This is the seventh blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2018 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Many of the trends in drone proliferation that emerged in 2016 continued into 2017 and are likely to persist in 2018. With new deals and drones, China pursued international customers for its strike-capable drones in 2017. Other countries embarked on or expanded their own programs to develop or acquire drones. And non-state actors continued to modify and deploy small armed drones, raising fresh concerns that these systems might be used to attack civilian targets.
China continued to push exports of its medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned systems in 2017. In March, Chinese media reported that China would construct a factory in Saudi Arabia to produce the Caihong-series (CH) surveillance and strike drones. China also revealed that it had made its largest sale ever of the Wing Loong II, another strike-capable drone, to an unnamed customer in the Middle East. In December, it was reported that China had successfully delivered new CH-5 drones to Egypt, which is believed to already operate the Wing Loong. While these reports have yet to be confirmed by outlets outside of China, they are in line with a pattern of growth in Chinese drone exports over the past several years. In the coming year, we expect additional deliveries of Chinese drones to global customers. New Chinese drones unveiled in 2017 like the Tengoen TB001 and Beihang TYW-1 MALE UAVs, the AT200 cargo drone, and the AVIC AV500W rotary drone, could follow the Caihong and Wing Loong drones into the international market.
Other countries took steps to acquire or upgrade their own drones. In June, Canada announced that it will acquire a variety of unmanned systems—including armed drones—for its military. France, meanwhile, has opted to arm its fleet of MQ-9 Reapers, becoming the third country after Italy and the U.K. to fly armed U.S.-made drones. At the MAKS 2017 airshow, Russia unveiled the Kronshtadt Orion-EH, a medium-altitude long-endurance drone that has been under development since 2011 and that could eventually be armed. Kazakhstan displayed a host of drones at its May 7 military parade, including the Russian-made Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone and China’s AVIC Wing Loong. The Turkish military took delivery of additional Kale-Baykar Bayraktar TB-2 drones, a mid-sized UAV that can be armed with mini smart munitions. South Korea announced plans to establish a military unit dedicated to fielding a swarm of drones and the Czech Republic announced plans to dramatically expand military unmanned aircraft procurement with the goal of acquiring a strike-capable system by 2021.
Drone use by non-state actors also expanded this year. In an analysis of documents captured from the Islamic State, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found that ISIS had a formalized system for managing drone operations. While the Islamic State’s drone use declined along with its fortunes on the battlefield, other non-state actors have adapted drones to their own purposes. In Yemen, Houthi rebels unveiled a series of drones that appeared to be inspired by Iranian systems. According to a report by the Conflict Armament Research group, one of these drones was used to attack Saudi air defenses. In Mexico, authorities found a drone that was carrying a shrapnel-filled improvised explosive device. In the Philippines, authorities captured a militant who admitted to operating a drone during the attack on Piagapo city for the Maute group, a now-defunct terrorist group that was affiliated with ISIS. The rise in these incidents have inspired concerns about the use of drones to attack civilian targets. To prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korean police simulated a drone attack on a stadium in a series of drills in December.
There were times during the past year when the proliferation of unmanned systems appeared to contribute to rising tensions between a few countries. In June, U.S. forces shot down two Iranian Shahed-129 strike-capable drones in Syria after they appeared to threaten U.S.-backed allies. A few weeks later, Iranian drones interfered with U.S. Navy operations in the Persian Gulf with one drone coming within 100 feet of a Navy jet. In response to complaints by U.S. Navy officials, Iran promised to continue its drone patrols in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, in the months following a scuffle between Indian and Chinese border guards over Chinese construction in the disputed region around the Doklam Plateau, both countries deployed drones to bases nearby. China has deployed several new Xianglong “Soar Dragon” high-altitude long-endurance drones and a CH-4 strike-capable drone to Shigatse Airport, and a BZK-005 surveillance drone to Lhasa Gongga Airport. India has also sent drones to the region, possibly basing a drone at Bagdogra Airport. In December, an Indian IAI Heron surveillance drone crashed on China’s side of the disputed border after a reported technical malfunction, leading China to file a complaint with India’s foreign ministry.
Looking Forward: United States May Contribute to Further Proliferation
It is likely that the U.S. will make a more aggressive effort to market unarmed U.S.-made drones overseas in the coming year. The Trump administration began a review of the U.S. drone export policies implemented by the Obama administration in mid-2017. In October, Reuters reported that the administration was close to completing an update to the policy, which is expected to loosen restrictions on U.S. drone exports and enable U.S. companies to sell surveillance drones like the MQ-9B Sky Guardian to customers other than NATO partners. In addition to resetting domestic policy, the U.S. may also push to renegotiate the Missile Technology Control Regime, a 1987 international agreement that established limits on missile and unmanned systems sales. Less clear, however, is whether the U.S. will continue to lead an effort to create international standards on drone exports or if such an agreement would be feasible without U.S. participation. Little in the way of concrete progress has been reported on this effort since it was announced October 2016 and, in the coming year, we’ll be looking to see if this effort gains traction inside the Trump administration and with the international community.
Dan Gettinger is co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College