On January 3, a drone strike near the Baghdad International airport killed Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force. American President Donald Trump ordered the killing from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, thousands of kilometres far from Iraq.
How did it happen? The circumstances of the strike are still not entirely clear, at least not for ordinary citizens or even for the media. But in the night between 2 and 3 January, a US MQ-9 Reaper launched the strike against General Soleimani. However, it was not the first time for we are not talking about the dynamics under which Soleimani was killed, but how unmanned systems are transforming the ways wars are fought, and their future.
Drone operations in Iraq started during the Iran-Iraq War in the 80s – when Iran began developing the Mohajer-1 surveillance drone – and in the course of and after the Gulf War, the US military set about flying drones over Iraq, marking the first significant US deployment of modern military drones. Back to the last decade, the Central Intelligence Agency used armed, remotely piloted vehicles to wipe out small clusters of militants as they plotted against US forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Despite its limitations, the use of drones surged during the Bush administration. After Bush’ presidencies, Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran had all launched state-sponsored attacks and had become far more skilled at cyber exploits and espionage.
The situation today looks more critical since President Trump has taken over far more mature drone and cyber programs. Iran has also adopted its countermeasures: last June 2019 Iran shot down a US surveillance drone in the Strait of Hormuz, creating a dangerous new level of tension between the two countries.
Soleimani’s death was the last evident example of President Trump’s ability to take military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran. And drones are now playing a key role in the international debate.
But what about the United States? Does a drone can easily fly everywhere in the country? According to the US national aviation authority, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), flying a drone is legal in the country, with certification requirements and different rules between the purpose of the fly, whether it is recreationally or for work.
Today, nearly 1.5 million drones and 160,000 remote pilots are registered with the FAA, the agency said. Yet mysterious drones have been flying over Colorado and Nebraska in recent weeks: authorities have not been able to figure out much about who may be controlling them. Federal deputies have spotted more than a dozen unmanned drones flying in the northeast part of the state. And last Wednesday, a drone came close to a medical helicopter in Colorado, increasing concern about the suspicious drones.
Only at the end of the year, the Federal Aviation Administration put forward a rule to empower the government to track most drones in the US. The rule requires drones to implement a remote ID system, which will make it possible for third parties to track them.
According to the witnesses who told local newspapers what they have heard and seen, the unknown drones flew over rural towns in Nebraska and Colorado, mostly after the sunset.
Before knowing the identity and purpose of the mysterious drones, and if the new law will regulate unauthorized drones that may pose a security threat, Americans are starting to be afraid of unmanned systems, not only those used outside the country.