Are Weaponized Drones Coming for Us?
(October 7, 2019) — A month ago, I wrote to you about gun violence, after a tragic string of mass shootings.
Today, I write to you about drone warfare, in the wake of another civilian massacre in Afghanistan where a US drone strike killed dozens of pine nut farmers on a break from work. We also saw weaponized drones from an unknown source destroy half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production capacity a few weeks ago.
Experts say that weaponized drones will be making attacks on US locations someday. With this inexpensive technology readily available to all kinds of groups — the question is not if, but when — these weapons will be turned around and used against us.
“There is not a single technology of warfare in the history of warfare which hasn’t been adopted and used by others and ultimately used against the hegemon itself, whether that hegemon be Rome, Assyria, Britain or whatever empire has used it in the past. It will happen. We will have it used against us. That is why it is dangerous to be setting these precedents.” — Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson
We need to end the use of weaponized drones against civilian populations by our US military, and stop the CIA from continuing to use them at all.
On Earth Peace is a member of the Interfaith Coalition on Drone Warfare, which held an important strategy and training conference last weekend. We are working together to end drone warfare before it proliferates further around the world.
We thank you for your support, which makes this work possible!
Who Has Armed Drones Today?
• Over two dozen countries, located throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Middle East
• ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, drug cartels and other criminal organizations, rebel groups, and other non-state actors
The era of armed drone use has arrived, and the rapid proliferation of drone technology among states and militant groups alike poses a new threat to the international community. Experts predict that every country on earth will have weaponized drones within ten years.
We will follow up with you to explore your interest in helping to end the use and spread of weaponized drones.
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1. Introduction: How We Became a World of Drones
Experts are still predicting that drones will change the character of warfare, but the reality is that warfare has already changed. The era of armed drone use has arrived, and the rapid proliferation of drone technology among states and militant groups alike poses a new threat to the international community.
Who has drones and how are they getting them? This site seeks to answer those questions, tracking which countries currently possess armed drones and how they acquired them, based on an analysis of hundreds of news reports and government documents.
So far, ten countries have used armed drones in combat: the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates. But many other countries are arming drones.
In New America’s World of Drones database, countries are sorted into three groups: those that use drones in combat, those that possess armed drones but have not used them in combat, and those that are developing armed drones. A country’s drone capabilities are classified according to the US Air Force tier system. Tier I includes low altitude, low endurance drones like the Orbiter; Tier II is comprised of medium altitude, long endurance drones like the Reaper or the Predator; and Tier II+ applies to high altitude, long endurance drones like the Global Hawk. Mini and micro drones are not classified in the tier system.
Imports and Exports of Drones
A. Top Sellers
The United States and Israel are the biggest producers and sellers of drones. America’s leading combat drone is the MQ-9 Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics, which the Air Force has used to support operations around the world for 10 years. After the September 11th attacks, the United States conducted the first strikes under the burgeoning US drone program using the MQ-1 Predator, which the Air Force flew in combat for 21 years. On February 27, 2017, the Department of Defense announced the retirement of the Predator drone to “keep up with the continuously evolving battlespace environment.” The United States has sold drones only to NATO members.
Israel’s IAI Heron is designed to compete with the Reaper. Israel is the largest exporter of drones in the world. Israel accounted for 41 percent of all drones exported between 2001 and 2011, according to a database compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), though Israel refuses to release the full list of countries to which it has sold military arms. A partial list of recipients includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Australia, Germany, Spain, Brazil, India, China, the Netherlands, Azerbaijan, and Nigeria.
China is a growing drone exporter and has filled gaps in the market with its more liberal export policy. In 2015, Pakistan, Iraq, and Nigeria all conducted strikes using armed drones supplied by, or developed in coordination with, China. As of 2018, China confirmed the export of drones to 10 countries, in addition to unconfirmed reports alleging sales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
In November 2013, Pakistan’s military unveiled two domestically produced drones that experts say appear to be based on China’s CH-3, a model which Pakistan also has in its arsenal. The CH-3 appears to be China’s most popular model, with exports to both Pakistan and Nigeria, and an upgraded Chinese model, the CH-4, has appeared in arsenals across the Middle East.
On December 6, 2015, Iraqi armed forces released footage of a CH-4 in action, striking an ISIS position in Ramadi. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are reported to have purchased the CH-4 as well. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have operated unarmed versions of the CH-4 in their campaign in Yemen, and in 2014, Jordan was reported to be in talks to purchase armed drones from China to combat ISIS in Syria.
