The growing role of contractors in the ‘drone war’

This post was published in Analisi Difesa. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


ROME, (BM) – In recent weeks Turkish and Israeli drones purchased by the Azeris have wreaked havoc on Armenian tanks, artillery, and infantry in the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region. However, scenarios similar to video games have been taking place for some time now on numerous battlefields.

For now, in the attack drone sector, the leading players are still governments, but increasingly so-called “violent non-state actors” [VNSA] and private companies are entering it decisively. The former more or less autonomously, the latter based on specific institutional needs and wishes. In particular, the United States and the United Kingdom, which, faced with the growing need to use their drones, cannot cope with the lack of pilots except by resorting to contractors. The war’s privatization is also making room for itself in this area, which, due to the extreme sensitivity that characterizes it, deserves even greater attention.

Read more: Top 5 best combat drones [UAVs] in the world

From Washington…

As for private companies’ involvement in operations with unmanned aerial systems, we must go back to at least 2015. The US Armed Forces had hired hundreds of analysts to support the military in evaluating the registrations from unmanned aircraft. Long-term surveillance of presumed high-profile targets and their entourages, based on near-real-time images or single closer shots, eventually provided information to special or conventional forces for use in the field.

With the rise of the Islamic State, drones and spy planes have even sent more than 1,100 hours of video recordings per day to be analyzed, leading the Pentagon to expand contractors’ use considerably. A high-value business in which about one in ten people involved was a private individual. According to them, mainly ex-soldiers had more experience than their colleagues in uniform who frequently changed positions. Therefore, they believed they had particular skills to advertise on social networks and sites such as LinkedIn; someone has even gone so far as to indicate that they have assisted in the elimination/capture of High-Value Targets.

Among the companies involved a mix of large defense suppliers and smaller companies that dealt with technology and intelligence, offering image analysis and a whole range of other services ranging from logistics to translations.

Think of Zel Technologies providing more than 100 analyzes to the Air Force Special Operations Command for a $ 12 million contract in the first year alone. MacAulay-Brown in charge of supporting full-time analysis and tracking operations, and L-3 Communications, which, again in 2010, had won a five-year contract worth 155 million with the Special Operations Command.

And again, BAE Systems and Booz Allen Hamilton, Edward Snowden’s former employer. In recent years, the situation has evolved considerably. In mid-August, it emerged that in Camp Simba, Kenya, the Pentagon is using private companies, not only for analysis but also for the direct collection of material to conduct airstrikes against al-Shabab militiamen in Somalia.

At the US base in Manda Bay, private surveillance aircraft take off to collect data, images, and information on areas destined to attacked or targeted homicides carried out with unmanned aerial systems [UAS].

Among these aircraft stands out a Gulfstream owned by the companies AC-1425 LLC and Priority 1 Holdings LLC, a company with several former CIA officials at its top and maintains close links with the world of the stars and stripes defense.

From the company website, it emerges that its aerial activities carried out by the subsidiary AIRtec Inc. brought the company contracts worth more than 10 million dollars. AIRtec Inc. does modifications to aircraft and a whole series of airborne services – intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. For government customers.

The Gulfstream in question was purchased by Priority 1 in 2018 and was later modified by AIRtec, which equipped it with unique systems for the collection of high-quality data and images, both day and night.

Some of the companies operating in Manda Bay were hired as part of the Big Safari, management, direction, and control program to acquire unique weapon systems derived from existing aircraft and systems, activated by the USAF in 1952.

A program that has assigned them about 158 ​​billion since 2008 is characterizing by tendering procedures that allow them to designate the contractor, bypassing the routine tender procedures directly. Iter, therefore more opaque, which can award contracts to companies run by former military and intelligence officials with the right connections.

One of these would be L3Harris Technologies, which in the last year obtained 4 billion and whose employees were the two contractors who died in the January attack on Manda Bay, the pilots of the surveillance aircraft destroyed in the same attack.

AEVEX Aerospace is also present at the Kenyan base, always supplying a full range of airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance solutions. In 2019 it obtained federal contracts for $ 44 million, and, recently, according to the Africa Intelligence website, it would also have been awarded a contract for the supply of pilots for the drones of the USAF base in Agadez, Niger. At least two of its aircraft have been sighted in Manda Bay: a helicopter and a Pilatus plane.

… and London

The UK has also relied on PMSCs. To fly its drones, London resorted to the Australian Air Force to obtain “loan” pilots and General Atomics, manufacturer of the Predators and MQ9 Reaper. The Californian company has entered into a contract to supply personnel to carry out the take-off and landing operations of British attack drones in the Middle East, presumably deployed at Ali Al-Salem airbase, Kuwait.

