Every year, Drone Wars UK counts the number of countries that have medium-altitude, long-endurance armed drones. Some of them, however, do not use them at all. Another six governments are planning to procure them, including Germany and Poland.
At least 26 states have so far procured armed drones or are manufacturing them themselves. Eleven of them have already used the systems in cross-border conflicts, and nine governments even fly attacks within their own borders. This is reported by the London-based organisation Drone Wars UK in its now published annual report.
The count only includes armed drones of medium altitude and long endurance (MALE), such as the “MQ-9 Reaper” from the USA or the Turkish “Bayraktar TB2”. Not listed are states that use so-called kamikaze drones. These “loitering munitions”, which are also becoming increasingly popular with NATO states, are similar to a missile that can circle above its target before impact and swoop down on it at a favourable moment. The entire system is destroyed in the process.
Russia and Ukraine new on the list
Also counted are countries that possess combat drones but have no evidence of their operational capability. These include Jordan, Kazakhstan and now also Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. Comparatively new to the list, in addition to the latter two countries, are Russia, Ukraine, Ethiopia and Morocco.
Of the newly added drone powers, Ethiopia stands out in particular. Photos and satellite images show the use of Chinese “Wing Loong”, Turkish “Bayraktar TB2” and Iranian “Mohajer-6”, which were used against the independence movement from the breakaway province of Tigray last year. The drone attacks, including on civilian convoys, are said to have led to the rebels’ retreat from the capital.
Russia did put its self-developed armed drone “Orion” into service in May 2020. Two months ago, the Russian defence ministry published footage of attacks originating in Ukraine for the first time. At least one “Orion” was shot down by Ukrainian forces. The Russian military also flies the “Forpost” in Ukraine, which is a licensed copy of an Israeli reconnaissance drone.
Many states buy Turkish systems
For at least a decade, US and Israeli companies were the undisputed market leaders in armed drones. The US military initially used them to fly attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, while Israel conducted operations in Gaza. However, nine countries that acquired armed systems between 2013 and 2018 sourced them from China.
Now Turkey has caught up in this segment; according to Drone Wars UK, seven countries have imported “Bayraktar TB2” drones in the last three years. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia, which relied on Chinese drones, are also now buying Turkish systems.
Several countries are waiting for delivery from Turkey or are in talks to do so, including Poland, Iraq, Pakistan and Kazakhstan.
Ukraine war creates new appetite
In another list, Drone Wars UK names a total of six countries that do not yet have armed drones but have decided to acquire them. This includes Germany, which, after an eight-year “drone debate”, wants to arm its “Heron TP” already delivered and stationed in Israel. As a transitional solution, they are to remain in the air force’s inventory until Germany, France and Italy have developed the “Eurodrone” ready for series production in 2028 at the earliest.
In addition to Germany, the Netherlands is also pushing ahead with arming its reconnaissance drones. Drone Wars UK attributes this to the war in Ukraine, where the dissemination of videos of armed drone operations have attracted much attention. Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Dutch parliament voted in favour of a resolution to arm them, but a final decision is to be made by the cabinet.
The UK is one of the older drone powers and is modernising its current fleet of ten Reaper drones with a successor model from the US manufacturer. The British Air Force wants to acquire up to 26 “SkyGuardian”, which are also allowed to fly armed domestically. This would make the UK a testing ground for war drones, which could also be used to train drone crews from foreign armed forces.
Weak international agreements
While the market for armed drones continues to grow, international agreements on their non-proliferation are being weakened. The US government, under President Donald Trump, has already withdrawn from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), established in 1987, to facilitate exports of Reaper drones.
In the “drone debate” of 2020, the black-red coalition that was in power in Germany at the time had promised to contain the use of armed drones “within an international framework of binding rules for the use of armed drones”. So far, nothing concrete has come of this either; at any rate, the incumbent traffic light coalition does not want to announce anything about it.
The German government has now accordingly “initiated a process of coordination among important international partners”. However, it does “in principle not” comment on the content of the initiatives.