A new addition to the Caihong family, the CH-5, debuted in 2016. The CH-5 has increased altitude, operational, and payload capacities. According to Caihong developers, a number of nations are in talks to purchase the new model.
According to SIPRI’s arms transfers database and Statista, India and the United Kingdom are the largest importers of drones internationally. According to a Business Insider report based on SIPRI data, India accounted for 22.5 percent of drone imports between 1985-2014. That percentage shrinks to 13.2 percent when measured between 2010-2014, but still puts India in second place. In addition to its imports, India also has indigenous Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) in its drone arsenal. On November 16, 2016, India’s Rustom-II, an armed Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance (MALE) drone, successfully completed a test flight.
From 2010-2014, the United Kingdom was the largest importer of drones, accounting for 33.9 percentof drone imports for this period. The United Kingdom produces small, MALE, and Watchkeeper drones, which is based on an imported Hermes 450 drone from Israel, domestically and is the only country to which the United States exports armed Reaper drones from United States.
UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced at a 2016 security conference hosted by the United States a new contract with General Atomics that will double the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) drone fleet. The “Protector” drones developed under the contract will provide an update to to the Reapers in the military’s arsenal, improving imaging and increasing the airborne time. The UK will arm the Protector with indigenously developed Brimstone 2 missiles and Paveway IV laser-guided bombs, according to a Guardian report.
US drone strikes hit militants in Pakistan (Dec 26, 2014)
For nearly a decade, the small group of armed drone users was limited to the the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel. But that club expanded with the entry of Pakistan in 2015. Pakistan used its domestic model, the Burraq—modeled after the Chinese CH-3—to strike militants in the North Waziristan tribal region. The Pakistani government announced the strike publicly.
Nigeria and Iraq both used versions of China’s popular Caihong drone when striking at militants within their borders in February and May respectively. Turkey launched a strike in 2016 against presumed ISIS militants on its border region just a year after demonstrating armed drone development capability. Iran also launched its first strike in 2016, though it has been developing its drone capability for decades.
Countries with Drones Used in Combat
Over two-dozen countries in the World of Drones database have armed drones, but not all of them produced their UCAVs at home.
Many countries seeking armed drone capability without the capacity to develop UCAVs domestically have turned to China.
Chinese-made drones have been used extensively to combat extremism outside of China, but the Chinese military has avoided conducting lethal strikes themselves. However, in 2013, the New York Times reported that China considered using a drone to kill a Burmese drug lord, but opted to capture and try him in court. He received a death sentence.
European nations have acted collectively to develop the next generation of armed drones, most notably the nEUROn UCAV technology demonstrator and the MALE unmanned aircraft. Resembling the American X-47B, a drone primarily operated by the US Navy in carrier-based operations, but purportedly more advanced than present-day “Predator-class” drones, the nEUROn UCAV demonstrator unveiled on January 20, 2012 in France is a product of a joint European effort involving France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden. It is the first stealth combat drone developed in Europe.
In another showcasing of cooperative European stealth drone design, the “drone users club” consisting of France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain, agreed on November 19, 2013, to jointly develop armed, MALE drones.
The desire to develop armed drones domestically extends beyond European borders. Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Taiwan, and India have taken steps toward independent armed drone production with varying results. Seeking protection against neighboring China and Pakistan, India developed Rustom-I UAVs in 2009 and armed Rustom-II MALE UAVs in 2015. While Russia and Taiwan remain in the research and development stage, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey have succeeded in developing armed drones.
Several non-state actors have incorporated drones into their operations. While rebel groups from South America to the Middle East have used commercially available rotary-winged drones to surveil enemy positions, more tech-savvy groups such as ISIS have armed these over-the-counter drones and used them in combat.
ISIS, the militant group headquartered in Syria and Iraq, announced in January 2017 the establishment of a formal drone unit—”Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen”—that organizes unmanned aircraft campaigns on the battlefield.
Like other groups, ISIS traffics in commercial drone technology, attaching munitions to over-the-counter quadcopters and small fixed-wing drones. Unlike groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, ISIS does not yet have access to military-grade unmanned aircraft.
However, their drone campaigns are highly organized and have resulted in casualties. In October 2016, Kurdish forces shot down and confiscated an ISIS quadcopter, artificially armed with explosives. It later detonated, killing two Kurdish fighters, in the first known incident of the militant group killing troops on the battlefield with their unmanned systems.
The deadly attack followed two years of ISIS using drones only for surveillance. US officials confirmed to the Washington Post that the group crossed a threshold in terms of drone capability with the strike.
