Today we are publishing a fully revised and updated list of countries operating medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) armed drones as typified by the MQ-9 Reaper and Bayraktar TB2. Please note our list does not include states operating loitering munitions (sometimes dubbed ‘suicide drones’ by the media) or other, one-off use systems.
According to our data, 26 countries currently possess armed drones although for four of these, it is not clear if the drones are actually operational. Out of the 22 states known to operate armed drones, 11 have used them for cross border strikes, while 9 have used them to launch strikes within their own borders.
Since our last update just under a year ago, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Russia and Turkmenistan now possess armed drones. Of these, Ethiopia and Russia are known to have already used them to launch strikes, while Morocco appears to have launched a drone strike in Algeria. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan join Kazakhstan on the list of those who possess the capability seemingly for prestige purposes without any evidence that the systems are operational. Jordan’s CH-4 armed drones are non-operational and have been put up for sale, and while were rumours that they were purchased by a Libyan militia this has not been confirmed. The full list – and brief details for each country – are on our page: ‘Who Has Armed Drones?’
Turkey’s armed drone exports surge
Since developing and deploying the Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, Turkey has becoming a significant exporter of armed drones. As the table below shows, 22 states have acquired armed drones in the nine years between 2013 and 2021. All bar two of the eleven countries to gain the capability between 2013 and 2018 obtained their armed drones from China.
However, in the last three years, only two of the eleven countries to gain the capability imported their armed drones from China, while seven imported from Turkey. In addition, at least three other countries that were already operating Chinese armed drones have now also imported Turkish armed drones (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia).
Ethiopia’s procurement and use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones against Tigran forces in late 2021/early 2022 was cited as turning the tide in favour of Ethiopia. However, a number of civilian casualty incidents were also attributed to Ethiopian drone strikes. A number of other countries are awaiting deliveries of armed drones from Turkey, or are in discussion with regard to procuring the Bayraktar or other armed drones including Poland, Iraq, Pakistan and Kazakhstan.
Russia’s on-going war in Ukraine also appears to be having an impact on the proliferation of armed drones. Ukraine’s use of the Bayraktar TB2 has been hailed by commentators in the press and the war has been described as “major PR for the Turkish drone industry.” In the immediate aftermath of the invasion both Germany and The Netherlands pushed forward the arming of their surveillance drones. The Germany decision was particularly significant as there has been an eight year debate both within the German parliament and amongst the public about the ethics of armed drones. German pilots will now apparently train to use their armed Heron drones in Israel, where the drones will remain until they are needed for an armed operation.
Dutch pilots begun training with their newly received unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drones from their base on the Caribbean island of Curaçao in April 2022. Following the 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.
MTCR challenges continue
Meanwhile, both US and Israeli drone industry advocates continue to push for the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to be amended to allow them to export armed drones. A number of op-ed pieces from the defence industry-funded Mitchell Institute have been published in the press arguing the treaty is damaging the US defence industry.
However, it was Australia’s cancellation of its planned purchase of US armed drones on financial grounds that caused consternation and may have a knock on effect. Australian pilots have been flying UK armed drones over Iraq and Syria in order to enable Australian pilots to gain experience of operating armed drones but crucially also to enable British pilots to begin training on the new SkyGuardian drone. If Australia is no longer buying armed drones will they withdrawn their aircrew? And what impact will that have on the training of British crews. As we have seen in the past, recruiting and retaining drone crews has been problematic. The UK’s push to allow armed drones to fly in UK airspace appears – in part at least – to be in order to increase the number of training place for drone crews, both from the UK but also from around the world.