It’s been a year since we published Drone Wars: The Next Generation, which gave our assessment of who is operating armed drones. This update adds four new States to those with the ability to operate large MALE or medium sized armed drones, as well as an update on significant exports, use, new models and proliferation controls over the last year.
Since we published our report ‘Drone wars: the next generation’, it has been confirmed that Jordan are operating their CH-4B drones. However, in the last few weeks, Jordan have put these drones up for sale. It was reported towards the end of 2018 that the Jordanian air force were unhappy with the CH-4Bs, and according to RUSI, it is unlikely that they can be used to their full potential, since the Chinese-made drones can’t ‘talk’ to any other hardware or software that the Jordanian military possess. It is possible therefore, that they were purchased as a way of trying to coax the US into selling Predators to Jordan.
In March, the Ukrainian air force received into service the first of 12 Bayraktar TB2s it has purchased from the Kale-Baykar group in Turkey. This is part of a $69m deal which includes ammunition for the drones. The drones were tested at the handover ceremony in March.
UAE’s Yabhon United 40 Block 5 and Yabhon Flash-20, which seemed to disappear from production in UAE, have resurfaced in Algeria, who it appears bought the manufacturing rights (or perhaps, the Yabhon company have produced the drones domestically). Known in Algeria as the El Djazair (Algeria) 54 and El Djazair 55, respectively, only the El Djazair is armed. In a video shown on Algeria TV, the El Djazair 54 is shown in flight and apparently striking targets. They have also been pictured conducting operations.
The Qatari military have ordered six Bayraktar TB-2s and 3 ground control stations from the Turkish Company Baykar Makina, which completed testing in February. Fifty-five Qatari pilots have completed a four-month training and Baykar Makina will continue to offer support and training for two years.
Also see our dedicated page: Who has Armed Drones?
Significant updates and use by the ‘Second Generation’
Turkey now appears to be one of the most prolific users of armed drones (after the US, UK and Israel) and has reportedly carried out hundreds of strikes in the south east of the country and inside northern Syria and Iraq. Turkish officials have made claims that drones were involved in the deaths of over 1,000 PKK ‘terrorists’ during Operation Olive branch in early 2018. Some of these strikes, it is claimed by opposition, have targeted civilians whom Ankara then called ‘terrorist collaborators.’ However, the extent of the strike figures would mean drones need to be in use every day and this seems quite unlikely, and highlights the problem of the opaqueness of drone warfare and associated accountability.
Making things even more confusing, and apparently contradicting previous reports that Turkey fired missiles from the Anka-S as early as July 2017, İsmail Demir, the Undersecretary for Turkey’s Defence Industries (SSM), tweeted that the Anka-S had flown its first combat mission on 21 Jan 2019. It could be that the drone pressed into early use did not continue to fly regularly, but the confusion, once again, only demonstrates how difficult it is to get a clear picture of what operational capacity actually exists.
Turkey has also been working to update their indigenous UAV models:
- At Baykar Makina, an upgraded version of the Bayraktar, the Akinci, is said to be on course to be operable by 2020. According to another report the upgrades will see an increased mass payload of 900kg externally and 450kg internally.
- What appears to be an upgraded version of the Anka, the Aksungur, is under development to be ready for customers in 2020. It has been undergoing flight tests in 2019.
- Roketsan, Turkey’s foremost manufacturer of missiles, has developed a 40cm missile weighing 1kg for use on drones as small as quadcopters
Conflict in Yemen: Saudi Arabia, UAE and Houthis
As the devastating war in Yemen continues, it is still almost impossible to tell to what extent Saudi Arabia and UAE are using their Chinese made drones in Yemen. However, in the last year, UAE have moved drones to a base in Eritrea, presumably to give easier access to Yemen. It is certain that drones are in use.
There are been ever-more frequent reports of Houthi drone attacks in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia, using small and medium sized drones and loitering munitions. It is likely that some Houthi reports of drone attacks in 2018 were fabricated but in 2019, capacity has greatly increased and attacks have become more frequent.
The UN Panel of experts investigating the drones that the Houthi have used in attacks say that in late 2018, a new model appeared, which they are calling UAV-X, with a wing-span of about 4m, radius of up to 1,200-1,500km, and payload capacity of 18kg. The distance travelled by these drones suggests that the Houthi may now be making use of may now be making use of commercial satellite communications, significantly increasing their capability in this area.
The state-owned manufacturers, AVIC, of the Wing Loong series of drones, said in December 2018 that they had exported over 100 Wing Loong air frames and much has been written over the last year about their presence in the Middle East.
There have also been reports of two new drone systems entering service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)
- In August 2018, eight MALE UAVs were spotted at Aksu airport in China. Satellite imagery suggested they were either the Wing Loong II or CH-5.
- At the Africa Aerospace and Defence Exhibition 2018 the manufacturers (Ziyan) of the electric powered VTOL UAV Blowfish revealed it was in service with the PLA Navy.
Another two UAVs are reported to have made their maiden flights:
- In December 2018, the Wing Loong I-D made its maiden flight. It is 8.7m long with a wingspan of 17.6m. It is said to have 4 external hard points which can take 10 missiles.
- The Yaoying-2 (Sparrowhawk II) UAV, built by AVIC, made its maiden flight in July 2018, according to the South China Morning Post.
Pictures surfaced of a Russian stealth-drone, the Okhotnik (Hunter) being towed along a runway, but there is no confirmation on whether this is anywhere near operational, nor is it thought to be very stealthy.
And Iran ‘unveiled’ a new armed model of its Saegheh stealth drone at a defence show in Tehran in January.
Over the last year, it seems that the possibility for some form of international agreement to control the proliferation and use of armed drones has drifted. The ‘Joint Declaration’ initiated by the Obama Administration has stalled, and there seem to be no state willing to take forward a process, despite initial interest in a UNIDIR developed initiative.
Instead the Trump administration has tried various ways to make exports easier. The US Conventional Arms Transfer policy was updated in April 2018 with the effect that most drone sales can go through the ‘Direct Commercial Sales’ process, rather than the higher-scrutiny Foreign Military Sales process.
The Trump administration has also attempted to amend the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to remove Predator-type drones from being covered. It sought to see a “carefully carved out subset” of large UAVs moved from Category I to Category II systems, to which signatories are not obliged to apply such stringent conditions of sale (i.e. the “presumption of denial”). However, the US have so far failed to get the consensus of MTCR members to see this change pushed through.