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.  Read more

More Drone Strikes, More Drone Proliferation

Children in North Waziristan with debris from drone missile. Copyright: CIVIC

Unmanned CIA drones strikes have continued this week in Pakistan with seven people killed in a strike on an Afghan refugee camp in North Waziristan on Sunday (10th Oct) , eight killed in a strike on Wednesday (13th Oct) four of whom were alleged to be from Turkmenistan and early reports suggesting between three and six people killed in a strike today (15th Oct).  Meanwhile a new report this week from American NGO CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict) challenges the official line that civilian casualties from drone attacks are very low.  CIVIC researchers spent a year on the ground interviewing victims of conflict including drone strike victims:

Gul Nawaz, from North Waziristan, was watering his fields when he heard the explosion of drone missiles: “I rushed to my house when I heard the blast. When I arrived I saw my house and my brother’s house completely destroyed and all at home were dead.” Eleven members of Gul Nawaz’s family were killed, including his wife, two sons and two daughters as well as his elder brother, his wife, and his four children. “Yes, the drone strikes hurt the Taliban. Most of the strikes are effective against the Taliban but sometimes innocent people also become the victim of such attacks. Take my case … ” said Gul Nawaz.   “I blame the government of Pakistan and the USA … they are responsible for destroying my family. We were living a happy life and I didn’t have any links with the Taliban. My family members were innocent … I wonder, why was I victimized?”

 As Middle Eastern history Professor  Juan Cole says in a piece this week by Johann Harri of The Independent “When you bomb people and kill their family, it pisses them off. They form lifelong grudges… This is not rocket science. If they were not sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida before, after you bomb the shit out of them, they will be.”

There continues to be no information released about the use of armed drones in Afghanistan although it is certain that they are being used with pictures of the newest British Reaper drone arriving at Kandahar appearing today.


Drone proliferation also continues with Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) signing a $400m deal this week to supply Russian company Oboronprom with drone ‘kits’ for assembly in Russia.

“The main aim of our project is to develop a centre or competence of world-class unmanned vehicle manufacturing in Russia,” says Oboronprom director general Andrey Reus. “In co-operation with IAI we expect to become a major player in the market within the shortest possible time.”

Writing in the Financial Times this week, just two days before suspended from the parliamentary Labour Party over allegations about his expenses, former European Minister Denis MacShane argued that European governments need to combine to build ‘Eurodrone’ to export around the world. 

“The model should be that of a Kalashnikov [machine gun]: a robust, simple to make and easy to use design to which other specifications can be added as needs arise. This will require some surrendering of national military-industrial prerogatives. But just as the Airbus successfully replaced failed national aircraft such as the Comet or Caravelle, a Eurodrone could showcase Europe’s ability to produce a world-class model for worldwide export.”

Hopefully, with MacShane as its advocate, ‘Eurodrone’ will remain stuck on the drawing board.