Is Drone Proliferation about to Explode?

Over the past few months we have been compiling information about which countries have large drones in military service.  We have posted the results of our research here in our new database of large drones in military service.  According to our research 31 countries currently have Class 3 or Class 2 military drones in their inventories.  Many others are working to develop or acquire large drones or will have the smaller Class 1 drone in their inventory. (see here for a general guide to drone sizes)

Out of the 31 counties that currently have large drones in military service, 28 have either directly purchased some or all of their drones from another country or manufactured their drones with the help of another country.  The primary exporter of drones and drone technology is Israel.  Israel has directly exported the larger types  of drones to  13 countries and assisted 4 others in developing their own drones.  The US has directly exported larger drones to 6 countries while assisting in the development of 1 other; France has directly exported to 3 other countries, while South Africa has exported to 1 (see table below).

Countries which have exported drones & drone technology

While some of these exports and drone programmes reach back over many years, there are indications that drone proliferation is set to explode.   Just over the past weeks for example there have been a number of press reports about drone sales agreed or being explored.

Firstly NATO signed a contact with US company Northrop Grumman to purchase five Global Hawk UAVs.  The $1.7 billion deal, which has long been discussed, was signed at the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this week. NATO expects to spend another $2 billion to operate the aircraft over the next two decades.

After the NATO summit officials briefed journalists that President Obama had told the Turkish President Abdullah Gul, that the US was willing to sell armed drones to Turkey but had to get approval through congress.  Iraq has also announced this week that it is purchasing US drones to protect Iraqi oilfields.  Although most press articles carried pictures of Reaper or Predator drones to accompany the story it is highly unlikely the drones concerned will be armed.

Meanwhile the most prolific exporter of drones, Israel, continues to make sales.  This week Israel company Elbit Systems announced it had secured a $160m contract to supply drones to a European country but wouldn’t say who, while a senior Russian defence official said Russia may also be buying $50m of Israeli UAVs in the near future.  Also this weeek Singapore announced that it had inaugurated their first Heron drone into the Air Force.

There have also been recent reports that Switzerland and the UK are evaluating Israeli drones with a view to purchase.  Both countries already possess drones built in conjunction with Israeli companies.

The proliferation of drones  is supposed to be controlled under  the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) but it is a non-binding, voluntary agreement which seems close to being ignored in relation to drones.

Two years ago the then US Defense Secretary said it was ‘in the United States interest to share drone technology with allies despite the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)’  while manufacturers are lobbying hard to ease the so-called ‘tough restrictions’ on exports of drones.

Some are suggesting that the MTCR, which is not primarily aimed at controlling drones, may no longer be the appropriate mechanism to regulate their proliferation.  However if a new control regime is to be developed, it needs to happen very quickly – or it will simply be too late.

Later this year, the 34 partner nations of the MTCR will meet for their annual plenary review and it is vital that there is progress on curtailing the growing proliferation of drones.

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