To date, only a handful of international actors have dominated the global drone market. The US, China and Israel each have the financial means, political will and know-how to develop sophisticated drone platforms and payloads, giving them not only a leading advantage in the use of drones, but also an influential position for the export of drone technology. But times are changing. As shown in this report, there is a growing group of emerging developers and manufacturers, gradually establishing their own expertise to tap into the global market for drones and build a strong domestic drone industry. Their aim is not merely to be self-sufficient in equipping their armed forces with a range of drones technologies, but also to seek a more prominent role on the global stage for drone exports. Countries like Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, Pakistan and South Africa each aim to capture a specific segment of the military drone market, focusing on relatively cheap, small and medium-sized weapons-capable drones which can be operated without a complex, high-tech satellite infrastructure.
The growing proliferation poses new challenges to existing export regulations and restrictions. Limited defence budgets and current international export legislation provide structural barriers for a more rapid spread and use of mid-segment military drones, however, the emergence of new producers, determined to take a slice of the market, signals that existing rules guiding the production and use of drones may soon be outpaced by the realities of modern warfare. A strong multi-lateral approach to set appropriate guidelines for the safeguarding of peace and stability is required. Both the 2016 US-led Joint Declaration and the 2017 UNIDIR framework stress that a constructive approach is required for states to set boundaries for the ‘responsible use’ of drones and address the various concerns raised. Where existing export control agreements lay the foundation for a more comprehensive discussion on military and dual-use drones technologies, the debate should now turn to the unique features that make drones such an enticing technology for the use of force, and the security implications that arise therefrom.