Ukraine and Serbia are new European drone powers

Four European states now have armed drones, two of which already use them to combat „terrorism“. Another four might consider to weaponize units which have already been ordered, including Germany. All leading manufacturers of unmanned weapons systems from the USA, China, Turkey and Israel could then be represented in Europe.

The Serbian government has received a delivery of armed drones from China. Six CH-92A („Rainbow“) drones and 18 air-to-ground missiles arrived at a military airport near Belgrade a few days ago, according to local media.

The two systems are comprised of three drones each and the respective ground stations. Serbia had ordered a total of nine drones, which together are said to have cost around 27 million Euros. According to reports, a follow-up order for a further 15 drones has been agreed.

China supports Serbian drone program

The „Rainbow“ is manufactured by a Chinese state enterprise. With a wingspan of eight meters, the Serbian version of the aircraft will be able to carry a payload of 75 kilograms. The drone, which was actually developed for reconnaissance purposes, has an endurance of eight hours and is said to be able to fly up to six kilometers high. Its range, however, is only 150 kilometres.

With the purchase of the „Rainbow“, Serbia wants to further develop its own drone program „Pegasus“. This was announced last year at the air show in Dubai by the Vice Minister of Defence Nenad Miloradovic. Like the „Rainbow“, the „Pegasus“ is to be equipped with Chinese „FT-8D“ missiles in the future. The government in Beijing has allegedly promised to support Serbian developers in this process.

First missile launch in the Ukraine

Recently Ukraine has also become a European drone power. A year ago, the Ukrainian air force initially received six „Bayraktar TB2“ armed drones from Turkey for 62 million Euros. They were supplied by the Baykar company, which is owned by MIT PhD student Selçuk Bayraktar, a son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In Turkey the „Bayraktar TB2“ is flown by police and border authorities, secret services and the military. Since 2017 the military stock alone is said to have doubled to almost one hundred pieces.

The „Bayraktar TB2“ has similar specifications as the „Rainbow“ from China. Its payload is 55 kilograms, which can be transported up to 200 kilometres. In the meantime, the Ukrainian army is said to have completed its tests of the drone. According to Ukranian media, a few days ago a „Bayraktar TB2“ fired its first Turkish laser-guided missile during an exercise. However, combat missions of the unmanned weapons have not yet become known.

Battle-proven in Libya

Both China and Turkey are increasingly pushing into the world market with armed drones from various companies. For a long time Israel was the second largest exporter of unmanned systems after the USA, but most drones made by Israeli manufacturers were sold unarmed. Meanwhile China has taken this place according to various figures. According to these, the armed long-range drone „Wing Loong“ has been used by Saudi Arabia since 2014 and is now being deployed by numerous other countries in Africa and the Middle East, while the armed „Bayraktar TB2“ from Turkey has so far only been ordered by Qatar and Azerbaijan.

Current theatres of war are used for testing and also as advertising for the manufacturers. In countries such as Libya, armed drones from China and Turkey are even operated on both sides of the civil war: Turkey provides the Tripoli government with its „Bayraktar TB2“, while China supplies the Tobruk government in the east of the country with the „Wing Loong“. The „Defense World“ platform counts a total of 25 drones shot down or crashed in Libya in 2020 alone, with Turkey reportedly losing 17 „Bayraktar TB2“.

British „reapers“ on unknown missions

Great Britain was the first European country to start procuring armed drones from the USA. The „MQ-9 Reaper“, which has been delivered since 2007, is the successor of the „Predator“ from the US manufacturer General Atomics. It has been used by the United States for 20 years in various versions by the military and intelligence services in worldwide combat missions or for extra-judicial executions.

The British „Reapers“ were first stationed in Afghanistan, today the air force flies with it to „fight terrorism“ in Iraq and Syria against the „Islamic State“, but as the British platform „Dronewars“ writes, it operates also outside the official mission there.

The British Ministry of Defence now wants to modernise its fleet of unmanned aircraft with up to 26 „Protector“. The US drone is the successor model of the „Reaper“ and should also be able to be equipped with British missiles.

French armed drones in Mali

As the second European drone power, France had armed its six „Reapers“ last year and started tests. They are stationed at the French airbase in Niamey in Niger and can carry four 250 kilogram laser-guided bombs. Two more systems, each with three „Reapers“, should be delivered in 2020. According to the French Ministry of Defence, this newer model can also fire air-to-ground missiles and heavier bombs. In the meantime, the drones are said to have flown their first combat missions in neighbouring Mali as part of the anti-terror operation „Barkhane“.

Besides Great Britain and France, the government in Italy has also decided to purchase armed „Reapers“. The sale of the US drones was approved by the State Department in Washington in 2015, but for budget reasons they have been flying without bombs or missiles yet. The Netherlands has also ordered four „Reapers“ from the USA in 2018, but it is not clear whether they will be armed. Finally, Spain has also bought four armed Reapers, but there are currently no plans for their weaponization.

Bundeswehr as fifth drone power?

The German Bundeswehr could also station armed drones in Afghanistan and Mali. The coalition government made of Christian and Social Democrats (CDU and SPD) has had plans for procurement since 2014, and now the Ministry of Defense has conducted a „Drone Debate“ on the subject and submitted a report to the Bundestag with arguments for the arming of its already ordered Israeli „Heron TP“. The report argues that the Bundeswehr needs its own unmanned weapons systems, since the „partners“ (meaning the USA, Great Britain and France) in joint operations do have armed drones, but „these are often tied to other locations in the area of operations“.

The SPD wants to hold a very last hearing before passing a resolution. Afterwards, the governing coalition could present the bill for a vote in the Bundestag. After the procurement, certification and testing of the missiles, the German armed drones would then be ready for deployment in two years.

Starting in 2028, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and possibly other EU member states want to switch to the „Eurodrone“, which is also weapon-ready, and which European armament companies under the leadership of Airbus want to have developed to production readiness by then.

A drone of the Ukrainian Air Force fired a missile for the first time in an exercise (Defense Web/ Screenshot YouTube)

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.