The last few years the use of remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles has radically changed the way armed conflicts are being waged. However, this approach cannot be described as new, as the first experiments with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in combat took place during the Second World War, although the technology was still in its infancy at that stage and the results were unimpressive. Nevertheless, in the early 1960s the US started to use the Ryan Model 147 UAV for intelligence work, and in 1964 the USSR introduced its “Hawk” Tu-123.
Over the last decade UAV technology has evolved dramatically. While in the past they were used mainly for aerial photography and filming, they now accomplish more challenging tasks including coordinating the actions of ground forces, correcting the aim of gunners in manned aircraft and artillery, identifying enemy air-defense systems and bombing targets on the ground. Currently the main manufacturers and operators of UAVs include the USA, Israel, Turkey and China, while this sector is also well developed in Russia, Canada, Norway and Iran.
The 2020 conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh vividly demonstrated the effectiveness of combat UAVs when used well, and the new reality has forced military commentators to promptly reconsider their conceptions of tactics and made governments revise their defense strategies. First during the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and then in Russia’s special operation against the Nazi regime in Ukraine, hundreds of units of military equipment have been destroyed by UAVs, thus clearly indicating that success in today’s localized conflicts will be primarily determined by the parties’ access to combat UAVs in sufficient numbers and effective protection against attacks by UAVs. More conventional military hardware, such as tanks, piloted aircraft and artillery are gradually becoming less essential.
The recent hostilities on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have highlighted the growing importance of UAVs in combat operations. Countries involved in armed conflicts have also learned how crucial it is to have partnerships with UAV manufacturers – and Turkey has become a major supplier in the Central Asian region. For example the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UAVs which Kyrgyzstan purchased at the end of 2021 soon became a major factor in its clash with Tajikistan, and partially compensated for the fact that its neighbor is equipped with superior military hardware. These UAVs have been issued to the border guard division of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security at Jalal-Abad airport, and play an important role in national defense and in guaranteeing national security and defending the country’s borders. Another recent arms purchase has also helped Kyrgyzstan achieve its defense goals: in February 2021 it purchased Russian S-300 air defense systems and Russian-made Orlan-10 drones. On September 13, 2022 Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov opened a new UAV base, just one day before the beginning of the most recent clashes.
Tajikistan, in turn, has also decided to focus on the purchase of Bayraktar UAVs from Turkey and on April 21 this year, in Ankara, Sherali Mirzo, Tajikistan’s Minister of Defense and his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar signed a framework agreement on the supply of the UAVs. During his trip to Ankara, Sherali Mirzo also visited the plant where the Bayraktar UAVs are manufactured, and had a meeting with the managing directors of the manufacturer, Baykar Makina. The Tajik media focused on the role played by the Bayraktar UAVs following the recent armed clash on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, which occurred on September 16, and which resulted in 41 deaths. The Turkish researcher Kerim Has admits that the use of Turkish UAVs in border clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has added a new dimension to the conflict.
Given the recurrent disputes between the Central Asian states and the problem that the region faces with integration, Turkey’s UAV business is flourishing in the region. In December 2020 Turkmenistan became the first Central Asian country to buy Turkish Bayraktars, and shortly afterwards both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan entered into talks with Turkey on UAV purchases. However, it soon became clear that the Turkish UAV business in the region may be highly dangerous. Turkey’s Anadolu Agency, which focuses on risks in the region, has found that there is a wide scope for the use of Turkish UAVs in the region. Regional experts have speculated that the increasing use of Turkish UAVs in Central Asia may have the effect of strengthening Turkey’s military and strategic influence in the region.
In addition to Turkey, Iran is also a major producer of UAVs, as developments in recent years have made clear. Iranian UAVs such as the Mohajer-6 and Shahed-136 have proved extremely effective in certain military operations, particularly in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Shahed-136 is one of the cheapest UAVs in its class available on the market, with each unit costing between $20 000 and $50 000. The Iranian UAVs have turned out to be much more effective than expected, and many potential customers have been forced to reassess their views on Iran’s defense industry.
NATO member states use their UAVs for a wide range of purposes, including intelligence gathering and monitoring the activities of enemy states, in addition to combat operations. For example, on November 3, during the Serbian Army’s Maneuver 2022 exercises at the Pasuljanska Livada training ground, the Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic claimed that NATO was using UAVs to monitor Serbia’s activities near the “administrative line” with Kosovo and Metohija. He added that UAVs had been seen flying over Serbian Army bases on more than one occasion, and several days ago Serbia downed one of these devices near an army base in Raska using an electronic anti-UAV system, thus demonstrating Serbia’s readiness to defend its territory.
According to recent assessments by military specialists engaged in combat operations, in order for them to be used effectively in the field (observing enemy movements, correcting artillery aim and firing grenades) about 20-30 functioning UAVs are required for each battalion, plus reserves to replace those lost in action. There is also a growing demand for spare batteries and other UAV parts.
In view of the above circumstances, it is clear that the UAV business will only continue to grow as demand for these devices increases among armed forces in many different countries. In addition to the UAVs themselves, demand for supporting infrastructure such as maritime bases and transportation is increasing.
Since UAVs manufactured by Western nations are far from cheap, there is a great deal of demand for comparable and more affordable models from other regions. For example, in the last few years a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey and Iran, as well as Israel have stepped up their manufacture of UAVs. And even the leading Western UAV manufacturers are considering outsourcing their manufacturing operations by signing joint production agreements with other countries in order to keep their prices down. For example Washington recently expressed interest in setting up a joint venture with New Delhi, under which its UAVs would be manufactured in India and exported to other countries in the region.
However, the increasing use of UAVs in combat operations has not gone unopposed, and in recent years many experts from the UN have expressed concern about the current trend, as have a number of NGOs, including Stop Killer Robots, Article 36, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Control Arms. There have also been calls from public organizations and religious leaders for an international treaty outlawing the use of autonomous weapons before their use becomes too widespread. While it is still no more than a proposal, such a preventative measure has already won the support of more than 20 countries, mostly in Latin America and Africa, regions where this technology is not yet in use.
Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”