Drones are increasingly ubiquitous in counterinsurgency and low-intensity conflicts, especially in the Middle East. Their ability to gather covert intelligence and deliver strikes against hard targets relatively cheaply and with impressive endurance, allowing them to remain on station providing continuous support for many hours at a time, has made them the weapon of choice for many militaries.
In the Middle East, a growing number of actors (both state and non-state) have rapidly moved from the development and acquisition of armed drones to regular employment of these weapons for lethal effects.
While technology from the US still leads the way in military unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAVs), the country has followed a selective drone export policy, intended to prevent drones from ‘fall[ing] into hostile hands, be[ing] used to suppress civil unrest or … erode Israel’s military dominance’. The policy has been widely credited with driving the global proliferation of drones by pushing countries that cannot purchase US-made drones towards either domestic drone production or the acquisition of non-US-made drones.
China, in particular, has become an increasingly influential player, ‘taking advantage of that hole in the market’. Some within China believe that by implementing a selective export policy on drones, the US was trying to maintain its dominant and exclusive role in the field. Instead, by capitalising on the gap created in the market, over the past few years, Beijing has supplied armed drones to several countries that are not authorised to purchase them from the US, and at a dramatically cheaper price.
China has often been described as a no-questions-asked exporter of drones, one ‘less encumbered by human rights considerations over its sales of drones’. The country is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). In fact, it is still not clear whether drones fall under the civilian, dual-use or military items category in China. The country is still debating the issue of export control on UAVs and, while not necessarily opposed to the establishment of a new set of norms created by the UN applying specifically to drones and avoiding proliferation, at the moment it de facto does not abide by any principle that constrains its exports.
This is despite the fact that China is aware that drones, like all new technologies which facilitate remote warfare, might inherently lead to unintended consequences, such as civilian casualties or the reduction of the threshold for the escalation of confrontations.
Beijing follows only two criteria when choosing its clientele. The first is that it deals only with states, which it sees as reliable actors that do not raise any concerns about drone proliferation – this would worry China only if UAVs fall into the hands of terrorist groups and non-state actors, in line with Beijing’s broader view about sovereignty and its opposition to separatist groups and non-state actors. The second is that it prioritises countries that want to use drones for counterterrorism (CT) operations. For China, UAVs that have the capacity to carry out reconnaissance and precision strikes constitute an ideal CT tool, both for its own purposes and for its customers.
In the Middle East, China prides itself on not taking any side, seeing all countries in the region as potential clients and selling armed UAVs, in particular, to those which have a security concern and which, without such aircraft, would not be capable of dealing with the CT threat (Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE). The question of whether China also supplies clients with satellite control capabilities using Chinese or commercial satellite networks remains unanswered. Without satellite communications, the operational range of UAVs is limited to line of sight from ground control stations, which varies between around 150km and 200km depending on altitude, topography and other factors. Since the US will not allow the integration of Chinese UAVs into US-designed and/or -operated command, control and communications systems on information security grounds (among others), this is a significant open question as even US-aligned Middle Eastern powers cannot use US/satellite communications to operate their Chinese UAVs.
What this all means for the spread of norms, training, processes and ethical considerations in the Middle East has so far been understudied. There appears to be very little scholarship on the emerging political and operational norms which are being generated by countries in the region.
The goal of this study is twofold: it first aims to provide an in-depth inventory of armed drones possessed by Middle Eastern states, either produced domestically or imported, assessing quantity, types and timeframes; and second, it aims to explore where and how armed drones have been used so far, both by countries that produce their own and those that import them, to assess whether and how their practices and ethical considerations around airpower and airstrikes are affected. The end goal is to contribute to the existing knowledge on UAV proliferation and its broader implications.
It should be noted that the research findings were not affected by the fact that, in April 2018, the current US administration loosened restrictions on exporting armed drones to allies in the region ‘in situations where it will enhance those partners’ security and their ability to advance shared security or counterterrorism objectives’. The authors recognise that this change could not only lead to a significant competition between the US and China for influence and access to the regional market, but could also alter the factors influencing the use of drones by Middle Eastern countries. However, at the time of writing, implementation of the regulation was still pending, the status of drones under the MTCR was unchanged, and China was still the only supplier of armed drones to countries in the region. Broader implications are therefore still unclear and are well worth further examination.
Jeremy Page and Paul Sonne, ‘Unable to Buy S. Military Drones, Allies Place Orders with China’, Wall Street Journal, 17 July 2017.
Noel Sharkey, ‘The Automation and Proliferation of Military Drones and the Protection of Civilians’, Law, Innovation and Technology (Vol. 3, 2, 2011), pp. 229–40; Majed Akhter, ‘The Proliferation of Peripheries: Militarized Drones and the Reconfiguration of Global Space’, Progress in Human Geography (Vol. 2, No. 10, 2017), p. 7.
Sharkey, ‘The Automation and Proliferation of Military Drones and the Protection of Civilians’, 231.
Author interview with specialist on Chinese international relations, Beijing, 23 July
Sharon Weinberger, ‘China Has Already Won the Drone Wars’, Foreign Policy, 10 May
Adam Rawnsley, ‘Meet China’s Killer Drones’, Foreign Policy, 14 January
Michael J Boyle, ‘The Race for Drones’, Orbis (Vol. 59, No. 1, 2015), p. 84
The MTCR is a 30-year-old agreement that aims to limit the spread of missile technology and is frequently interpreted by members as applying to armed UAVs in addition to cruise missiles. China has informally agreed to abide by the original provisions of the 1987 agreement, but not subsequent revisions. In interviews conducted by the authors in Beijing, China’s opposition to becoming a member was explained as being due to the lack of universality of the legislation. It was also argued that the MTCR is not suitable for drones and should apply only to missiles; author interviews with specialists on Chinese international relations and disarmament, Beijing, 23–24 July
Author interview with practitioners familiar with Chinese defence matters, Beijing, 24 July
Author interviews with specialists on Chinese international relations and disarmament, Beijing, 23–24 July
Author interviews with specialists on Chinese international relations and disarmament, Beijing, 23–24 July 2018, and London, 24 October
China conducted its first strike against a terrorist target in 2014, see Mathieu Duchâtel, Terror Overseas: Understanding China’s Evolving Counter-Terror Strategy (London: European Council on Foreign Relations, 26 October 2016).
Author interviews with specialists on Chinese international relations, Beijing, 23–24 July 2018; Economic Times, ‘Chinese Armed Drones Now Flying Across Mideast Battlefields’, 3 October 2018; Brenda Goh and Gerry Doyle, ‘U.S., Israeli Drone Makers Keep Wary Eye on Rising Chinese’, Reuters, 8 February
US Department of State, ‘U.S. Policy on the Export of Unmanned Aerial Systems’, 19 April
Chinese experts on disarmament and export control argued that the new US regulations do not pose a challenge to China’s outreach to the region, given that, unlike Washington, Beijing does not limit its engagement only to allies; author interview with specialists on Chinese disarmament, Beijing, 24 July
Aaron Mehta, ‘US to Push New Rules for Drone Agreement in November’, Defense News, 11 September