Over the past five years Drone Wars UK has been recording crashes of large military drones (Class 2 & Class 3) as a way of tracking the spread and expansion of the use of military drones. Due to the secrecy surrounding their use, details of crashes sometimes take months or years to be made public (if at all) and our list is therefore almost certainly not complete. Nevertheless our database now shows 200 such crashes between Jan 2007 and Dec 2014.
Rise in crashes reflects increased use of military drones
Broadly, the data confirms a marked increase in the use of large military drones over the past eight years with the primary user being the United States. The recent US policy change on the export of unmanned systems will undoubtedly have an impact on the further proliferation and use of drones.
Excluding for the moment crashes in ‘unknown’ countries military drones crashes occurred in just three countries in 2007 (Afghanistan, Iraq and the US). By the end of 2014 large military drones have crashed in 23 countries, indicating an almost eight-fold increase in their use over the past eight years.
Most military drone crashes (77) have occurred unsurprisingly in Afghanistan, the centre of drone warfare over the past decade. What may be a surprise for some however is that the second highest number (36) have occurred inside the US. This is a reflection of the fact that the US is the greatest operator of military drones and undertaking testing and training of pilots within the US has resulted in a lot of crashes there.
Iraq has been the location of the third highest number of crashes but the vast majority of these occurred in the first three years of our dataset (2007-2009) with the number of crashes there rapidly declining as US military focus moved to Afghanistan and elsewhere. Since 2011/12 the crash data shows there has also been a clear rise in use of drones over Africa with crashes reported in (or off the coast of) seven African countries.
Large military drone crashes pre-2010 from our dataset
Large military drone crashes 2007 – 2014 from our dataset (click maps to see full size)
Location of large military drones 2007- 2014
|Off coast West Africa||1||1|
|Off coast Libya||1||1||2|
*Figures for 2014 likely to increase as crash investigation reports are released over next few months.
The data contains reports of five drone crashes in Pakistan, three in Yemen and two in Somalia. Given what we know of US drone activity in these countries it may be expected that there would have been more crashes. However the details we have come from press reports and it is very likely that at least some of the ten crashes reported by US authorities that have taken place in “unnamed” locations occurred in these three countries. In addition it is likely that crashes from covert drone operations will not always be publicly acknowledged. It should be noted as well that there have been US drone crashes in Djibouti (6) and the Seychelles (2) from where the US are launching drone missions over Yemen and Somalia.
Beyond United States use, the crash data shows that a number of countries are now operating large military drones. However out of the non-US operated drones that have crashed almost half (46%) have been manufactured in and exported from Israel. This confirms other studies showing Israel is largest exporter of military drones.
While a number of countries are developing their own indigenous drone capability, with the exception of Turkey and China this has yet to show up in any significant way in the drone crash data (German and French drones in the data are older models near to retirement rather than new developments). This may be due to countries keeping such crashes secret or that developments are still at a very early stage. Note that a suspected Chinese drone reportedly crashed in Nigeria in January 2015, is outside the date range of this study.
Origin of non-US operated crashed drones 2007-2014
The dominance of Israeli industry in the drone export market is one of the factors that led to the recent change of policy by the United States with regard to the export of its large military drones. Although the US has exported its Reaper drone to the UK, Italy and France and is poised to export them to the Netherlands and Australia, with the exception of the UK these have been unarmed versions. The change in policy will now likely see not only more large drone exports from the US but also more armed drone exports. This US policy change is also bound to have the effect of encouraging Israel to export armed versions of its drones which, as far as is known, it has not done so yet.
Public and legislative oversight of the rise in the use of military drones is extremely important but made very difficult by the secrecy surrounding their use. Tracking crashes gives a helpful insight into the growth and spread in use of such systems. Call us cynical, but perhaps that is why the US Air Force has simply stopped updating its aircraft accident website for the past eighteen months.