Small drones, big problem. Two new reports examine the rise and rise of armed ‘one-way attack’ drones 

From top: Israeli Harop, Iranian Shaded 136, Polish Warmate.

Over the past few years  – and particularly in the on-going war in Ukraine – we have seen the rise in use of what has become known as ‘kamikaze’ or  ‘suicide’ drones.  Two new excellent reports have just been released which examine these systems.  ‘One-Way Attack Drones: Loitering Munitions of the Past and Present’ written by Dan Gettinger, formerly of the Bard Drone Center and ‘Loitering Munitions and Unpredictability’ by Ingvild Bode & Tom Watts,  examine between them the history, current use, and growing concern about the increasing autonomy of such systems.

A drone by any other name…?

Firstly, to address the elephant in the room: are these systems ‘drones’?

Naming has always been a keenly fought aspect of the debate about drones, with sometimes bitter conflict over whether such platforms should be named ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVS), ‘remotely piloted air systems’ (RPAS) or ‘drones’. ‘Drones’ has been the term that has stuck, particularly in mainstream media, but is regularly used interchangeably with UAV (with ‘unmanned’ being replaced in recent years by ‘uncrewed’ for obvious reasons).  While many in the military now accept the term ‘drone’ and are happy to use it depending on the audience, some continue to insist that it belittles both capabilities of the system and those who operate them.

Whichever term is used, a further aspect of the naming debate is that an increasing number and type of military aerial systems are being labelled as ‘drones’.  While all these systems have significant characteristics in common (aerial systems, unoccupied, used for surveillance/intelligence gathering and/or attack), they can also be very different in terms of size and range; can carry out very different missions; have different effects; and raise different legal and ethical issues.

One type of such system is the so-called ‘suicide’ or ‘kamikaze’ drone  – perhaps better labelled ‘one way attack’ drone.  There are several different categories of this type of drone, and while they are are used to carry out remote lethal attacks and therefore have significant aspects in common with the much larger Reaper or Bayraktar drones, they are significantly different in that they are not designed to be re-used, but rather are expendable as the warhead is part of the structure of the system which is destroyed in use. Importantly, while loitering munitions are a sub-set of ‘one way attack’ drones, not all one-way attack drones are loitering munitions.

Dan Gettinger’s report ‘One-Way Attack Drones: Loitering Munitions of the Past and Present’ helpfully sets out a history of the development of these systems and identifies three sub categories: anti-radar systems, portable or ‘backpackable’ systems and Iranian systems.  He has compiled a helpful dataset of over 200 such systems (although not all are currently in operation). All of these, he argues, can be traced back to “the transition from the era of jet-powered target drones to that of remotely piloted vehicles.” Read more

Armed drone proliferation update – March ’23

We have fully updated our list of countries operating medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) armed drones as typified by the MQ-9 Reaper and Bayraktar TB2.  Just to emphasis, our list does not include states possessing loitering munitions (sometimes dubbed ‘suicide’ or kamikaze’ drones by the media) or other, one-off use smaller systems.

According to our data, thirty-four countries currently possess armed MALE drones although  some of these countries may not be currently using them operationally. Out of the 34 states known to possess armed drones 12 have used them in  cross border strikes and 11 have used them for strikes within their own borders.

Since our last update in May 2022, seven new countries have acquired armed drones:  Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Mali, Niger, Poland, Somalia, Togo and Tunisia.  All have acquired them from Turkey.  While Bayraktar TB2 armed drones are being used in Somalia it is not clear if they are being used by Turkish or Somali forces.

In addition to these 34 countries, we have identified another 14 countries that are likely to acquire armed drones in the near future although this is almost certainly a significant underestimate as  proliferation of these systems, particularly from Turkey, is rapidly increasing.

The full list of countries that possess armed drones, the type of armed drones they operate, which countries are likely to become operators in the near future, and a short narrative report on each country is available on our page: ‘Who Has Armed Drones?’

