Drone-tocracy? Mapping the proliferation of unmanned systems

by Wim Zwijnenburg

RC_long_logo_small_4webThis article is part of the Remote Control Warfare series, a collaboration with Remote Control, a project of the Network for Social Change hosted by Oxford Research Group.

While the US and its allies have had a monopoly on drone technology until recently, the uptake of military and civilian drones by a much wider range of state and non-state actors shows that this playing field is quickly levelling. Current international agreements on arms control and use lack efficacy in responding to the legal, ethical, strategic and political problems with military drone proliferation. The huge expansion of this technology must push the international community to adopt strong norms on the use of drones on the battlefield.

Media outlets around the world reported on a new Islamic State (IS) video in August, which made use of a quad copter surveillance drone to film a military base near Raqqa, Syria. ‘Drones and Da’ash: a new terror threat’, headlines suggested. But that’s old news. Drones have been operated by non-state armed groups for years. Indeed, IS had already put up a drone-filmed video in February 2014 of a convoy with armoured vehicles, SUVs and trucks in Fallujah, and Hezbollah has been investing in their drone arsenal since before the 2006 Lebanon war.

An MQ-9 Reaper takes off on a mission from Afghanistan. Source: Wikimedia

An MQ-9 Reaper takes off on a mission from Afghanistan. Source: Wikimedia

So why the mounting interest in the use of drones by these groups? And why is this a reason for concern? The armed forces of US-allied states are increasingly relying on drones for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Intelligence gathering capacity and strike capabilities have both increased hugely with the introduction of unmanned military systems on the battlefield. A handful of states, led by the US, Israel and the UK, have used drones for lethal strike capabilities, including large drones such as the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper, or smaller, pocketsize kamikaze drones such as the Switchblade.Drone use by the US and its allies has set the stage for others to jump in on these developments and apply this technology in their military operations. This has resulted in a booming multi-billion dollar drone industry and the proliferation of various types of drones, both for civilian and military applications. Over the last few years, the regimes in Iran, Syria, Sudan and groups as Hezbollah, Hamas, and recently the Islamic State have acquired unarmed drones and have actively used them during their operations. The origin of these drones? Iran.

The further application of drones for a variety of purposes is certain, yet what implications does this have for the military application of drones, and what challenges does this pose to international security and the use of these new types of technologies and weapon systems?


Although the use of unmanned systems for a range of civilian tasks clearly has its advantages, from checking oil pipelines, wind turbines and agricultural purposes, to name a few, other tasks such as law enforcement and military use deserve close scrutiny. In particular, how will drones have an impact on the use of armed violence, and are they an effective means for counter terrorism operations?

The expanding use of drones for lethal operations has been met with severe criticism from human rights groups, UN Special Rapporteurs and civilian victims of drone attacks. Drone strikes outside armed conflict have stretched the boundaries of International Humanitarian Law and have violated the right to life of civilian victims. Moreover, due to these civilian casualties, there is concern that drone strikes as a counter-terrorism strategy [PDF] only bolster support for armed or terrorist groups. The recent use of drones over contested air space between China and Japan and over the Persian Gulf between the US and Iran have demonstrated the ‘potential for miscalculation and military escalation’. The absence of transparency over targeting procedures and of an accountability mechanism further clouds proper judgement on the legality and effectiveness of drone strikes in and outside armed conflict. [i]

Mapping the spread

Drones, both low-tech and high-tech, have definitively changed the way we wage wars. Added capabilities include improved information gathering, better targeting, and even the option of equipping drones with explosives and using them for strikes against military, but also civilian targets. A Russian expert has even speculated about the possible use of drones armed with chemical and biological weapons in densely populated areas in the West.  Conventional armaments such as explosives are also possible. Finally, there is added psychological value to using drones to frighten a population, which is clear from reports from Pakistan and Yemen. Unsurprisingly, these are assets that various states and groups are keen to expand, and we are seeing more drones being operated by states and groups that are not allied with the US.

Non-US allied states

Here are some examples of non-US allied states that have deployed drones during military operations:

Iran. Iran has long worked on developing its drone arsenal. Although its technological level of expertise may far behind that of the US and Israel, they are able to produce quite some sophisticated drones which have proven effective on a number of battlegrounds. Most notably, its Shahed, Azem, Mohajer, Hamaseh and Sarir drones have been exported to Syria, Sudan, Hezbollah, Hamas and more recently Iraq.

Syria. The Syrian army has acquired and used Iranian drones for ISR and target acquisition during a couple of battles near Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. Although an accurate overview of their arsenal is lacking, the Syrian Army is know to have a wide variety of drones at their disposal. Rebels reported drone use before artillery shelling started, and Islamist group Jabat Al-Nusra apparently managed to shoot down an Iranian made Yasir drone.  This drone was likely developed by reverse-engineering a US Scan Eagle drone, of which several have been shot down or crashed in Iran. Larger type drones, such as the Shahed-129, similar to the US Predator surveillance and armed drone (though the Syrian one is not armed), have been spotted over Syria.

Sudan. The extent to which Sudan owns and uses unarmed drones remains unclear, but we do know they deployed Iranian drones over several contested areas. During the operations of the Sudanese army over the Nuba mountains against local rebel groups, different types of Iranian drones have been spotted, minutes before artillery bombardment took place on villages in the Nuba mountains.  The SPLM-A, the South Sudanese armed forces, shot down a Sudanese drone over Southern Kordofan in May 2014, which was apparently used for ISR and targeting operations. Another drone that was captured, the design of which appears to be consistent with an Iranian Pahpad type drone, had Iranian and Irish technology on board. Given that there is an arms embargo to Iran and Sudan, it would be interesting to know how this type of technology, which is probably dual-use, ended up in the hands of the regime. UN Reports on drone use for ISR missions flown by Sudan go back to 2009, when drones were spotted over Darfur.

