners did. When they were mentioned at all in the West it was strictly as ISIL/ISIS much as al-Qaida is called AQ by Beltway insiders. But even that’s changed in the last year as AQ lost stature. Today, al-Qaida is more often referred to as Nusra or even the mysterious “Khorasan group” as AQ central becomes less in control of global jihadism.

Presently, those who refuse to use the title “Islamic State” or even its acronyms call it Da’ash or Daesh. It is curious that this has become a slur against the group, because it is the exact same thing as calling it ISIS except in Arabic. Even senior government leaders have dropped ISIL for Daesh. Oh, the power of words! If you know of any examples of organizations the US government has refused to name, please let me know in the comments because it seems unprecedented. It’s as if IS is Voldemort and is the group that must not be named. Ironically, I imagine this sort of self-censorship of names tends to lead to the exact opposite of its intention: it provides more power to the group in the psyche of the person who wishes to diminish that power.

But if anything comes close to holding as much power as words, it might be maps. Remember a time before those with an interest in geography and current events could visualize a map of IS territory? It existed one year ago. Now these maps are constantly being shared on social media and blogs and even make it onto the major news networks whenever there is a significant change in these perceived borders.

Recent maps of IS territory from The Atlantic, BBC, and Institute for the Study of War

Recent maps of IS territory from The Atlantic, BBC, and Institute for the Study of War

Yet maps such as the ones above have something in common. Their borders are all defined as a stringy web of roads and population centers. They look more like a game of cat’s cradle than a familiar political map. One must realize that it’s not as if those empty spots in the deserts of Western Iraq or Eastern Syria are controlled by their respective governments. They’re just generally empty. Does that mean they are not in IS territory? Of course not. These maps are not accurate representations of IS-held territory, at least not in the way borders are traditionally drawn. By presenting IS in this manner it undermines their power by both refusing to acknowledge them a state with clear borders and by making them look weaker (as if to say this puny so-called Islamic State only controls a few roads.) But imagine if the porous borders of the Southwest United States or the empty arctic were drawn in this fashion—they would look very similar.

I live in one of those white areas and can attest I haven't seen federal government forces in months

I live in one of those white areas in the West and can attest that I haven’t seen federal government forces in months. (Not shown: Wilayat Alaska and Wilayat Hawaii)

If only it were just maps of IS that we were seeing more of these days. Unfortunately, it’s not. One year ago there were no IS beheading videos. Imagine that for a moment: a world in which we lived our lives without seeing videos of American aid workers being brutally murdered after a masked Briton speaks directly to the President and us. These videos started shortly after the Pentagon resumed a bombing campaign in Iraq after withdrawing from Iraq two and a half years earlier. We will return to that in a moment, but another type of propaganda we had not seen before the fall of Mosul was the public appearance of the self-appointed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Up until then, essentially the only image we had of Baghdadi was a mugshot from his time at the Camp Bucca military prison in Iraq. But after Mosul’s fall, Baghdadi felt comfortable enough to appear in public (however, this has been his sole public appearance as far as we know.)

Another image we had not seen in a pre-fall of Mosul world was that of American Humvees and military equipment being captured by our enemies en masse. The images of hundreds of millions of dollars of American hardware being driven in IS parades shocked the nation. Dismally, many more Humvees and other equipment has been captured by IS since then, especially during the recent fall of Ramadi.

Worse yet, Humvees have turned out to be perfect weapons for IS. This might surprise many Americans (especially veterans) who know that the Cold War-designed Humvee had many flaws as a gun truck in Iraq. These flaws resulted in the uparmor program to better protect the soft-skinned vehicles from IED/VBIED and ambushes raising the purchase price from $70,000 to $220,000 each. Despite the upgraded armor, the vehicles still suffered from a design flaw in that they were low and wide which meant that explosions from below devastated the vehicle and its occupants. Worse still, the increased weight increased the instances of stuck vehicles and (often fatal) roll overs.

