In the seeming absence of any political will at the international level to control the export and use of armed drones, their proliferation continued unabated during the first half of 2021.
The three main exporters of these systems – Turkey, China and the US – all signed significant deals, with Israeli companies also exporting large drones, although, as always, Israel never officially admits that its drones can be armed. A number of other countries are attempting to develop indigenous armed drones although it is much harder to gain information on these programmes.
Morocco: The Moroccan armed forces confirmed in April that it had signed a deal with Turkey for the purchase of 13 armed Bayraktar drones at the cost of $70m, with deliveries “to begin within the year” according to news reports. Reuters had reported late last year that the Trump administration was considering authorising the sale of SkyGuardian drones to Morocco, but this deal may have fallen by the wayside. Morocco also has Israeli Heron drones acquired via France in 2020. Reports circulated in April that Morocco had used a drone to undertake the targeted killing in the Western Sahara region of Polisario commander Addah Al-Bendir, however these reports have been unconfirmed and may be mistaken.
Poland: The Polish President, Andrzej Duda, signed a deal for 24 Bayraktar drones during a state visit to Turkey in May. The four sets of six drones will each have two ground control stations and three ground data terminals at a cost of $270m. The deal includes missiles, training ammunition and operator training. Poland becomes the first NATO country to purchase Turkish armed drones which are expected to delivered in 2022. Poland had previously considered the UK’s Watchkeeper drone and has been developing the Zefir UAV as a MALE drone, but it is now unclear whether this programme will continue.
Saudi Arabia: During a press conference In March, Turkey’s President Erdogan revealed that Saudi Arabia also wanted to acquire the Bayraktar armed drones. While Turkey has been at odds with Saudi since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and some nations have imposed an arms embargo on Saudi due to its war in Yemen – Turkey’s recently report to UN Register of Conventional Weapons shows that 3 UAVs have been exported to the country.
Turkey is a significant exporter of armed drones – with exports to Albania reported to be on the horizon – but also continues to use its armed drones for surveillance and armed strikes in Iraq and Syria, with Bayraktar drones now having mounted up more than 300,000 flight hours. The Turkish Ministry of Defence says that it now has 140 armed Bayraktar in service. A strike, allegedly by a Turkish drone, killed 3 civilians in an Iraqi refugee camp in June. Meanwhile, the new and larger armed drone being produced by the company, the Akinci, continues to undergo testing.
Pakistan: Although Pakistan’s indigenous armed drone, the Burraq, has long been rumoured to be a clone of a Chinese UAV, for the first time Pakistan has directly imported Chinese CH-4 drones, with five delivered in January. In 2016, a Chinese Wing-Loong drone crashed in Pakistan in what was thought to have been a test flight.
Indonesia received a first batch of upgraded missiles from China for its Chinese CH-4 drones in April. The Indonesian air force operates six armed drones which can be operated via satellite.
Myanmar: Chinese CH-3 unarmed surveillance drones, previously exported to the Myanmar, were spotted over democracy protests in Myanmar in the spring, with an apparent earlier version of the drone, the CH-2, crashing during one surveillance operation.
China continues to develop new and more lethal UAVs. In January, the new WJ-700 (sometimes called Falcon) jet-powered drone had its maiden flight according to the manufacturer, Hiwing. Meanwhile, the other main Chinese drone manufacturer, Chengdu, has begun work on a new version of the Wing Loong – Wing Loong 6 – according to the military press.
UAE: On taking office, the new Biden Administration ‘paused’ a number of arms sales agreed by Trump in the months since the election, including the sale of armed drones to the UAE. However, by April, the administration told Congress that the deal was to go ahead although deliveries would not take place until at least 2025.
Biden also announced a review of Trump’s unilateral reinterpretation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) which allowed sale of drones where previously there would have been a presumption of denial. However, defence commentators are suggesting that the Biden administration are likely to stick with the new interpretation even though all other signatories of the agreement are resisting the change.
Australia: Meanwhile, the US has approved the sale of up to 12 armed SkyGuardian drones to Australia. The sale, which includes weapons, training and other support is estimated to be worth $1.65 billion. Australia estimated the drones will be operations from mid-202os.
UK: Both the UK and France also purchased additional US Reaper drones in the first half of 2021. The UK surprisingly purchased one older ‘Block 1’ type, probably to try to prevent a ‘capability gap’ as the arrival of the newer SkyGuardian (which the UK is calling Protector) has been delayed.
France: France, however will significantly increase its fleet of armed drone from 12 to 18 with the addition of 6 ‘Block 5’ Reapers at a cost $80m.
The US continues to develop new systems that will enable drones to fly autonomously. Skyborg is an open, modular, software system that enables drones to autonomously fly, navigate and communicate. The US military sees Skyborg as the brains behind future ‘attritable’ drones, “a new class of inexpensive unmanned aircraft that can be replaced at minimal cost if lost to combat… that means a price between $2 million and $20 million per aircraft” writes Garrett Reim of Flight Global. Skyborg has been tested recently to fly an MQ-20 Avenger and a Kratos UAV. Separately, but very much related, Boeing is also continuing to develop its ‘Loyal Wingman’ UAV, which made its maiden flight in Australia in March.
Germany: German drone pilots are training on a new version of the Israel Heron drone, which Germany leases for use in Mali and Afghanistan. The new version has a different avionics system, but details are not being releases. Of the seven Heron’s that Germany leases, five could be armed with missiles but the acquisition of armed drones has been highly controversial in Germany, with parliament blocking the procurement of such systems so far.
India: The Indian army has also leased 4 Heron drones from Israel for use near India’s border with China. The contact was signed after the government granted ‘emergency powers’ to the armed forces to procure equipment amid on-going tensions with China.
IRAN unveiled the new Kaman 22 drone in February. The Fars New Agency reported that the new drone was undergoing final testing before entering service. Commentators noted the similarity between the new drone and the US Reaper, speculating that it may have been revered engineered.
Russia released video footage of its Orion drone apparently firing missiles and dropping bombs for the first time. Russia has been a long way behind in developing and deploying armed drones and there is still some scepticism whether the system is operational. Other reports suggested that the Russian air force would accept seven Orion drones into service during 2021.
Georgia: An aircraft manufacturer has revealed that it has been developing a new armed drone for the Georgian government over the past two years. Named ‘Project T-31’ the drone will reportedly be able to carry 350kgs of weapons and be able to fly for up to 24 hours.
Africa: Pax, released a report detailing the use of drones in Africa. The report, “Remote Horizons: Expanding use and proliferation of military drones in Africa“, shows that in the last 14 years, African and foreign states have been involved in drone operations in at least 20 states in North Africa, the Sahel and Horn of Africa.