Starting in June, for the first time since 2008, when the United Kingdom began using strike drones, the RAF allowed civilians to participate directly in the deployment of its Reaper against what remains of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Private pilots, highly trained and with security clearances, are employed as LREs – recovery and launch elements – at the airport where the drones are stationed. They control the Reaper from take-off to an altitude of approximately 3,000 feet – 915 meters – and then pass commands to RAF personnel, located in the United Kingdom [13th Squadron at Waddington Base, Lincolnshire] or the United States [39th Squadron at the base of Creech, Nevada] for missions that can last up to 15 hours. Civilians then resume control of the drone at about 5,000 feet – 1524 m – for landing.

Thanks to this system, seven crews of Her Majesty’s Air Force – 21 people – were taken over from “advanced positions” to be employed elsewhere.

Drone pilot: exhausting work

Theoretically, the life of a drone pilot – 18xs qualification – should be comfortable and relaxed compared to those who operate on the front line: no distant countries, dusty trenches, inconvenience, or enemy attacks.

Still, being part of the staff assigned to a remotely piloted aircraft is an exhausting assignment. So much so that the number of drivers who leave the service has reached record levels for various reasons.

First of all, excess work. 18xs “fly” 900-1,800 hours a year, compared to a maximum of 300 for a typical pilot. For the past 7-8 years, they have worked 6/7 days a week for twelve hours a day. The break that belongs to them [1-2 days] is not sufficient for their recovery or to take care of the family.

The type of work is frustrating. Shut up for hours in a command container to know and face their victims, sometimes despised by colleagues at the controls of combat aircraft and considered “second-class pilots.”

There is also a lack of training and career opportunities and wages that are up to 2-4 times lower than those offered by individuals. This fact essentially makes the Air Force a breeding ground for government contractors.

According to a 2011 study, all this causes widespread discontent, nervousness, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances in about half of the operators, with consequent repercussions on the emotional, relational, and family sphere. In severe cases, even post-traumatic stress syndrome [PTSD].

Pilots and sensor operators ask for transfers to other assignments, weapons, or the Air National Guard or permanently leave the service. Air Combat Command is worried about replacing 30% a year due to the burnout or attrition syndrome they are subjecting to.

A chronic and alarming shortage had become increasingly pronounced since September 11, when the American Armed Forces began to focus on drones considerably and have substantial repercussions on pilots and sensor operators still in service. Their commitment, growing but which, however, at least since 2016, has not been accompanied by an appreciable reintegration of drivers.

Of the 1,652 that the Air Force was authorized to dispose of in 2019, only 1,320 were reached; a gap of 20% does not differ much from that of 22% in 2015 when there were only 908 pilots in service.

As far as sensor operators are concerned, the situation is even more critical. From a gap of 10% in 2016, it reached 28% in 2019. In fact, against an authorized growth of up to 1,277 operators, their number has remained substantially unchanged at 919.

All this is remedying by improving the staff’s conditions currently in service by granting incentives, hijacking airplane pilots, and resorting to contractor companies.

The Royal Air Force, to ensure the operation of its drones despite the scarcity of pilots and the worrying level of stress of those in service, the Royal Air Force had to include pilots of the Australian Air Force and contractors among its ranks. In addition to deploying its personnel more effectively in combat, it will also carry on its future drone program worth 1.1 billion pounds.

London is expanding its fleet from the current 9 Reaper to 16 Protector (pictured above). With an improvement in maintenance conditions of those in service and incentives, it should collect the 45 crews necessary to give breath to the program by the end of 2020.

Violent non-state actors

It is not just governments or their appointees that use attack drones; more and more violent non-state actors have improperly entered the club. The first known attempt to arm a drone dates back to 1994 when the Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo attempted to spray sarin gas from a specially designed drone.

There were also numerous evaluations carried out by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda on the possibility of striking with this system: at the G8 in Genoa with an explosive drone, the British Parliament with a drone loaded with anthrax in 2002 and again, in 2008 with three explosive drones against the Capitol, Pentagon, and FBI.

The Kurdish PKK has been dealing with armed drones since at least 2016. In August 2017, an outpost of the Turkish army was hit, injuring two soldiers in the first attack. A series of incidents followed, including the destruction of an ammunition depot in Semdinli, Turkey, which cost the lives of 7 Ankara soldiers in November 2018, and a dozen attacks carried out in just two weeks in March 2019.

On October 12, 2016, two Kurdish special forces operators have been killed, while two Frenchmen were injured by an Islamic State drone-trap explosion in Iraq.

As for a real ISIS attack, we must wait until January 2017, in Mosul: a bomb dropped on an Iraqi army position. Numerous attacks with small commercial drones and quadcopters followed, which considerably slowed the advance of anti-ISIS troops. According to the Caliphate propaganda, the toll of attacks carried out between 6 and 8 February 2017 would have been 14 dead and 25 wounded.

An Iraqi Abrams tank and American special forces also ended up in the black flags’ crosshairs, the latter having come under enemy air attack for the first time in 65 years – since the Korean War. Similar operations were also conducted in Syria, in particular against the Russian area base of Khmeimim. Several swarms of drones attacked it repeatedly, killing two Moscow soldiers and destroying seven aircraft in 2018.

