The world's first unmanned drone attacks took place in Libya

5 minutes

In March 2020, as COVID-19 closed the world, what could have been the first unwatched drone attacks in history were taking place on a largely autonomous battlefield in Libya.

According to a U.N. report published in March of this year, Turkish forces loyal to the Government of National Accord used former STM Kargu 2 drones to hunt down units loyal to Libyan field marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The report prepared by independent experts for a Libya panel on the Armed Support of Humanity stated that the four-rotor drones were programmed in autonomous mode to attack fleeing logistics convoys and other vehicles automatically, without further human intervention.

If correct, this would represent the first documented such incident on a battlefield - development that has been long documented and feared by military and human rights experts alike. While drones have also been a feature of the battlefield for years from strikes by very large U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles to much smaller devices operated by militant groups such as Islamic State, they still require a human being to operate the kill switch.

However, that such a step might have taken place unnoticed and largely unheralded should not be a surprise. The last two decades have seen a mass proliferation, downsizing and democratisation of technology once the preserve of the most powerful states. Innovation has now become much cheaper, and those who want to bend rules can find advantages.

No country has exploited this dynamic more than Turkey, with its cheap and efficient teatering' of the kamikaze drones as a perfect match for the foreign policy of President Tayyip Erdogan.

As the US and Western interest in the Middle East plummets, Turkey has been increasing its interest in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and West Africa. This presence is often simultaneously diplomatic, commercial and military with shipments of Turkish weapons and technology often as the key part of the deal.

Turkey has also become a dominant player in the larger UAV market, selling its BAYARKAR TB 2 drones in countries including Thailand, Tunisia and Ukraine each to promote Turkish geopolitical connections and interests. The TB 2 was also used by Turkish forces in Libya, one of several weapons systems apparently in contravention of a U.N. arms embargo.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year, Turkish support was crucial to the battlefield success of Turkey with brutal drones passed around the battlefield to target Armenian tanks with Turkish effect.

Footage of these attacks was extensively shown by Azerbaijan as information warfare, broadcasted on public media and used on large screens in public areas.

Not everyone is happy to see Turkey's UAV export success. In April, Turkey blocked the export of potential drone components to Canada at the same time as other western sanctions in Ankara after acquiring an S-400 aircraft defence missiles. The Canada's Foreign Affairs Department said that the ban was in part due to the evidence that Canadian drone components had been used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

However, whether drones were autonomously operated remains unclear but at least it is a possibility. The Turkish company that makes the drones, states in a YouTube video that the Kargu drone can locate targets automatically by firing and forget mode, meaning that it can be launched to "land" for a target and then engage automatically.

The video shows the quadrocopter in identifying before taking it off and hovering. While the video shows a deliberate human decision to forget, company lines say it can fire and lose.

Similar drones but not necessarily autonomous are used by Israel and played a significant role in the recent Gaza conflict as well is exported to Nagorno-Karabakh and used in Azerbaijan.

Tracking such developments is difficult, particularly during the COVID-19 era when international media and observers are less likely to be present. Increasingly, small drones are a feature of war in the Mideast, used by Iranian-backed rebels in Syria, and all sides in Yemen.

The use of Fire and forget Weapons is itself, of course, not new 77 years ago; German V 1 and V 2 rockets populated southern England, guided by rudimentary guidance systems into populated areas. Anti-personnel and anti-vehicle land mines have been around far longer, sometimes laying on top for unsuspecting victims many decades later.

Anti-personnel anti-terror drones were banned in 1997 in the Ottawa Treaty and some campaigners have long called for a similar prohibition against autonomous vehicle killers.

They'd said this should be done before such technology became a reality, but it may already be too late. Whether or not the Libya strike in March 2020 was the first autonomous drone attack, it is likely to last and there may have been more since then. Peter Apps is an independent writer who is involved with international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21 st Century, PS 21, a non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. His disability is also paralysed by a 2006 car crash in war zone and blogs on his disability and other topics. He was once a reporter for Thomson Reuters and continues to be paid by Reuters. Since 2016 he has been a member of the UK Labour Party and the British Army Reserve. What do people say,

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