Ground Zero in the Robot Air War

An Iraqi drone’s mistaken killing of Shiite fighters is just the latest milestone over Iraq and Syria, where at least seven countries have deployed drones. It’s only going to get worse.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Just three months after Baghdad publicly revealed its first Chinese-made CH-4 drones and one month after the drones launched their first missiles at enemy forces in Iraq, a CH-4 mistakenly fired on pro-government militia fighters, killing nine and wounding 14.

The January “friendly fire” incident marks a tragic but arguably inevitable milestone for one of the world’s newest drone powers in a region that’s becoming the center of an expanding robot air war. Iraq and Syria are a proving ground for the drone warriors of the chaotic near-future.

No fewer than seven countries have deployed drones in Iraq and Syria—the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Russia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. And that’s not counting the various rebel and militant groups, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State, that have acquired off-the-shelf quadcopters and other consumer robots, and sent them on recon missions over enemy lines or into the air over their own forces for propaganda photoshoots.

The U.S., U.K., Israeli, and Iraqi drones are armed. Likewise, some armed groups have strapped explosives to their own small drones, transforming them into semi-autonomous flying bombs.

The American and British drone-control crews work closely together—and so, presumably, do the Iranian, Russian, and Syrian robot operators. But with so many different drones from so many different countries pursuing largely separate but occasionally overlapping missions, the war in Iraq and Syria is becoming something of a drone free-for-all.

Iraq’s propeller-driven CH-4, unveiled during a publicity tour of one of Baghdad’s air bases by Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi, is roughly the size of a Cessna private plane. It’s Beijing’s cheaper, easier-to-acquire answer to America’s iconic Predator, the robot that launched the current drone war when, in its unarmed form, it deployed to the Bosnia conflict in 1995.

Six years later, in October 2001, the first missile-armed Predator fired at suspected militants in Afghanistan, ushering in the current era of drones whose operators can both spy on you and kill you with the push of a button.

Since then, America’s force of several hundred armed Predator and Reaper drones have killed thousands of suspected militants and terrorists—and hundreds of innocent civilians—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and other conflict zones. Unarmed U.S. drones have hunted for America’s enemies in Central Africa, Latin America, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

But federal regulations and policy make it difficult for all but the most trusted American allies to acquire U.S.-made drones, to say nothing of armed drones. Unable to purchase the world-standard Predator and Reaper, many countries have turned to Israel, Iran, and China for their robot fix. Tel Aviv, Tehran, and Beijing offer a wide range of drones at a cost much lower than the latest American models’.

The militia victims of Iraq’s errant January drone strike were part of the Popular Mobilization Force, one of the Iran-backed Shiite groups that has bolstered the beleagured Iraqi army in Baghdad’s 17-month-old war with ISIS.

Ahmad al-Assadi, a spokesman for the militia group, said the fighters were battling ISIS forces near the city of Tikrit when the drone arrived overhead and its operators—most likely sitting in a trailer at a nearby air base, remotely controlling the drone via radio—mistook the Shiite fighters for militants.

“The drone struck with a first missile and then two more seven minutes later,” Assadi said.

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It’s safe to say the Popular Mobilization Force won’t be the last innocent victims of Baghdad’s killer drones. The robot war in Iraq and Syria is only escalating, with more and more robots entering the fray. A year ago, the U.S. Air Force had hoped to give its drone force a break after 20 years of unrelenting work. “It’s at the breaking point, and has been for a long time,” a senior Air Force official told The Daily Beast in early 2015.

But virtually every U.S. and allied airstrike and ground offensive in Iraq and Syria requires robotic support. “We’re involved in pretty much every engagement,” Col. James Cluff, commander of the 432nd Wing, America’s main drone unit, located at Creech Air Force Base just north of Las Vegas, told The Daily Beast in June.

The Pentagon realized it had no choice but to double down on drone ops, adding more robots, more squadrons to maintain them, and more human controllers—including, for the first time, non-officer enlisted operators and civilian contractors. The $3 billion expansion plan is “an attempt to normalize operations and ensure long-term mission success,” the Air Force explained in a December statement.

America’s drone escalation is running headlong into similar plans by its allies and rivals. There are so many robots flying over Iraq and Syria that manned planes nearly collide with them with alarming frequency. In October a Russian Sukhoi bomber flew directly underneath what appeared to be a U.S. Predator during a mission over Syria.

The Russian crew shot video of the drone, and shortly thereafter Igor Konashenkov, a Kremlin spokesman, complained of overcrowding in Syrian skies. “Our American colleagues do not seem to grasp the seriousness of this issue,” Konashenkov said. That same month, Washington and Moscow agreed to coordinate their flights over Syria to avoid a collision—or worse, a misunderstanding drawing U.S. and Russian forces into combat with each other.

Most drone operators do not publicize how often their robots fly or where, but there’s at least one way to verify a drone’s presence over the battlefield—when it crashes or gets shot down. The fact that robots fall to the ground almost monthly in Iraq and Syria is indicative of the sheer volume of robot flights in the two countries.

In October, two U.S. Predators crashed in Iraq and Turkey while supporting the war on ISIS. The same month, Turkish forces shot down a drone—possibly Russian—that strayed over Syria’s border with Turkey. An American robot crashed in Iraq in June, and another went down in Syria in March.

Iran, meanwhile, has lost potentially dozens of drones in Iraq and Syria, including an Ababil 3—akin to a Predator—that ISIS claimed to have shot down near the Iraqi city of Samarra in January.

The growing ranks of drone operators should get used to the chaos. As more and more pilotless flying machines deploy in Iraq and Syria, and more and more are packing weapons, the crashes, shoot-downs, near-misses, and accidental killings are only going to become bigger problems.