States operating armed MALE drones
The rise in the military use of remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, has been astonishing. From an obscure technology originally used for target practice, drones have become central to the way in which armed forces fight wars and project power in the early twenty-first century. While the US and Israel once monopolised the field, an increasing number of countries including China and Turkey now manufacture and export a startling array of military remote-controlled drones.
Here we detail which countries are currently operating armed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drones (NATO Class II and III), typified by the Predator and Bayraktar. We do not include loitering munitions or other armed aerial systems which can only be used once – sometimes called ‘suicide’ or ‘one-way’ drones’. In addition we also detail those countries likely to start operating armed drones in the near future, either through indigenous development or imports. Table 1 details states known to currently operate MALE armed drones. Table 2 (below) details states who appear to be close to operating them. Underneath each table are brief details for each country.
In 2018, Algeria revealed that the El-Djazair 54 – an armed drone derived from the UAE-designed Yabhon United 40, but modified and manufactured locally in Algeria – had come into service. In a video shown on Algeria TV, the El Djazair 54 is shown in flight, apparently striking targets and separately pictured conducting operations. Algeria has also displayed Chinese CH-3 and CH-4 drones during military parades although several CH-4’s have crashed during apparent testing/training. Press reports in early 2022 suggest that Algeria has ordered the large CH-5 and Wing-Loong drones.
In June 2020, Azerbaijan placed an order for Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey. These were then apparently delivered and pressed into service extremely quickly during the outbreak of armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in autumn 2020 over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. As numerous reports argued, the drones had a significant impact and it may be, given the short turnaround between the order and operational use, that the drones were actually operated by Turkish contractors.
China is a significant operator and exporter of armed drones and as a large military and economic power, China has the ability to use its armed drones widely across Asia. However, there is no indication that China has conducted drone strikes in conflict. China continues to develop new and more lethal UAVs. In January 2021, the new WJ-700 (sometimes called Falcon) jet-powered drone had its maiden flight. 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.
Satellite images confirmed that Egypt had acquired Wing Loong drones from China in 2016 and deployed them to the Sinai region. Soon after, drone strikes in the area were reported but it is unclear if they were carried out by Egypt or Israel. Egypt’s drones were also reported to have been involved in a major operation against ISIS in the Sinai region in 2018. Satellite images have also shown Wing Loong II drones at an Egyptian air base close to the border with Libya, but it is unclear if these are Egyptian or UAE operated drones.
Rumours of the use of armed drones by Ethiopian forces in their armed conflict with Tigrayan independence fighters were confirmed by photographs and satellite images in late 2021. Chinese Wing Loong, Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and Iranian Mohajer-6 armed drones have all reportedly been used as well as smaller rotary-wing drones armed with mortar bombs, allegedly supplied by UAE. A number of civilian casualty incidents arising from the use of drones by Ethiopian forces brought condemnation from the UN and other international bodies.
After operating unarmed US Reaper drones since 2014, France began the process of arming its drones in late 2019. Two days after completing a first test launch, the French air force carried out its first strike in Mali in December 2019. French Reaper drones have continued to conduct strikes in Mali since then. In June 2020, the French defence minister reported that they had killed Abdelmalek Droukdal, leader of Al-Queda in the Maghreb in a drone strike. France have a further 12 Reaper drones on order to double its fleet, which will be delivered over the next few years.
Indonesia has six Chinese CH-4 drones, with at least two being acquired in 2019, but they appear only to have become operational in 2021. Indonesia is working to develop its own indigenously developed armed drone, the Elang Hitum (Black Eagle). It was to be operational in 2024, but this now seems unlikely. In April 2021, Indonesia received a first batch of upgraded missiles for its CH-4 drones.
It is hard to get an accurate picture of Iran’s armed drone capabilities due to much propaganda and misinformation circulated by both Iran and other states. What is known is that Iran now operates two MALE type armed drones – the Shahed-129 and the Mohajer-6 and a variety of other, smaller, so-called ‘suicide’ or one-way drones that are outside the scope of this study. While the armed Shahed-129 have been operational since around 2014, the first known Iranian drone strike occurred in Syria in 2016. The Mohajer-6 came into operational service in 2019.
Between four and eight Chinese CH-4 drones were delivered to the Iraqi military at the beginning of 2015 with the Iraqi military releasing a video showing the first strike against ISIS targets in December 2015. In January 2017, nine anti-ISIS Shi’ite militia fighters were killed in a ‘friendly fire’ incident when they were hit mistakenly by an Iraqi drone strike. In 2019, a US military report suggested that only one Iraqi CH-4 drone was operational due to crashes and maintenance issues.