Houthi Rebels, the Iran-backed rebel group in Yemen, unveiled a new drone capability on January 30, 2017, when it struck a Saudi warship in the Red Sea with an armed unmanned maritime craft. This maritime drone strike killed two Saudi Navy sailors and injured three others. Like the armed commercial drones popular among militant groups, this drone requires remote operation.
Evidence shows that the rebel group is acquiring drones from Iran. On January 28, 2017, the UAE Air Force assisted Arab Coalition Forces in destroying an Iranian military drone prior to launch from Houthi-controlled territory. Also, two military-grade UAVs were on display at an event attended by senior rebel officials on February 26, 2017: the Qasif 1 which resembles Iran’s Ababil 2 and the Raqeep, which according to IHS Jane’s, “may have been an AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven that crashed in Yemen and was reassembled for the event.”
Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group, was the first non-state actor known to deploy military drones, launching a Mirsad 1 military-grade surveillance drone into Israeli airspace in November 2004. According to an American Federation of Science (FAS) report Hezbollah flew the drone “south from Lebanon into Israel, hovered over the Western Galilee town of Nahariya for about 20 minutes and then returned to Lebanon before the Israeli air force could intercept it.”
Despite the evidence that Hezbollah has long had functioning military drones, the group has used them sparingly. In 2006, the militant group launched armed Ababil drones into Israeli airspace that were subsequently shot down. The group has recently demonstrated a preference for commercial drones. In August 2016, the group used small quadcopters armed with munitions to launch an attack on rebel positions in Aleppo, Syria.
Hamas, the Palestinian group which rules the Gaza strip, has military-grade, Iranian-made Ababil drones. Hamas claims to have manufactured three types of drones themselves: surveillance, armed, and one to serve as a guided missile.
In September 2016, the Israeli Defense Forces shot down a Hamas drone that had breached Israeli airspace. And in December of the same year, Hamas’ Qassam Brigades, the militant wing of the organization, acknowledged the death of Mohammed Zawari, the apparent supervisor of their drone program, shedding light on the group’s little-known drone operations.
Hamas has posted video and images of a drone in its possession that has four small rockets or missiles under its wings.
In addition to ISIS, the Houthi rebel group in Yemen, Hezbollah, and Hamas, several other groups are reported to have used commercial drones to surveil enemy forces in combat zones. These groups include: Libyan rebels, the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Jabhat al-Nusra, Faylaq al-Sham and Saraya al-Khorani, both Syrian rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Colombian and Mexican drug cartels such as the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), a group active in Central Mexico.
In August 2018, an alleged assassination attempt on President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela took place in the capital, Caracas. Interior Minister Nestor Reverol stated that attackers used two DJI M600 drones that each carried 1 kilogram of C-4 explosive. President Maduro escaped unharmed.
The United States and the United Kingdom have used drones to kill their own citizens abroad. Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Turkey have struck militants within their borders, and Israel has conducted strikes within the occupied Palestinian territories. The legality of drone strikes is unclear under international law, and the legal status of using drones to kill citizens abroad—or within controlled territory—is even less so.
Where Citizens of the United States and United Kingdom Were Targeted
Anwar al-Awlaki was targeted and killed by a US drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011, along with three other al Qaeda militants. One of these three was Saudi-born American citizen Samir Khan, editor of al Qaeda’s English language online magazine, Inspire. Anwar al-Awlaki’s American-born son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in an October 14, 2011, drone strike on an outdoor cafe in Shabwa, Yemen.
The target of the strike was reportedly not Abdulrahman, but Egyptian al-Qaeda leader Ibrahim al-Banna. According to a BBC report, a memo from US Assistant Attorney General David Barron to Attorney General Eric Holder “cited a 2006 Israeli Supreme Court decision that targeted killings were a legitimate form of self defence[sic].”
Mohammed Emwazi, the Kuwaiti-born British ISIS member known as “Jihadi John” was killed on November 12, 2015, when his vehicle was targeted by British and American drones in Raqqa, Syria. His car was hit with a hellfire missile fired from an American Reaper drone. Two British citizens, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, were killed in a targeted RAF drone strike in Raqqa, Syria on August 21, 2015.
Where Pakistan Conducts Strikes at Home
On September 7, 2015, Pakistan conducted a drone strike—using an indigenously built drone—in Shawal Valley in North Waziristan, a semiautonomous tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Three “high-profile” terrorists were killed, according to the Pakistani Army’s spokesman.
Where Iraq Conducts Strikes at Home
On May 25, 2016, Iraq’s Army Aviation unit published a video on YouTube that showed four drone strikes that reportedly killed 10 ISIS fighters. The Iraqi military conducted the strike with China’s Caihong 4 (CH-4).