So the Pentagon quickly started replacing its Humvees with two million dollar MRAPs (seen recently on an American city street with a race riot near you) and the Humvees were given to our Iraqi military counterparts who likely experienced all the same problems the Americans did. Yet it was IS who found an ingenious use for them as armored guided bombs. As VBIEDs, the Humvees’ armor is perfect to keep its suicide driver alive until he hits his target.

But while images of the Islamic State in these forms evoke visceral reactions from many Americans, less understood, I think, by the general American public is that before the fall of Mosul many areas now under Kurdish control in Northern Iraq (and Syria) were not Kurdish before. Indeed, in a pre-IS Northern Iraq the Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces sometimes had border disputes and it seemed a state of cold peace was slowly coming to a boil. After those ISF units fled Northern Iraq during the fall of Mosul, the Kurds deftly used the power vacuum in the area to move into areas they had wanted to control for decades, such as Kirkuk. It is unlikely they will ever willing gives these areas “back” to Iraq. While the Kurds and IS continue to fight in both Iraq and Syria, in some ways IS did more for the Kurds than two and a half decades of US support.

Continuing on the topic of the Kurds, today I think more Americans know about Kurdish militias than ever before thanks to the fall of Mosul and the hot new trend of joining the YPG, or the People’s Protection Units in order to get a chance to shoot at IS fighters. Note that the YPG is from Rojava, Syria, and does not operate in Iraq, yet still this was not commonplace until after the fall of Mosul and IS really became relevant to Americans. On the other hand another Kurdish militia, the PKK, does operate in Iraq. But it has not been as popular since it is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and leans even more Red than the YPG.

British actor Michael Enright dressed as a YPG fighter in Syria (AP Photo)

British actor Michael Enright dressed as a YPG fighter in Syria (AP Photo)

But it’s not just the Kurds who have benefited from IS gains in Iraq. Because of the terrible security situation and a reluctance from the US to entangle itself in Iraq again, Iran has brilliantly stepped up to be Iraq’s savior. While it is no secret that Iran has been providing weapons and training to Shia fighters in Iraq since the US invasion, in the post-Mosul fall world Iran can openly send Revolutionary Guard advisors, the most prominent being Major General Qasem Solemani, commander of the Quds Force (Iranian foreign special operations.)

Unlike their American counterparts, the Iranians are so involved in anti-IS operations that some of their top commanders have been killed in action. Perhaps the best example of overt Iranian influence in Baghdad is a billboard of both the late Ayatollah Khomeinei and current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the same square that Americans famously removed a statue of Saddam Hussein during the invasion. The billboard advertises Iran-backed Shia militias, without whom the “liberation” of Tikrit would not have been possible—and another example of Iran openly filling the security vacuum in Iraq.

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Billboard of Khamenei and Khomeinei advertising Shia militias in Baghdad (Liz Sly/Washington Post photo)

Obviously, Americans aren’t only in the region in Kurdish units. Today, there are 3,550 American troops in Iraq with more surely on the way. It might be hard to remember, especially in the frame of the entire Iraq war from 2003 to today, but for two and a half years the United States military was effectively out of Iraq. And since the fall of Mosul, they are back and will likely remain for years. Before Mosul, the Iraq war was over. Today, the forever war continues.

(New York Times graphic)

(New York Times graphic)

Lastly, it is impossible to forget that in our post-Mosul fall world most people are aware of IS. This is probably my most salient point. Before the fall of Mosul IS was just ISIL—a successor to AQI and an AQ splinter group. If you had said that sentence aloud to someone at a party using those acronyms, very few would know what you were talking about. But today there are very few people who haven’t heard of ISIS or the Islamic State (don’t you envy them?)

Looking back, I think the fall of Mosul was a defining moment not just for IS, but for the region and even the world. In the year that has passed since then, what was once unthinkable is now commonplace. Where will we be one year from now?