Also, in 2018, a group of Venezuelan deserters attempted to assassinate President Nicolás Maduro. During a rally in Caracas, two commercial drones loaded with one kilo of C-4 explosives each exploded, injuring seven people.

Mexican narcos have been building and using armed drones since 2017. On July 25, 2020, Mexican authorities found about two dozen quadcopters in an abandoned vehicle in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán. Drones, presumably from the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación [CJNG], to which Tupperware-type containers filled with C4 and metal balls were applied to hit exponents of rival cartels, in particular, that of Santa Rosa de Lima.

In January 2019, Houthi rebels killed Brigadier General Saleh Tammah, Yemeni intelligence chief, and six other senior officers of the armed forces with a drone. Between May and August of the same year, pro-Iranian rebels carried out over 50 Saudi Arabia attacks. However, the most unusual episode was the attack on the Saudi frigate Al Madinah, which took place in the Red Sea in January 2017.

Conducted with a suicidal maritime drone and with a toll of two sailors killed and three wounded, it would represent the first episode of its kind.

On November 1, 2020, the Taliban killed four guards at the governor’s compound of Kunduz province. If the use of an explosive device dropped from a drone is confirmed, it could be considered the first public employment by the Koranic students who, until now, had used them for reconnaissance and propaganda. Another person had been killed at the same compound as early as May, presumably by another drone. However, what emerges is the proliferation of a new attack tactic in the country that could have serious consequences.

While most attacks have had relatively modest budgets, VNSAs can do very significant damage with drones. The Donbas separatists [or the Russians?] Reportedly managed to drop a thermite grenade on the Balakliya ammunition depot. Drone or act of sabotage as reported by Kyiv, the attack caused the detonation of 83,000 tons of ammunition, quantifiable in damages of 1 billion dollars.

Similarly, on September 14, 2019, the Houthi rebels (or the Iranians?) Allegedly attacked the oil facilities of the Saudi company Aramco in Abqaib and Khurais with about thirty drones. An attack that caused the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars a day, halving Saudi production capacity and forcing Ryad to use its oil reserves to guarantee exports.


The use of attack drones by Washington, initiated by the CIA in October 2001, has since 2013 been extended to the Pentagon. From 2004 to today, the United States has conducted at least 14,000 attacks between Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, eliminating between 8,800-16,900 people, including 910-2,200 civilians.

Now in its third presidential administration, their use shows no signs of diminishing, indeed. President Trump eliminated some limitations by giving greater freedom – the possibility of striking even in countries where the US is not militarily engaged. Trump allowed attacks of secondary targets, not to publish the number of civilian victims and fewer authorizations to demand – from an already opaque and unregulated mechanism, but it has also considerably increased attacks.

This above all in Somalia where, after the attack Manda Bay in which two contractors and an American soldier were killed, the strikes were 42 in mid-2020; compared to 63 in all of 2019. In recent weeks, the United States trying to extend its range of action within Kenya, to target al-Shabab even during their occasional operations in the country, both from an offensive and defensive perspective.

The involvement of contractors in combat drone operations is hugely controversial. Although they can only take decisions of a technical nature, relating to the collection of information or the operation of the drone, leaving the military [legitimate fighters] “pulling the trigger,” detractors argue that the contractors have entered the so-called “kill chain” anyway. In fact, by providing information used in the attacks, they would still take part directly in the hostilities and therefore be considered illegitimate fighters.

The U.S. Africa Command claims, instead, that the use of contractors for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations does not include concern so-called “kinetic” situations, which involve the use of lethal force, and is therefore legal. According to professor Sean McFate, former contractor, “the ethical standard of who can pull the trigger has been progressively eroding over the last 30 years.”

In 2015, on the occasion of first collaborations, the possibility of a more significant role for contractors for the years to come was raised, according to a precise plan to meet growing needs. According to Chris Style, former military and current private operator, such an evolution “is quite inevitable” and “a natural progression.

Therefore, the concern is that they may get to pull the trigger or that their recruitment, selection, and management process does not occur correctly and outside the military command chain is high. Just as drones have also allowed less rich and powerful countries to have the means for aerial domination, this is equally true for violent state actors.

Indeed, this use on their part is much more widespread, varied, and sophisticated than had been previously thought. UAVs have always been considering exclusively military-type platforms, neglecting those of a hobby or commercial nature. In this way, drones’ diffusion was limited to viewing only three Middle Eastern terrorist groups sponsored by Iran: Hezbollah, Hamas, and Houthi rebels. They are extending the typologies considered. However, the number includes at least 40 different groups spread over all continents.

Those mainly used by VNSAs are civil, hobby, or commercial drones, due to their accessibility [they do not require authorizations], affordability [a few hundred dollars], and ease of use [minimum technical or infrastructural requirements].

They represent a new and dangerous opportunity for these groups and a more significant challenge for the security forces. FBI Director Christopher Wray told the US Senate of intense interest from terrorist organizations in their use and, given the frequency of use abroad, the threat is expecting to become tangible in the United States as well…


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