Drone strikes spread as proliferation surges

A new wave of users have launched drone strikes either on their own territory or across borders over the past 15 months.

Turkish armed drone – The Bayraktar TB2

While the majority of attention on armed drones has focused on US use (and to some extent on the UK and Israeli), growing proliferation of these systems has meant that a number of other countries have acquired or developed armed drones and are beginning to regularly use them to launch strikes.

Most of these second wave of countries have acquired their armed drones from China – either the slightly older ‘Wing Loong (‘Pterodactyl’) developed by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CIAG) or the more recent Cai Hong (‘Rainbow’) family developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).  But some, like Turkey and Iran have successfully developed their own armed drones.


United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia drones strike in Yemen and Libya

Although some press reports have suggested that United Arab Emirates (UAE) acquired armed Wing Loong drones from China in 2011, it was only confirmed in 2015 that UAE has such drones.  Both UAE and Saudi have reportedly bought the GJ-1 variant of the Wing Loong (with suggestions recently that Saudi has also acquired CH-4s). As with other nations operating armed drones, details of UAE and Saudi drone operations are hard to discover.

In October 2016, Defence journal Jane’s released satellite photos showing some of the Wing Loong drones at a newly established UAE base in Libya.  The UAE drones together with other UAE aircraft are undertaking surveillance and strikes missions in Libya in support of the Tobruk based government – one of three rival administrations currently operating in the country.

A Chinese Wing Loong drone

Meanwhile UAE’s Wing Loong drones are also in operation over Yemen alongside Saudi’s Wing Loongs as part of the Saudi-led Coalition to oust the Houthi militia and re-instate the former President Hadi.  Saudi Arabia reportedly signed a contract to purchase Wing Loongs in 2014 but it is not clear when they were delivered. The Bard Drone Center released satellite photos in November 2016 showing Wing Loong drones at a Saudi base near the border with Yemen.

More than 3,500 Yemeni civilians have been killed in the Saudi-led air strikes up until June 2016, with recent analysis showing that one in three strikes have hit civilian sites.  The supply of weapons and military equipment to the Saudi government as well as presence of British and American military officials in the Saudi command and control centre has been extremely controversial.  Both the New York Times and the Guardian have argued that the US and the UK must bear some responsibility for the carnage.

In September 2016 photos circulated on social media showing a crashed Wing Loong drone in Yemen with the Houthis claimed to have downed another Saudi drone in November 2016.

Turkish drone strikes in Iraq and Turkey

Turkish industry has been developing unmanned aerial vehicles (or IHA – air vehicle without human as they are known in Turkey) since 2004 with the Anka surveillance drone, which made its maiden flight in 2010, being the most well-known.  However a larger drone, the Bayraktar TB2 was developed between 2009 and 2012.  The Turkish military ordered 12 in 2012 and it began to be used for surveillance purposes in 2014.

However Turkey wanted the drone to be armed and over an 18 month period manufacturer Bakyar collaborated with weapon manufacturer Roketsan to arm the drone with MAM-L, a 50-lb (22-kg) laser-guided munition. In December 2015 and then April 2016, the companies demonstrated the capability of the armed version to Turkish military chiefs (including a 24 hour flight) and it appears that the system was literally pressed in service, with the military reportedly ordering that the company’s own test drones be commandeered.

In October 2016, Turkish media reported that the Turkish drone had been used launch attacks against Kurdish separatist fighters belonging to the PKK in northern Iraq, although this has not been officially confirmed. In late October the Turkish defence minister stated that seventy-two PKK militants had been killed by its armed drones in the first two months of their deployment.

The Bayraktar TB2 drones are based at Batman airbase in Turkey which is close to the Iraq and Syrian border, although a new “Joint Coordination Center for UAV and Surveillance Monitoring Systems” is to be established in Ankara.

According to Aviation Week, in September 2016, the minister of science, industry and technology, Faruk Ozlu, announced a programme to create a much larger armed drones.   This may well be based on Turkey’s other indigenous drone, the Anka which now has the capability to fly beyond line-of-sight.

