Ukraine drones may grab all the headlines, but armed drones are enabling lethal force around the globe

President Zelensky stand with a ‘suicide drone’ in Kyiv, Oct 2022

As we reach the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you could be forgiven for thinking that the on-going conflict in eastern Europe has become the epicentre of the use of drones.

However, while the use of UAVs by Ukrainian and Russian forces has been very significant, it is important to be aware that there are real and important differences between the use of mainly small drone systems by parties in that conflict, and the use of large armed drones by other states such as the US, UK, Israel and Turkey even since the beginning of 2023.

Drones use in the Ukraine war

Over the past year, hardly a report on the war has failed to mention Ukraine’s use of surveillance drones to zero in Ukrainian artillery and rocket attacks on Russian forces or more recently, Russia’s use of Iranian  so called ‘suicide drones’ to attack Ukrainian targets.

Early on in the conflict, Ukraine deployed a number of larger armed Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones.  Media reports at the time lauded the use of these as a game-changer and some even went so far as to suggest that use of armed drones would be strategically significant in the conflict.  However it quickly became apparent that the Bayraktar drones were very vulnerable to air-to-ground missiles as many were shot-down or crashed (see our crash database) and they quickly disappeared from the battlefield.  Some suggest that a few Bayraktars remain hidden and are being used covertly or kept for future operations but it is impossible to verify such claims.

Russia has at least one type of the larger armed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone in its inventory – the Inokhodets or Orion (not to be confused with the much smaller and ubiquitous surveillance drone, the Orlan).  However, like the Bayraktar, the armed drone seems to have disappeared from the skies after one was shot down in April 2022.

Both sides have also occasionally used very old, soviet-era unmanned aircraft such as the Tupolev Strizh or Reys as missiles.

More recently, Russia has also used systems acquired from Iran. These have mainly been the Shahed 131/136 which are  technically loitering munitions that can only be used once, and have gained the moniker of ‘suicide drones’ in the press.  Alongside Russia is known to have acquired Iranian Mohajer-6 armed drones (one was filmed being fished out of the Black Sea after it was shot down/crashed) and, according to US sources, the Shahed 191 /129 armed UAVS, but these have not been seen in use.

Alongside the use of loitering munitions, both sides have primarily used small, short range drones for reconnaissance and  surveillance as well as targeting of artillery and rocket systems. While the use of drones in this way has been very significant – indeed perhaps the most significant use of drones for this purpose in any conflict until now – it is very different to how some states are using armed drones elsewhere.

Armed drone attacks outside of Ukraine virtually ignored

Even since the beginning of 2023, let alone the start of the Ukraine war, there has been significant use of armed drones by the states including the US, Israel and Turkey to conduct unlawful attacks.  These strikes, however, only get a fraction of the amount of media attention that drone use in Ukraine has, and are virtually ignored by the international community. 

  • Israeli drone attack on Iran, 28 Jan 2023
Video still from site of drone attack in Isfahan, Iran

Overnight on 28/29 January, explosions rocked a military facility in Isfahan, Iran.  Iranian officials reported that the site had been subject to a drone attack (although saying the drones had been shot down).

Within hours, US officials denied that the US was responsible but pointed to Israel as the source of the attack. While Israel did not officially acknowledge the strike,  it did admit for the first time, that its long range drone, Eitan (also known as Heron TP) could “carry munitions, with an effective payload of around a tonne“.  In the less than transparent world of drone attacks, many took this as tacit acknowledgement.

  • US drone strike, Yemen, 30 Jan 2023
Wreckage of car struck with R9X Hellfire missile, Yemen 2023

Three individuals, suspected members of al-Qaida according to locals, were killed by a US drone strike on a car travelling near Marib, east of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a on 30 January.

Neither the US military nor the CIA acknowledged the strike, but experts identified that the car as being subjected to a strike by R9X Hellfire missile. Only the US has been known to use this type of munition.  The missile, which contains steel blades rather than explosives, leaves a distinctive pattern on wreckage.

The US has been engaged in a two-decade long drone war in Yemen and, despite promises made by President Biden to be more transparent, nothing is known about the reason for the strike or what legal justification the administration would claim.

  • Turkish drone strikes, Syria, 18 Jan 2023
Car attacked by Turkish drone, Al-Hasakah, Syria, Jan 2023.

A Turkish drone strike targeted a vehicle travelling on Al-Qahtaniya Road in  Al-Hassakah, Syria on 18 January.  The driver of the vehicle, a civilian according to locals, was killed, and two others, including a 12-year old child who were hit by shrapnel from the explosion, later died of their injuries.

Turkey has used its armed drones to carry out at least six such attacks in the area since the beginning of 2023.

  • Nigerian drone strike, 24 Jan 2023

At least 21 members of a civilian security force, protecting cattle and property from raiders, were killed by an apparent Nigerian Air force drone strike in Galadima Kogo, Niger State, Nigeria.  The strike took place in the aftermath of a raid in which several villagers were kidnapped and herds of cattle were rustled.

Victims of alleged US drone strike in Somalia, Jan 2023.

Government officials said an investigation has begun into the incident, but as ABC News reported, such mistakes are far from unknown in Nigeria, with a lack of accountability being an important factor.

  • US drone strikes in Somalia, 20 Jan / 23 Jan / 25 Jan / 10 Feb / 15 Feb

Little to no attention is being paid to continuing US drone strikes and special forces operations in Somalia targeting al-Shabaab.  While a number of drone strikes have been acknowledged by the US, others have not.  While some of these actions are being undertaken in partnership with Somali armed forces under the rubric of ‘collective self-defence’, these often appear to be offensive operations rather than in self-defence.

Separately to these operations, President Biden has put a number of Somali individuals on a drone targeted kill list, at least one of whom has been killed in a targeted drone strike.

All armed attacks must be condemned

Continuing drone attacks such as these by the US and other states clearly undermines international law and are a spur to other states to ignore human rights rules. While it is absolutely right that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is condemned and opposed, any such censure is surely weakened by turning a blind eye to other armed attacks and violations of international law.  This is not ‘whataboutery’ as some may no doubt claim, but a matter of consistency and international law.

For many at the moment, drone warfare – indeed war – is only being viewed through the situation in Ukraine.  But beyond this European conflict, armed drones are continuing to enable states to use lethal force with virtual impunity and must continue to be challenged.

Leave a Reply