Drones appear to have an expanding role in the fight against Islamic State, although it's unclear what impact they are having on the war itself.

One year after President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes against ISIS targets, those airstrikes by the U.S. and its coalition partners, including Canada, have killed 15,000 ISIS supporters, the coalition claims.

However, the group's recruitment has been enough to replace those casualties, so U.S. intelligence estimates ISIS having between 20,000 to 31,500 fighters — essentially what it was a year ago. Other estimates have put ISIS numbers even higher.

How big a role drones are playing in this air war is hard to gauge. British sources say that over half the U.K. airstrikes against ISIS are now being carried out by drones. And U.S. drones are likely to carry out more strikes in Syria now that Turkey has agreed to allow them to launch from a Turkish base close to the Syrian border.

In fact, the first U.S. armed drone mission from Incirlik air base in southern Turkey took off on Tuesday. 

Typically, the U.S. military did not provide details of the mission.

ISIS-Raqqa, 2014

ISIS fighters parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province in Syria in June 2014 celebrating their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq. (Reuters)

But British academic Paul Rogers, author of the forthcoming book Irregular War: Islamic State and Revolts from the Margins, says "We're right at the start of the proliferation of drones and since there are no arms control measures at all to handle them [their use] is more or less unlimited."

At the same time, he feels Islamic State remains as strong as ever and is actually making gains in Syria despite the very heavy use of air power. 

The core members of the ISIS fighting force are "probably the best-trained irregular paramilitaries in the world" since they had already survived battles with the best of Western forces in Iraq, he says. 

"Islamic State is able to adapt pretty rapidly to this level of air war, including drone strikes."

Drones used in most U.K. missions 

Military drones have been flying for over 20 years. When the so-called war on terror began in 2001, the U.S. military was operating fewer than 200 unmanned aerial vehicles.

Predator drone

The U.S. military has well over 11,500 drones, including about 500 Predator-class vehicles like this MQ-1B Predator. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

According to a book published last week -- Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare, by William Arkin — the U.S. now has well over 11,500 drones, as well as unmanned land vehicles and unmanned sea craft.

Its most common drone is the Raven, a two-kilogram spy machine, and U.S. government funding on drones has increased from $350 million in 2001 to over $5 billion in 2013.

Canada has no drones operating in Iraq or Syria, as far as anyone knows. 

In the fight against ISIS, British analysts say over half of all airstrikes by U.K. forces are being carried out by Reaper drones, which can stay airborne at high altitudes for 14 hours and fire Hellfire missiles.

The U.K. has two Reaper squadrons in the region, each with five drones. The latest official U.K. update lists 12 strikes by Reapers during the 12 days ending Aug. 2 and states, "Reaper aircraft have continued to fly daily armed reconnaissance missions over Iraq to gather intelligence and, when appropriate, strike positively identified targets."

Arkin writes that 88 other nations have drones —- European countries have over 3,500 —- with 54 nations manufacturing their own.

Era of remote warfare

In 2001, the U.S. approach to war began to change under then-defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his doctrine of relying on technology and air power, with fewer ground forces.

airstrike Tikrit, Iraq

The Pentagon said that, by the end of May, it had conducted about 15,600 sorties in Iraq and Syria, including this airstrike in Tikrit, Iraq, in March. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

Although that strategy became unstuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, Rogers says that since then the West has progressively moved "into the era of remote warfare."

Drones are a big part of that strategy, as are the use of special forces and privatized military, he says.

For governments, he says, the advantage of this approach is fewer body bags, low public visibility and less transparency in how operations are carried out.

For Cornell University professor Sarah Kreps: "As long as the U.S. is not using boots on the ground, drones probably are as good or better than the alternative of manned aircraft."

The co-author of Drone Warfare and the author of the forthcoming Drones: What Everyone Needs to Know, Kreps also says, however, that drones need to be deployed as part of a broader strategy, something the U.S. and its allies seem to be lacking in their war against ISIS.

Without a broad strategy, she says "drones aren't going to do much good at all," and run up against the limits of air power in general.

All air power has done is enable "the U.S. and its allies to continue this war pretty unsuccessfully, since there really are no tangible losses on the part of the allies."

Kreps says drones have certainly not been transformative in the current conflict. "They don't have the visible disadvantages you see from manned aircraft or the advantages you'd see from sending in infantry, so they are in this purgatory where no one really wins and no one really loses."

Burnout for drone operators

drone operators

Drone operators fly an MQ-9 Reaper training mission from a ground control station at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. (Airman 1st Class Michael Shoemaker/USAF/Reuters)

She does point to one problem for the U.S. military: the burnout of drone operators. "Drone operators are leaving in droves," Kreps says, and the supply of trained operators isn't keeping up with the demand.

Enter the private contractors. Although only military personnel can press the button to fire a drone's missile, one of every 10 staff involved in processing the data captured by drones and spy planes are now non-military, according to a July 30 report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. 

Private contractors also provide equipment for drone operations that's worth billions of dollars.

But while drones reduce risks to those operating them, this also lowers the threshold for the use of force in the first place, says Ann Rogers (no relation to Paul Rogers), a professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C. and the co-author of the 2014 book, Unmanned: Drone Warfare and Global Security.

Their presence over a war zone both enhances situational awareness, and "allows more targets to be identified, and thus to expand the conflict."

But, she says, the fact that there has been little public awareness in the West that drones are killing people, "this is why we're seeing these wars by remote control that drag on for years and years with no clear resolution or objective."

Civilians killed

Unmanned book cover

Co-author Ann Rogers says where drones have been used extensively, there have been huge social, economic and psychological problems created for the local population. (Between the Lines)

The extent of civilian casualties from drone attacks, or any airstrikes, in Syria and Iraq is also something of a mystery.

The U.K.-based monitoring group Airwars.org says it has reviewed 57 airstrikes (out of a total of more than 5,500) in which it felt there was strong evidence civilians had been killed.

In a new report, the group puts the number of civilians killed at 459 to 591, while the coalition only admits to two "likely" non-combatant deaths.

While we may not know the actual number, or the effect on civilians in the current war, Ann Rogers says that "in other theatres where drones have been used extensively, there have been huge social, economic and psychological problems created for the [local] population, and that these wars don't end with a clear victory, they end with a damaged and fragmented society."

She also argues that "the coalition will, with every strike, be driving more recruits into the ISIS camp, turning a fragmented population into a more unified enemy" from which the catalogue of ISIS atrocities may get longer.