These cases include the targeted killing by the United States of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Qods paramilitary force, at Baghdad airport on 3 January 2020, together with pro-Iranian militia leaders; strikes on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities at Abqaiq on 14 September 2019 by some 25 drones and missiles. The Houthi movement in Yemen claimed to have carried out these strikes, but the United States and Saudi Arabia attributed the attack to Iran, which denied responsibility; and reports that Turkey had made intensive use of armed drones in Syria to destroy dozens of Syrian battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and air defence systems after several of its own drones had been shot down by Syrian or Russian forces in early 2020. Previously, Turkey had publicised its manufacture of a new drone, the Songar, armed with a machine gun or grenade launcher, controlled by artificial intelligence, and capable of being used in swarms.
These events are only the visible part of a global phenomenon that started a few decades ago but is now widespread: the resort to uncrewed air vehicles (UAVs) equipped with weapons as a substitute for air strikes previously carried out by crewed aircraft. As a consequence of the attractiveness of the use of drones – for obvious reasons of cost and pilot safety – the international market in armed drones is booming, creating risks of widespread proliferation, especially to non-state actors or states known for their lack of respect for the laws of warfare.This paper analyses these proliferation risks and formulates recommendations on how to mitigate them.
Date: August 2020
Authors: Cholpon Orozobekova and Marc Finaud