This is the first blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2017 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Several countries began flying armament-capable Chinese-made drones in operations in 2016. Following Iraq’s acquisition of China’s CH-4 drone in October 2015, recent satellite images and postings on social media suggest that Jordan and Egypt have also purchased the CH-4, a smaller version of the U.S. Reaper drone. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have purchased the Wing Loong, the Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Predator drone, and have used it in operations over Yemen and Libya. Photos of drones in Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan suggest that these countries may also have acquired new armament-capable Chinese drones in 2016, although this has not been confirmed.
It will be important to monitor the continued growth in Chinese drone exports and capabilities in 2017, even as other countries take steps to limit the proliferation of unmanned aircraft. In August 2016, Defense News reported that the U.S. Department of State was encouraging other countries to sign on to a “joint declaration of principles” regarding armed drone exports. The one-page document lists five principles, including a resolution to engage in responsible export practices and to continue discussions around regulating the evolving technology. The joint declaration was formally announced in early October but, as Forum-listed expert Rachel Stohl (Stimson Center) argues in a statement, the joint declaration “does not go far enough to ensure that the standards are meaningful” and lacks the signatures of key countries like Israel and China.
The coming year could determine whether or not the joint declaration is indeed a step toward a global agreement on drone exports. In the meantime, the past year has demonstrated that unmanned systems technology is no longer in the hands of only the more advanced militaries in the world. As a recent publication by the Center for the Study of the Drone illustrates, there are over 30 different types of drones made in the United States, China, Iran, Russia, and Turkey that are currently in use in Syria and Iraq. Hobby drones are increasingly a tool of non-state groups in this conflict. In October 2016, an exploding ISIL drone killed two Kurdish Peshmerga and injured two French soldiers, the latest development in a worrying trend that has accelerated in the past year.
Even as more state and non-state actors adopt drones, not all drone proliferation is necessarily dangerous. As Michael Horowitz, Sara E. Kreps, and Matthew Fuhrmann write in International Security, drones could prove to be a stabilizing force along disputed or hot borders. In 2017, it will be interesting to see what role drones play along the border between Pakistan and India and in the South China Sea where drones such as the Indian Air Force IAI Heron and China’s BZK-005 are already active.
Dan Gettinger is Co-Director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.