China Is Driving Use of Armed Drones in Middle East, Report Finds

Beijing has supplied armed drones to several countries that are not authorized to purchase them from the U.S., and at a dramatically cheaper price

 In this Feb. 25, 2018 file photo, a model of the Wing Loong II weaponized drone for the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corp. is displayed at a military drone conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. According to a report by the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI released Monday, Dec. 17, 2018
AP Photo/Jon Gambrell, File

The use of armed drones in the Middle East, driven largely by sales from China, has grown significantly in the past few years with an increasing number of countries and other parties using them in regional conflicts to lethal effects, a new report said Monday.

The report by the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, found that more and more Mideast countries have acquired armed drones, either by importing them, such as Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or by building them domestically like Israel, Iran and Turkey.

China has won sales in the Middle East and elsewhere by offering drones — otherwise known as UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles — at lower prices and without the political conditions attached by the United States.

The report, entitled “Armed Drones in the Middle East: Proliferation and Norms in the Region,” said that by capitalizing on the gap in the market over the past few years, Beijing has supplied armed drones to several countries that are not authorized to purchase them from the U.S., and at a dramatically cheaper price.

“China, a no-questions-asked exporter of drones, has played and is likely to continue playing a key role as a supplier of armed UAVs to the Middle East,” it said.

The report explored where and how each of the states have used their armed drones and whether they have changed the way these countries approach air power. It found that Iran, the UAE and Turkey all changed the way they employ airpower after they acquired armed drones.

For Turkey and the UAE, armed drones enabled them to conduct strikes in situations where they would not have risked using conventional aircraft, it said. Iran developed armed drones from the outset specifically to enable to project power beyond the reach of its air force, which is hamstrung by obsolete aircraft and sanctions, the report added.

The report said it remains to be seen whether and how the loosening of restrictions on the exportation of armed drones by the Trump 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,” the report said.