Turkey’s armed drone exports

Over the past five years (2018 – 2022) Turkey has become the predominant exporter of armed drones.  Out of the 20 countries that first gained armed drone capability in that period, four received drones from China, France armed its US drones and Russia began using its indigenously developed ‘Orion’ (Inokhodets) armed drone. The other 14 all received armed drones from Turkey.  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

The use of drones in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

As the hostilities between and Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region reach their worst levels since the end of the 1992-94 war, daily reports of drones and loitering munitions being used in strikes or shot down pile up on social media, and the truth and extent are hard to clarify. This post takes a long view and looks at the protagonist’s acquisitions and use of drones and loitering munitions in the last few years and what their introduction means for peace and security in the region.  Read more

‘An Unmanned Combat Air Systems Concept of Use’ : A case study in drone secrecy

Click image to download document

A little over a year ago I discovered someone in the MoD had written a document called ‘An Unmanned Combat Air Systems Concept of Use’. It was mentioned in Defence Reporter, a useful bi-annual bulletin on research being carried out by the MoD’s science and technology labs. The summary said the document:

“aims to provide a broad outline of how it is envisioned that an Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) will be employed both in preparation for, and when operationally deployed from 2020 and beyond. It provides a vision of a potential UCAS, from which questions will naturally be generated, possibilities assessed and conclusions drawn. These questions, analysis and conclusions will help build the UK’s knowledge of a UCAS and therefore enhance our aptitude towards making future procurement decisions with regard to the utility of UCAS in any future force mix.”

Naturally as someone very interested in the development of British combat drones it is a document I would find extremely useful. As the bulletin is aimed at journalists and academics as well as the defence industry I duly applied to the MoD’s Knowledge and Information Services unit for a copy. After a couple of months back and forth about why I wanted the document, my request was refused.

I requested a copy of the document under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) last summer and was again refused. I appealed this refusal (a process that is suppose to take no more than 40 days at the extreme) and now almost seven months later, have received a heavily redacted copy of the document (click image above) together with a long letter setting out all the reasons it has been so heavily redacted.

The letter acknowledges that “disclosure of information from the UCAS CONUSE document would demonstrate openness and improve public understanding on the development and employment of a potential UAS … would also increase confidence in the military’s responsible current and future use of UAS, in particular help to allay concerns that the deployment of UAS are carried out in accordance with International Law…” Release of the full document however has been refused as it would “increase the security threat to our own forces and those of our allies.” (The full letter is here.)

Apart from one or two paragraphs the document is almost entirely redacted. Information that ‘would increase our confidence about current and future use’ of drones has been removed along with almost everything else.

A couple of days ago someone commented here on the blog to the effect that the public has no right to comment on or have oversight of the development of new weapon systems as they do not know enough about it. Only the professionals and experts with inside knowledge are capable of having oversight and control it seems. Alas, of course the same was said about the banking/financial system until its recent virtual collapse…

It is imperative that there is proper, public accountability and control over the actions of our armed forces and the development of new weapon systems. We will continue to challenge the secrecy that surrounds the development and use of British drones.

New “cool” armed drone for US special forces in Afghanistan

The Grey Eagle Drone

US Special Forces in Afghanistan are now operating their own armed drones Defence News has recently reported.  Four Grey Eagle UAV’s armed with Hellfire missiles are now with special units in Afghanistan.  We reported on the drone, previously known as Sky Warrior, in early August (US Army Special Forces Unit Gets New Drone ) but it has since had its name changed from Sky Warrior to Grey Eagle to avoid confusion and to give it a “cool name”.  The drone is from the same family as the Predator and Reaper drone and unarmed versions have been operating for some time in Iraq.    

Meanwhile the drone industry continues to develop.   A new production facility for the Orion drone, which is designed to remain in flight for five days at 20,000 feet and is capable of carrying a payload of 1,000 pounds, has been opened in Mississippi  and military labs continue to churn out new surveillance devices as the drone electronics industry revenue is expected to double to $6 billion in the next eight years.

PS.    I’m speaking about drones in Bristol tonight – if you are in the area come along!