Where Nigeria Conducts Strikes at Home
On February 3, 2016, Nigeria reported the military’s first use of an armed drone, striking at the militant group Boko Haram. Nigeria used the Caihong 3 (CH-3) to conduct the strike.
As export laws loosen internationally and drone technology proliferates, nations mired in internal conflict (i.e. insurgent and terrorist threats) may choose to strike within their own borders at higher rates.
Where Turkey Conducts Strikes at Home
In 2016, Turkey deployed armed Bayraktar TB2 drones in domestic counter-terrorism operations against PKK militants in the southeastern Hakkari province. According to Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik, the drones killed 72 people in strikes on militants in the first two months of their deployment.
Where Israel Conducts Strikes within Controlled Territory
Israel has made extensive use of armed drones in the Gaza Strip. Israeli drones have targeted a number of Hamas leaders, including senior military commander Ahmed Jabari, who was killed on November 14, 2012.
When the Houthi rebels in Yemen first used maritime drones in January 2017, the assault on a Saudi frigate highlighted the little-known development of sea-capable semi-autonomous weapons. While maritime drone technology is not yet proliferating at the pace of aerial drones, countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia are already looking seaward in terms of drone development.
The US Navy sees maritime drones as a key part of the Third Offset strategy, which seeks to leverage next-generation technologies against America’s adversaries. Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) enable the creation of an underwater intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance network that mirrors US aerial and land-based networks.
According to a 2016 DoD report entitled “Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Requirement for 2025,” Submarine based UUVs will be used to extend the effective range of the host submarine’s sensors and weaponry. These drones will be used to carry out missions considered too dangerous for crewed vehicles, like mine countermeasures, and to serve as decoys to disguise the locations of manned submarines.
In remarks delivered aboard the USS Princeton on February 3, 2016, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the United States would invest “$600 million over the next 5 years” in UUVs. In September 2017, Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron (UUVRON) 1 was established. The US Navy highlighted that “UUVRON-1 has been developing the tactics, techniques and procedures that will shape how the Navy will use the unmanned undersea vehicles.”
In June 2019, the Navy reported that the Naval Undersea Warfare Center partnered with UUVRON-1 to create micro UUVs to assist with “extend[ing] the reach of the fleet; including near-shore and denied areas.” Technologists have started developing micro unmanned underwater vehicle and unmanned surface vehicle swarm technology, as well as mine-hunting UUVs for the Navy.
In April 2016, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) christened the Sea Hunter, a 132-foot autonomous ship designed to locate enemy submarines. The Sea Hunter made its firstautonomous round-trip from California to Hawaii between late 2018 and early 2019.
In December 2016, the US Navy demonstrated that a swarm of autonomous surface vessels could work cooperatively to patrol a harbor. The drone boats are programmed to identify and track potentially threatening vessels, both surface craft and submarines. The Echo Voyager, introduced in 2016, is a large reconnaissance UUV that can operate autonomously for six months and surface to send data to its operator via satellite. In August 2019, the Navy announced its plan to build larger, corvette-sized USVs to keep the United States competitive against other great powers.
The British Royal Navy shares the United States’ interest in maritime drones. The United States and United Kingdom staged the first Unmanned Warrior exercise in Scotland in October 2016, where drones from different countries were networked together to work as a unit.
In August 2015, Russia launched a retrofitted SSBN capable of launching crewed mini-subs as well as UUVs like the deepwater surveillance drone Klavesin-1R. In September 2015, the Washington Free Beacon reported that Russia was developing a stealthy, nuclear-armed UUV called the “Status-6”. In 2018, a leaked copy of the draft Pentagon Nuclear Posture Review confirmed Russia’s underwater nuclear weapon operability.
About this Project
This In-Depth report from the International Security Program examines the proliferation, development, and use of armed drones. The World of Drones database draws upon media reports and other open source information to track which countries and non-state actors have armed drones or are in the process of developing them; which actors have used armed drones in combat; and which non-state actors are artificially equipping over-the-counter drones with improvised explosives like ISIS, or have obtained military-grade UAVs like Hezbollah.
Peter Bergen is a journalist, documentary producer, vice president for global studies & fellows at New America, CNN national security analyst, professor of practice at Arizona State University where he co-directs the Center on the Future of War, and the author or editor of seven books, three of which were New York Times bestsellers and four of which were named among the best non-fiction books of the year by The Washington Post. The books have been translated into twenty-one languages. Documentaries based on his books have been nominated for two Emmys and also won the Emmy for best documentary.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.