Israel has never officially acknowledged using UAVs to launch missiles but numerous reports detail such strikes. Israeli drone strikes began to be reported by Palestinians in 2004 and by 2006, the international defence press were convinced that Israel was using armed drones for strikes in Lebanon. In 2016, The Intercept published UK intelligence documents leaked by Edward Snowden that show that US and UK agencies secretly hacked into the video feed of Israeli armed drones. It is believed that Israel operates the Hermes 450, Hermes 900 and Heron TP as armed MALE drones. Human rights organisations and the media have have detailed numerous civilian casualties arising from Israeli drone strikes.
Jordan acquired six CH-4B drones from China in 2016. However, it was reported that Jordan was not happy with their performance and had put them up for sale. Press reports indicated that they were to be sold to one of the militias operating in Libya although later reports indicated that they were still for sale. Their current status is unclear.
Kazakhstan has had two Wing Loong I UAVs since 2017 although it is not clear if they are operational and appear to have been bought for prestige purposes. Reports circulated in late 2020 that a Kazakhstan delegation had visited Turkey to view Turkey’s drone base at Batman and a year later, Turkey stated that it had signed a contract to deliver 3 Anka drones to Kazakhstan in 2023.
Kyrgyzstan officials said that the country had taken delivery of an unspecified number of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones in December 2021. It is not known if they are operational and they may have been purchased for prestige purposes.
Unconfirmed reports circulated in April 2021 that Morocco had used a drone to undertake the targeted killing in the Western Sahara region of Polisario commander Addah Al-Bendir. While Morocco has second-hand Heron drones, bought from France (and was rumoured to have some Chinese Wing Loong drones), it was not until September 2021 that Turkey delivered the first of an order of 13 armed Bayraktar TB2 drones. One of these was pictured in the air just a couple of months later and soon after, Algerian accused Morocco of killing three in an air strike on trucks in Algeria as tensions rose again over the disputed Western Sahara.
Nigeria’s purchase of armed Chinese drones first came to light in January 2015 when photos of a crashed CH-3A UAV appeared on social media. Since late 2017, the CH-3As have been regularly used in operations – both for surveillance and strikes – against Boko Haram. In November 2020, Nigeria announced that it had received a pair of Wing Loong IIs, making it only the third country after China and UAE to operate the Wing Loong II.
Pakistan’s indigenously developed armed drone, the Burraq, is based on the Chinese CH-3 drone and analysts suspect it was produced under licence. In September 2015, Pakistan announced the first strike from a Burraq, with the strike said to have killed three “high profile terrorists.” A month later, Pakistan reported that the Burraq had again hit terrorist targets in the Waziristan region, claiming it was the Burraq’s first night-time strike, accomplished with “pinpoint accuracy.” Since then there has been little public information about the use of the Burraq. In 2016, a Chinese Wing Loong drone crashed in Pakistan, apparently during a test/training flight by the Pakistan Air Force. In 2021, Pakistan received five CH-4 armed drones and these were deployed near the border with India. In early 2022, Pakistan was reported to have signed a deal with Turkey to acquire Bayraktar TB2 drones and it is thought that an initial batch has been delivered but this is unconfirmed.
The Qatari military ordered six Bayraktar TB2s in 2018. Qatari pilots completed a four-month training period and manufacturer Baykar has said it will continue to offer support and training for two years. The TB2s were reported to have entered service in 2000, but have so far only been seen in videos of military exercises..
After many years of development, Russia’s indigenously developed armed drone, the Orion, came into service in May 2020. However, some reports suggest that it had been tested in Syria earlier – with some suggesting that these tests included strikes. In March 2022, the Russian MoD released what it says is footage of Orion drone strikes in Ukraine, but the videos have been spliced together from different footage and look suspicious. However, Orion drones have been flying over Ukraine and are likely to have been used to launch strikes as their use has been verified after one was shot down/crashed. The Russian MoD has also released footage of its Forpost drone – developed from Israeli reconnaissance drones produced under license – apparently undertaking a strike in Ukraine.
In 2014 the Saudi military ordered two CH-4 and up to five Wing Loong armed drones from China. Delivery began in 2015 and by October 2016, two Wing Loong drones had been deployed to the Sharurah Regional Airport in Najran Province, near the border with Yemen. Almost immediately, one was seen downed inside Yemen. Since then a number of CH-4 and Wing Loong drones have been pictured having crashed in Yemen although it is difficult to know if they were being operated by Saudi or UAE. In March 2021, Turkey’s President Erdogan revealed that Saudi Arabia also wanted to acquire 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 the UN Register of Conventional Weapons shows that three armed UAVs have been exported to the country.
In July 2020, Serbia revealed that it has taken delivery of six CH-92 armed drones from China. This is reportedly the first export of Chinese military aviation equipment into Europe. The particular type was chosen as they were, apparently, more compatible with the indigenous Serbian drone development programme.