China. China is establishing itself as a major producer and exporter of drones. Saudi Arabia has reportedly already made a deal to purchase the Chinese Pterodactyl drone, a design similar to the US Predator drone. China’s aim to explore new markets and build their own UAV industry will presumably also lead to increased cyber espionage on American defense companies, which underlines the sensitivity of keeping this type of technology under control. China is likely to have relatively light restrictions in its export policies, meaning that China will be even less accountable in this regard than the US and its allies. As a US Senate report stated, providing an overview of Chinese developments:

“Surging domestic and international market demand for UAVs, from both military and civilian customers, will continue to buoy growth of the Chinese industry… As a result, China could become a key UAV proliferator, particularly to developing countries.”

Non-state actors

Low-tech drones are cheap, can be assembled from easily accessible materials, fly low and can easily evade air defences, and are able to access restricted areas and reach their target in a short time – making them the ideal weapon of choice for terrorist groups.

Here are some examples of deployments of drones by non-state actors:

Footage released by Hamas apparently showing 'armed' drone. Source: Twitter

From footage released by Hamas apparently showing ‘armed’ Arbabil 1 drone. Source: Twitter

Hamas. In June 2014, Hamas released footage of an Iranian Arbabil 1 drone flying over the Gaza Strip, which looked as though it was armed. Before it could do any damage, it was shot down by a Patriot.  Although the missiles were likely fake, Hamas is demonstrably able to operate and exploit this new technology, which could have added value for their operations. This recent incident wasn’t the first attempt to use drones against Israel. In October 2013, news outlets reported that the Palestinian Authority had arrested a Hamas cell which was preparing a small drone with explosives to be used in an attack against an Israeli target. The IDF reported that it had previously struck Hamas’ drone capabilities in an airstrike against a drone on a runway in November 2012.

Hezbollah. Hezbollah has operated drones over their border areas for a number of years. This includes occasionally flying them over Israeli territory, which seeks to probe Israeli defences (and taunt their military supremacy) and in 2006, Hezbollah tried to crash a small drone with explosives on a military site in a kamikaze drone attack. This was part of a broader attempt using three small drones with explosives for attacks on different targets in Israel. In 2012, Hezbollah flew an Iranian-made drone over the Mediterranean Sea, before it was shot down by the Israeli Air Force.  Current estimates are that Hezbollah possesses over 200  unarmed drones, which has led to serious concerns among Israeli military commanders about the potential for armed attack with drones. In particular, existing Israeli air defences seem less capable against smaller drones: “It’s very complicated to defend against the drones, because they’re so difficult to spot,” an Israeli military spokesman said. The United States has already started blacklisting companies selling drone related technology to Lebanon, citing security concerns over Hezbollah’s growing drone capacity.

Footage from Islamic state surveillance drone showing Syrian military airport.

Footage apparently from Islamic State surveillance drone showing Syrian military airport. Source [Graphic]: YouTube (Creative Commons)

Islamic State. The first indication of the use of drones in Fallujah was in February 2014, when Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as it was then called, used drone footage for propaganda purposes. Several videos that went online in August showed that drones were used for ISR operations in Iraq and Syria, and it is likely that these drones are used for their military operations, strengthening Islamic State’s  ISR capabilities and target acquisition. The drones used seem to be quad-copters, which are fairly easy to use and acquire as they can be bought in any hobby shop.  Nonetheless, the use of these drones by Islamic State is an interesting development with regard to the new dynamic in the conflict. It means that states and armed groups such as the Kurdish Peshmerga will need to have additional defence systems to detect and shoot down these drones, adding to the complexity of the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

Improved controls

What can be done to limit the proliferation of drone technology? Current arms export control regimes that cover UAV technology are fairly limited both in participants and means. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement have a clear set of standards that could be applied to control UAV technology more strictly. However, only 43 States are members of these agreements. Moreover, these agreements are voluntary, making them difficult to enforce. The booming civilian market for UAV technology makes it more difficult to control all the items used to assemble and operate drones, ranging from software, parts, components, and different payloads.  These dual-use items are listed in the  and the European Union’s Common Positions on Arms Export Control’s Munitions List. But states have indicated that it’s close to impossible to make an individual risk assessment for each license.

As well as encouraging the uptake of existing arms export control regimes, an essential way to limit drone technology is an international push for strong norms on the use of drones on the battlefield. Urgent issues such as extrajudicial killings, the psychological impact of continuous armed drone presence on communities, and the lowering threshold for the use of armed violence in military operations must be addressed through international agreements. Most importantly, there must be a transparency and accountability mechanism ensuring oversight. Though this might place restrictions on the use of armed drones by states, it would not have an impact on non-state actors. Yet it should lead to more awareness that this technology can be used in new ways for both extrajudicial executions and terrorist operations.  Drones are here to stay, and the need for developing global norms on their export and deployment can not be ignored any longer.  States and the broader international community will have to take more responsibility for setting in motion a new process to ensure accountability and solid regulation. Indeed, as former CIA Director John Brennan said in 2012:

“If we want other nations to use these technologies responsibly, we must use them responsibly. If we want other nations to adhere to high and rigorous standards for their use, then we must do so as well.”


[i] PAX has outlined some of these concerns and fundamental questions about armed drones, reviewing the impact on military operations and underlining the need for political accountability in its Armed and Dangerous [PDF] policy paper for the Dutch government.

Wim Zwijnenburg works as Project Leader on Security & Disarmament for Dutch peace organisation PAX on drones, toxic remnants of war, and the international arms trade. He has a MA in International Development and Conflict Studies.

Featured image: Group photo of aerial demonstrators at the 2005 Naval Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Air Demo. Source: Wikipedia