Armed drones proliferation update – May 2022

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Today we are publishing a fully revised and updated list of countries operating medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) armed drones as typified by the MQ-9 Reaper and Bayraktar TB2. Please note our list does not include states operating loitering munitions (sometimes dubbed ‘suicide drones’ by the media) or other, one-off use systems.

According to our data, 26 countries currently possess armed drones although for four of these, it is not clear if the drones are actually operational. Out of the 22 states known to operate armed drones, 11 have used them for cross border strikes, while 9 have used them to launch strikes within their own borders.

Since our last update just under a year ago, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Russia and Turkmenistan now possess armed drones.  Of these, Ethiopia and Russia are known to have already used them to launch strikes, while Morocco appears to have launched a drone strike in Algeria.  Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan join Kazakhstan on the list of those who possess the capability seemingly for prestige purposes without any evidence that the systems are operational. Jordan’s CH-4 armed drones are non-operational and have been put up for sale, and while were rumours that they were purchased by a Libyan militia this has not been confirmed.  The full list –  and brief details for each country –  are on our page: ‘Who Has Armed Drones?

Turkey’s armed drone exports surge

Since developing and deploying the Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, Turkey has becoming a significant exporter of armed drones.  As the table below shows, 22 states have acquired armed drones in the nine years between 2013 and 2021.  All bar two of the eleven countries to gain the capability between 2013 and 2018 obtained their armed drones from China.

countries by year - exporter May22c

 

However, in the last three years, only three of the eleven countries to gain the capability imported their armed drones from China, while six imported from Turkey. In addition, at least three other countries that were already operating Chinese armed drones have now also imported Turkish armed drones (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia).  Read more

Drone Proliferation Update, July 2021

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.

Turkey

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.  Read more

Turkey driving drone proliferation in its quest for market supremacy

Poland confirms purchase of 24 Bayraktar drones from Turkey: Credit Polish MoD

As the mass-produced version of Turkey’s new Akinci drone passed its maiden flight test, Poland announced that it will buy several models of its ancestor, the Bayraktar TB2.

“We negotiated a contract for the purchase of four sets, that is 24 aircraft, armed with anti-tank missiles,” Poland’s defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak told state radio in a May interview. The first are to be delivered in 2022.

Poland is the fifth of six nations to buy the TB2, following Azerbaijan, Morocco, Qatar and Ukraine, but preceding fellow NATO member, Albania. The unmanned aircraft has also taken to the skies over the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, where it played a decisive role for the Government of National Accord against the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar.

The development of Turkish drone technology has been a generational effort and the result of a two-decade drive toward indigenous design and production across the country’s defence sector. In 2018, Turkey generated around $2.2 billion in sales, making it the world’s 14th largest arms exporter at the time. And while many analysts believe that several challenges – such as a nationwide brain drain – could slow the industry’s growth, the UAV programme has made Turkey an important player in the global drone market.

For decades, the United States and Israel have been the leading producers and sellers of surveillance drones, effectively holding a de facto monopoly over the industry. Figures from 2019 show that 49 countries were operating at least one UAV made in the U.S. and 39 had acquired at least one from Israel. Both, however, have been reluctant to export armed drones during their years at the top, although today, Washington is working to expand its policy so that previously prohibited governments can purchase their large, strike-capable crafts. Read more

On the Edge: Security, protracted conflicts and the role of drones in Eurasia

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Our new report, ‘On the Edge: Security, protracted conflicts and the role of drones in Eurasiaexamines the proliferation of drones and loitering munitions (often descried as suicide drones) across Eurasia. It charts their increasing use along the borders of separatist areas, aims to shed some light on the acquisition of large Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) Chinese drones in Central Asia, and asks why this has happened and what the likely consequences might be.

Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, the people of Eurasia still live with conflict and repression that are part of the post-Soviet legacy. The year 2020 saw the most serious violence since 1994 erupt between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region also saw an upturn in violence, whilst Russia maintains its hold over Crimea. Georgia’s separatist regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – are also the site of ongoing clashes. These multiple conflicts impact the lives of civilians and abuses of human rights are common in the contested border regions. Moreover, the political cultures of the five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – remain autocratic and opaque, limiting democracy and human rights.  Read more

Drone Proliferation Update, January 2021

Armed Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drone

Over the last few months have seen a number of significant developments in relation to the increasing proliferation of armed drones. The most significant of these have been the use of Turkish Bayraktar TB-2’s in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh which turned the military engagements in Azerbaijan’s favour and, secondly,  the Trump administration’s decision to unilateral reinterpret the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) agreement in order to allow it to export more armed drones.

  • This latest update details new operators and other significant developments around the proliferation of armed drones.  For our complete list of states operating, or close to operating, armed drones see Who Has Armed Drones?

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New Report: Crowded Sky, Contested Sea: Drones over the South and East China Seas

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Amid naval patrols, live military drills, island building, trade wars and diplomatic breakdown, drones are making an increasing impact on the security situation in the South China Sea and the relationship between China and the US.  Smaller nations in the region are also acquiring further reaching surveillance UAVs, while a number of states are looking to bring armed drones in to service over the next few years.

A new report from Drone Wars UK, Contested Sea, Crowded Sky, looks at the steady acquisition of drones by smaller states in South East Asia and their deployments in the South and East China Seas that are contributing to destabilisation in the region and deteriorating relations between China and the US.

Just last week, Congress received notification from The Whitehouse of a proposed sale of a maritime version of the Reaper drone to Taiwan, while US drone crews have been recently training for Reaper operations in the pacific region (“With an Eye on China, Reaper Drones Train for Maritime War”) as part of the ‘pivot away from the Middle East’.  Both incidents have greatly angered China.  Caught in a super-power stand-off, smaller states in the region also have security concerns regarding contested island chains, natural resources under the sea bed and access to fishing waters. China claims many of the small island chains but most are also claimed by several smaller states. The tensions over ownership and resources are contributing to military build-up in the South and East China seas. As well as upgrading jets and naval vessels, states are investing in longer range, more persistent unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to enhance security. Read more