Sophisticated, weaponized drones were once a U.S. military monopoly, but a growing number of world powers — including rivals China and Russia, rogue states North Korea and Iran, and stateless terrorist groups such as Islamic State and Yemen’s Houthi rebels — are challenging America’s longtime dominance of unmanned warfare.
In the latest sign of the battle for aerial supremacy in the drone wars, a strike Monday killed 10 fighters from a Lebanese-based Hezbollah unit fighting in eastern Syria. No group immediately claimed responsibility, but Hezbollah has been allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad in his battle against Islamic State and an al Qaeda offshoot operating in the country, while Israel has been nervously watching the Shiite militants’ advance.
That there are so many plausible suspects shows the increasing prominence of drone warfare, analysts say.
Unmanned weapon systems, colloquially known as drones, have been staples in the U.S. military arsenal since the post-9/11 global war on terrorism. The first publicly acknowledged drone strike conducted by U.S. forces was a 2001 attack against insurgents in Afghanistan just weeks after the American invasion of the country, according to a database tracking drone strikes compiled by the think tank New America.
Since then, 28 other nations have successfully developed or purchased weaponized drone assets for their militaries, according to the New America report. That list includes Iran and North Korea, which developed and deployed armed aerial drones in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
Having seen the success of the U.S. drone program, “other states are bringing their own drone programs online, and the proliferation of civilian drone technology has opened the door to the use of [unmanned aerial vehicles] by non-state actors,” wrote Alexander Sehmer, editor of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, which recently published a survey of increased drone use by Islamic State and states such as Russia and Iran.
Poland and Taiwan were the most recent entrants into the growing league possessing armed drone technology. Earlier this year, Taipei and Warsaw announced plans to field medium-altitude, long-range aerial drones for military operations.
The drone explosion is actually much larger, U.S. intelligence officials warn. As many as 87 nations are believed to possess some sort of rudimentary unmanned capability that could be used for surveillance or offensive operations.
As drone technology becomes cheaper and the availability of such technology bleeds over from military markets into commercial ones, terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda are quickly taking advantage. Commercially available quad-rotor drones, operated by simple remote controls over standard radio frequencies, wrought havoc on local and coalition forces as they pushed Islamic State back from its enclaves in northern Iraq and now Syria.
Islamic State ground commanders would often use the commercial, off-the-shelf drones outfitted with Bluetooth cameras to track movements of Iraqi and coalition tanks and armored vehicles in cities such as Fallujah, Mosul and Tal Afar.
The terrorist group would use that information to direct armored suicide car bombers to strike enemy forces advancing through the city. In some instances, Islamic State fighters would rig commercial drones with hand grenades, mortar shells or other explosive ordnance and drop the makeshift bombs onto Iraqi forces or into coalition firebases set up along the front line of the advance.
The use of commercial drones became such a concern that U.S. commanders in Iraq and Syria ordered American and coalition warplanes to target Islamic State drone-makers, putting them on par with other high-value targets. Three top Islamic State drone developers were killed in a U.S. airstrike late last month, Defense Department officials confirmed Friday.
“The removal of these key ISIS leaders disrupts and degrades ISIS’ ability to modify and employ drone platforms as reconnaissance and direct fire weapons on the battlefield,” Col. Ryan Dillon, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said in a statement.
Islamic State is not the only American adversary to exploit the military applications of drones. American warplanes shot down an Iranian-built Shaheed-129 aerial drone advancing on U.S. and coalition positions in southern Syria in July.
Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who are engaged in a civil war in Yemen, reportedly launched a sea-based armed drone against a Saudi warship in the Red Sea in January. The relatively sophisticated technology is evidence that the U.S. and its allies point to of Iranian backing of the rebel group in Yemen’s civil war.
“Our assessment is that it was an unmanned, remote-controlled boat of some kind,” Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, 5th Fleet commander and head of U.S. Naval Forces-Central, confirmed to Defense News in February. The drone strike killed two Saudi navy sailors and injured three others.
The potential for unmanned aircraft being used by terrorist groups or nonstate actors against the U.S. or its allies has weighed heavily on American intelligence officials going back to 2013.
A U.S. intelligence official who spoke with The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity, said at the time that it is “getting easier for nonstate actors to acquire this technology.”
Because drones have clear peaceful, commercial applications as well, “one problem is that countries may perceive these systems as less provocative than armed platforms and might use them in cross-border operations in a way that actually stokes regional tension,” the official said.
U.S. adversaries’ adoption of military drone technology began to peak around 2010, just as U.S. drone operations against terrorist targets under the Obama administration reached its high-water mark. That year, President Obama authorized a drone strike against U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual leader of al Qaeda’s Yemeni cell.
Iran was the first to obtain a viable unmanned combat aircraft in 2010, according to analysis by New America, fielding the Karrar armed drone. North Korea followed two years later by introducing the “suicide drone” — a modified version of the Raytheon-built MQM-107 Streaker unmanned aircraft, according to South Korean intelligence officials.
Foreign military drone sales by U.S. defense firms were tightly regulated and limited to America’s closest allies, said Alyssa Sims, a national security analyst at New America.
But those stringent limitations on the export of U.S. drone technology opened the door for rival producers, especially China, to step into the voracious market.
“Evidence of the use of armed drones supplied by China, in Pakistan, Iraq, and Nigeria in the past year alone reveals the increased willingness of foreign nations to invest money in the purchase or production of armed drones,” she wrote.
Even American weapons makers are looking to markets abroad in the wake of reduced Pentagon budgets in the final years of Mr. Obama’s term.
Beijing’s “no questions asked” approach to armed drone sales has pushed China to the forefront of international proliferators of unmanned technologies, outside of the U.S. and Israel, Ms. Sims wrote. Nigerian and Pakistani forces field China’s CH-3 armed drone, while Iraq, even as it relies on U.S. military support in the fight against Islamic State, has deployed the newer CH-4 against Islamic State positions during the ongoing war there.
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