Iraq and Iran drone strikes in Iraq and Syria

In October 2015 the Iraqi armed forces released a short video showing their newly acquired Chinese armed drones at the al-Kut Air Base southeast of Baghdad.  Two months later further video was released showing the drone undertaking a strike against an ISIS position amid efforts to retake the city of Ramadi.  Perhaps the drone had been pressed into service too quickly however as just weeks later in January 2016, the Iraqi drone mistakenly fired on Shite militia fighting ISIS outside Tikrit in a ‘friendly fire’ incident that killed 9 and wounded 15.

According to David Hambling the Iraq drones are armed with Chinese missiles and bombs. “The laser-guided AR-1 is China’s answer to the Hellfire, but is slightly faster—it’s supersonic rather than subsonic, so it cannot be heard until it hits. The FT-9 is a 100-lb. satellite-guided bomb with a claimed accuracy of better than 15 feet.”

An Iranian Shahed 129 drone
An Iranian Shaheed 129 drone

Iranian drones are also undertaking air strikes in Iraq against ISIS.  Distinguishing the truth about the Iranian unmanned systems is difficult due to the mass of misinformation circulated.  Nevertheless it’s clear that Iran had developed a ‘Predator’ type drone in the Shaheed 129, which was revealed by Iran in September 2012.

From June 2014 Iran has been undertaking surveillance flights in Iraq using the older drones in support of Iraqi armed forces operations against ISIS. Several of these have crashed or reportedly been shot down.  Iranian surveillance drones have also been spotted over Syria and over the Syrian/Turkish border, again with many of these aging drones coming down to earth with a bang.

In 2016 however came clear evidence that Iran’s newer drone – the Shaheed 129 – was now armed and capable of carrying out strikes.  Video footage released to Iranian TV showed the drone launching strikes both in Syria (in Aleppo province) and in Iraq.  It is not clear who is being targeted in the strikes but it is generally thought to have been Syrian opposition fighters.

Pakistan, Nigeria and Egypt strikes

caihong-rainbow-dronesThree other countries are known to have acquired armed drones and are reported to have used them to carry out strikes.

Pakistan claims that it has developed its own armed drone, the Burraq’ but most commentators believe that it is so similar to the Chinese CH-3 drone that it is likely a direct copy developed with Chinese assistance.  Press reports say that the Burraq was “tested in live combat” in spring 2015 but according to Pakistani military officials the first official strike was in September 2015 and targeted armed militants in North Waziristan.  Further strikes, including at night, were announced the following month.   Pakistan appears to have been at least testing the more advanced Wing Loong drone as one has been pictured following a crash in Punjab in June 2016.

Nigeria seems to have been one of the first countries of the ‘new wave’ to acquire armed drones when one was pictured after a crash in January 2015.   Months later, as the Daily Beast reported, senior Nigerian air force officer were pictured posing by the Chinese CH-3 drone as they toured an airbase implying that Nigeria is indeed in possession of such technology.

In January 2016 Nigerian Air Force officials announced that the drone had been used to launch a strike for the first time, against a Boko Haram base in the Northeast of the country.  To confirm the strike officials released video footage to the press and in May 2016 Air Force official announced they were keen to integrate long-range missiles on to its armed drones.

Multiple sources have reported that Egypt has acquired Chinese CH-4 drone but there is little substantial information.  One unconfirmed source reports that Egypt has use the drone to carry out a targeted strike against a specific individual linked to ISIS in the Sinai peninsular in August 2016.


The last fifteen months has seen a surge in the use of armed drones by a second wave’of users.  Most of the drones have been acquired from China but some countries have managed to develop the technology independently. It is highly likely that other countries will acquire the technology and begin launching drone strikes over the next 18 months, including European countries.  The implications for global peace and security of multiple nations using drones to launch cross border strikes is very serious.

While some continue to insist that armed drone proliferation is not a problem, arguing that the technical barriers to operating such systems are prohibitive, this short survey has identified that four of the new wave of users (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey) have launched cross border strikes on at least six occasions (UAE in Yemen and Libya; Saudi in Yemen;  Iran in Syria and Iraq; and Turkey in Iraq) in he past 15 months alone.

While there are embryonic moves by international community to develop controls over the proliferation and use of armed drones, analysts and campaigners alike agree that they need to be much stronger than presently proposed  – and draw in China and other exporters – if there is to be any realistic chance of stemming the tide of drone strikes.


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