Turkey has three types of indigenously developed armed drones in operation; the Bayraktar TB-2, the Anka-S and the Akinci-A. The Bayraktar was designed by Baykar, a company owned by the family of President Erdogan’s son-in-law. The first batch of six Bayraktar were delivered to the army in March 2016, tested over the summer and by September of that year were in use against the PKK. Since then, Ankara has utilised its fleet of armed drones (140 in service according to the Turkish MoD in 2021) in operations against Kurdish militias in northern Syria and Iraq and also for strikes against PKK militants and Kurdish civilians in at least 11 Turkish provinces. Turkey has also exported its armed drones to a number of countries. There is some suggestion that Turkish contractors may operate armed drones on behalf of some nations. Turkey is continuing to develop and test new versions of its armed drones.
Turkmenistan displayed three armed Bayraktar TB-2 drones during a military parade in October 2021. It is not known if they are operational and they may have been purchased for prestige purposes.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (UAE)
Several sources report that the UAE acquired armed Wing Loong I drones in 2015 and there were confirmed sightings of two Wing Loong II armed drones at the UAE’s Qusahwirah Air Base in October 2017. The SIPRI register of arms transfers records that UAE possess five Wing Loong I and five Wing Loong II. The UAE has used its armed drones extensively for operations including strikes in Yemen, Libya and, reportedly, in Ethiopia.
In July 2020, the US State Department approved the sale of armed Reapers to the UAE. On taking office, the Biden Administration ’paused’ a number of arms sales agreed by former President Trump including the sale of armed drones to the UAE. However, the administration later told Congress that the deal was to go ahead although deliveries would not take place until at least 2025.
UNITED KINGDOM (UK)
The UK began using MQ-9 Reaper drones, acquired from the US, over Afghanistan in October 2007 with the first UK drone strike taking place at the end of May 2008. RAF pilots had been operating US armed Predator drones over Iraq since 2004 as part of a USAF/RAF Combined Joint Predator Task Force (CJPTF). In October 2014, UK Reaper drones were deployed for operations against ISIS in Iraq and from December 2015, in Syria. The UK currently has ten armed Reaper drones in service and is the process of acquiring up to 26 of a newer version, called SkyGuardian by the manufacture but dubbed the Protector by the UK government.
Ukraine received the first of an order of 12 Bayraktar TB2 armed drones in spring 2019 and they became operational in April 2021. They were first used to conduct a strike against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region in October 2021. A further 24 were ordered in September 2021 but it is unclear how many were delivered before the Russian invasion of 24 February 2022. The Ukraine Defence Minister announced that a further shipment of Bayraktars had been received and put into service in March 2022, with Reuters reporting that this was an additional order of 16. It is likely that this was in fact the final batch of the September 2021 order but it is hard to be sure. At least three Ukrainian Bayraktars have been verified as having been shot down/crashed during the conflict, with some reports of Ukrainian Bayraktar strikes in Russia in April 2022.
United States (US)
The US successfully tested an armed version of its MQ-1 Predator drone in early 2001. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, armed Predator drones were deployed for use in Afghanistan with the first strike taking place in November 2001. A year later, the first US drone targeted killing, undertaken by the CIA, took place in Yemen. Since then, the US has used its large fleet of armed drones to undertake strikes in multiple countries, both within armed conflicts and beyond.
States close to operating armed MALE drones
After years of public and parliamentary opposition to the arming of its Israeli Heron drones, Germany agreed to arm its drones following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The drones – and German crews – are in Israel where they are currently training for operations. The drones are to remain in Israel until they will be deployed.
India has been trying to develop an armed MALE drone for a decade. The TAPAS BH-201 (previously known as Rustom-II) is near to undertaking advanced trials. Meanwhile India, which leases unarmed SeaGuardian drones , has been seeking to procure the armed version from the US.
Italy has operated unarmed MQ-1 Predator drones since 2005 and then purchased unarmed MQ-9 Reapers in 2014. In 2015 the US approved the sale of armed Reapers to Italy but budget problems and political opposition caused delays. In 2021 funds were allocated in the defence budget to arm the Reapers but parliament has yet to grant approval.
In April 2022, Dutch pilots begun training with their newly received unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drones from their base on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine the Dutch parliament voted in favour of a resolution to arm the drones but a final decision will be taken later by the Dutch cabinet.
Poland signed a deal to purchase 24 Bayraktar TB2 drones in June 2021 during a state visit to Turkey. According to defence officials, the first Bayraktar will be delivered in Autumn 2022. Poland has been developing the Zefir UAV as a MALE drone, but it is now unclear whether this programme will continue.
Work on Taiwan’s indigenously developed MALE UAV, Teng Yun, seems to have ground to a halt following the crash of one of the two models undergoing testing. Meanwhile, delivery of US SeaGuardian drones, approved by the Trump administration, will reportedly begin in 2025 despite significant opposition from China.