Key Findings

Despite the selective drone export policy upheld by the US, over the past few years several countries across the Middle East have acquired armed drones either by purchasing them from China (Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) or by building them domestically (Israel, Iran and Turkey).

China sees UAVs as an ideal tool to deal with counterterrorism threats and views all countries in the Middle East as potential clients. The countries buying armed drones from Beijing all recognise the superior benefits of UAVs from the US, in terms of both performance and ISR integration; however, they still deal with China to acquire this technology, circumventing US restrictions and getting fast results for a lower price.

Furthermore, purchasing armed drones from China, a country which does not abide by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), enables them to gain access to this technology without being barred by international norms. Although Chinese operators often conduct initial sorties, including combat ones, they do not appear to insist on particular procedures but instead enable and teach new users to employ their armed UAVs as they wish. The perception is that this would not be the case if armed UAVs were provided by countries such as the US or the UK.

Beijing is thus likely to continue playing a key role as a supplier of armed UAVs to the Middle East. It remains to be seen whether and how the loosening of restrictions on the exportation of armed drones by the current US administration will alter dynamics in the region. Nonetheless, proliferation in armed UAVs in the Middle East is unlikely to stop and could, in fact, even accelerate, either through domestic production or reliance on external suppliers, such as Beijing.

Prestige and country-status seemed to be the main drivers for acquiring armed drones for all states in this study. Those that produce their own drones (Iran, Israel and Turkey) stress the importance of industrial and operational self-sufficiency, and view UAVs as a way to enhance national prestige even further.

The Use of Armed Drones in the Middle East

Whether countries purchase their armed drones from China or produce them domestically does not seem to influence how they are used by states in the Middle East. Only in the case of Turkey was domestic production openly advanced with the additional aim of avoiding constraints imposed by external suppliers on their use.

The impact of armed UAVs on the employment and understanding of airpower after initial introduction into service seems on the other hand to be determined by:

  1. whether or not it conferred new capabilities;
  2. whether or not drones are seen as useful for dealing with targets in high-threat operating environments; and
  3. whether or not drones are perceived as a useful tool for avoiding political and/or potentially escalatory ramifications of extra-territorial operations.

Jordan and Saudi Arabia both have adequate military capabilities without the introduction of armed drones into service and, at least for now, lack a robust threat. They continue to rely on their tried-and-tested fast jets, and UAVs are simply a way to gain status rather than a core front line asset. Such a perception, however, could change, especially in the case of Saudi Arabia, should the country realise its stated ambition to produce up to 300 armed drones with the help of China.

All other countries, albeit for different reasons, have introduced armed drones into service, but this has led to a change in the way in which airpower has been employed only in some states.

Iraq and Israel have principally deployed armed UAVs to complement, rather than substitute, the functions carried out by manned aircraft. In both cases, armed UAVs have not changed the way in which their air forces employ strike aircraft: to conduct interdiction; in support of friendly forces on the ground to provided long-endurance overwatch; and ISR coverage. In the case of Iraq, armed UAVs were perceived as a useful tool in light of the higher-threat operating environment engendered by Daesh, but this was not enough to change the country’s airpower norms and behaviours. Israel has adopted armed drones also to conduct strikes against high-value personnel and weapons shipment targets in instances where ground forces and/or manned strike aircraft are not involved. In the country’s view, however, armed UAVs remain a useful addition to their primary mission, which is ISR.

Iran, Turkey and the UAE, on the other hand, albeit for different reasons, have exhibited changes in the way in which they employ airpower following the acquisition of armed UAVs. For Iran, these conferred new capabilities, operating as it does in a higher-threat environment. The UAE, despite its adequate military capabilities, perceives armed UAVs as an ideal tool to deal with targets in high-threat operating environments without the same risks and political ramifications of manned airpower and airstrikes. Turkey only recently appears to have changed its airpower norms and behaviours, despite having had armed drones in operation for a few years.

For all three states, armed UAVs are an efficient and low-risk tool to project power while reducing the risk of casualties and the loss of manned aircraft, and their operational value appears to have so far been interpreted as residing in their cheaper cost and significantly improved time on station compared to conventional fast jets. Iran, the UAE and Turkey have conducted extra-territorial strikes as part of covert and/or agency-led assassination missions, which are unlikely to have been considered acceptable in terms of political risk level if carried out with manned aircraft. For these actors, the acquisition of armed UAVs has altered political and operational perceptions of how to project power using airpower.

Other states in the Middle East and beyond that want to increase their military capabilities, deal with targets in higher-threat operating environments, or avoid the political ramifications of extra-territorial operations, might follow the trend shown by Iran, the UAE and Turkey.

This is even more the case because for all countries examined in the research for this paper, including those in the second group, UAVs with the capacity to carry out reconnaissance and precision strikes constitute an ideal tool to deal with counterterrorism threats and, because of that, they are mainly viewed positively not only by the political establishment but also by the population.