The making of Killer Optics

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and Featured, Ploughshares Monitor, Research in Action

By Tasneem Jamal

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 4 Winter 2020

On September 22, Project Ploughshares released an in-depth report by Researcher Kelsey Gallagher, entitled Killer Optics: Exports of WESCAM sensors to Turkey – a litmus test of Canada’s compliance with the Arms Trade Treaty.

Kelsey Gallagher is a Researcher at Project Ploughshares who focuses on the Canadian arms trade.

Killer Optics received immediate and widespread coverage by Canadian and international news outlets. When, a week after the report was published, the world learned that Turkish unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) equipped with WESCAM sensors were attacking Armenian targets in the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, the impact of Ploughshares’s research was magnified and many more eyes were cast on Canadian military export practices.

Within days, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada was probing allegations that Azeri forces had been using Canadian drone technology that was initially exported to Turkey. On October 5, the Government of Canada suspended military export permits for WESCAM sensors to Turkey, pending further investigation.

Ploughshares Communications Officer Tasneem Jamal spoke with Kelsey Gallagher about the genesis of Killer Optics, the impact of its publication, and the role of open-source data in tracking arms transfers.

Tasneem Jamal: How did you begin the research that led to this report? When did you first suspect that WESCAM optical sensors were being exported to Turkey?

Kelsey Gallagher: Ploughshares has had a file on WESCAM for years as part of our Canadian Military Industry Database. WESCAM exports targeting and surveillance sensors worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In the summer of 2019, it became clear that these sensors were being used extensively on Turkish drones. I started really paying attention to their deployment by Turkey following Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in October 2019. The more I looked, the more it became clear that these Canadian sensors were integral to Turkey’s ability to conduct airstrikes.

TJ: Obviously in-depth, data-driven reports are not new to Project Ploughshares. But what makes this report unique is the reliance on open-source data. Can you talk about how you came across this data? What are the challenges (and advantages) to its use? Aren’t photographs on social media, for example, easily manipulated? What is the verification process?

KG: I initially used data that Ploughshares and other Canadian researchers have used before. This includes government and trade data, as well as notifications of arms sales published online. This data showed that Turkey was importing Canadian weapons systems, in particular WESCAM sensors, and suggested that Turkey was using them in conflict.

I also began analyzing footage of downed Turkish drones in combat zones, primarily posted on local social media. Often, the remains of Turkish aircraft included beat-up WESCAM sensors. This visual evidence reinforced existing allegations of their use by Turkey in places like Syria and Libya.

The government of Turkey also posts footage from airstrikes to “sell” the war to domestic audiences. Extensive research indicated that the “graphical overlay” (i.e., all the instruments visible on a drone operator’s screen, such as the crosshair, data pertaining to the mission, etc.) was a version that is proprietary to WESCAM. So, whenever we had the government of Turkey boasting about a recent operation in northern Syria by posting these videos online, I could conclusively say, “This was performed with Canadian hardware.”

Yes, judging credibility is difficult. I’ve talked about this with other Canadian researchers who work to identify Canadian weapons used in conflict. There is no surefire way to confirm or deny that images posted on social media are credible. However, if I can find several photos from different sources of the same downed aircraft from several angles and taken at different times, then I think I have credible evidence. If damage to a certain part of the aircraft is consistent across photos, for instance, then it’s likely that the photos are legitimate.

Really, you have to take everything with a grain of salt, and perform your due diligence. But in my experience, photos of weapons in conflict zones are generally credible. If they do turn out to show something different than what is described, it is usually due to mistaken identification. It would be difficult to be deceptive and get away with it for long, because someone, very quickly, will call you out.

TJ: Do you see open-source data becoming more and more important in tracking arms transfers?

KG: Yes. Whole online communities are based on it. Most are not involved with the peace and disarmament movement, either. Many open-source researchers could be better described as weapons enthusiasts. These folks are usually keen to give feedback if you have questions about a certain weapon in a certain place.

Other civil-society groups, primarily in Europe, use open-source images, like satellite images, to monitor environmental degradation during conflict. More and more, the UN is relying on images posted online to track weapons exports. This burgeoning field of research is increasingly seen as legitimate.

TJ: You state in the report that the Turkish government frequently publishes recordings from the video feeds of UAV operations in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey on social media and Turkish media outlets. Is this unique to Turkey? Why would a government do this? What’s the upside?

KG: Other countries publish images, but perhaps not to the degree that Turkey does. For instance, images of U.S. drone strikes are freely available online, and were released, in some manner, by the U.S. Department of Defense. However, Turkey has been particularly eager to publish these images online to drum up domestic support for the numerous conflicts they’ve become embroiled in.

Azerbaijan did the same thing during the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. I’ve seen photos from WESCAM video feeds, shot from Turkish drones, being displayed on screens in downtown Baku. This is just another example of propaganda.

TJ: How did the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict affect the impact of your report?

KG: That conflict was really the only reason we saw Canadian government action on WESCAM exports. This was due, in large part, to a sizeable Armenian diaspora community in Canada that successfully pressured the government. Before that, we had heard nothing from Global Affairs Canada, despite some comprehensive media attention on the Killer Optics report.

Unfortunately, the government doesn’t seem much bothered that these sensors are being used, including in alleged breaches of international humanitarian law, across the Middle East.

TJ: What has the report’s impact been in Turkey? And has WESCAM or its parent company responded?

KG: Following the suspension of exports, Turkey was quick to announce that they had begun testing domestic alternatives to WESCAM sensors. I am not convinced that they have a fully operational alternative at this time. If they did, they would have already been using it. Turkey is avid to use as much domestic technology in their weapon systems as possible, precisely to avoid relying on other countries.

WESCAM only recently broke their silence on the issue, providing a boilerplate statement in which they indicated that they had followed all necessary export regulations. This is the go-to response when weapons manufacturers get caught up in these types of scandals, and is actually largely true, which speaks to why Canada needs comprehensive government regulation on the trade and transfer of weapons.

TJ: When Ottawa suspended export permits for WESCAM sensors to Turkey, it was the third time in just over three years that Canada had announced the suspension of export permits to a country accused of violating international law. The first two incidents involved Saudi Arabia, the top destination for Canadian arms exports. In both cases, the suspensions were eventually lifted. And unlike Saudi Arabia, Turkey is a NATO ally. Do you expect the suspension to be lifted in this case?

KG: It is certainly possible that the suspension of exports to Turkey will be lifted once media attention dies down. The recent peace deal for Nagorno-Karabakh also makes this more likely, in my opinion. If you’re willing to overlook the human-rights violations of Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to think whose violations you wouldn’t be willing to ignore.

TJ: So, what comes next in your work on this file?

KG: Ploughshares will continue monitoring Canada’s export of these weapons to Turkey. As noted, the exports are currently only suspended, pending the results of an investigation. We have little idea what the nuts and bolts of this investigation are. As well, Global Affairs Canada has a poor track record in indefinitely halting these exports when their misuse or their involvement in the facilitation of human-rights violations comes to light.

The model used in Killer Optics met with considerable success, and can be replicated with other weapons exports to other countries. Canada is exporting more weapons abroad than ever before, including to other abusers of human rights, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. We have lots of work ahead of us.

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