PROXY Capabilities – Proliferation and Patronage: UAV Diffusion as a New Form of Proxy

This is the third of a series of articles we will be featuring on Strife in the coming week looking at the role of Proxy Warfare in the 21st century by Series Editor Cheng Lai Ki. Previous articles in the series can be found here.

By: Rian Whitton

Source: Russia Today

Though having existed for most of the twentieth century, the improved technological capabilities and increased reconnaissance and lethal capacities of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) have raised concern about their proliferation. Through analysing developments in China, Iran and non-state actors like Hezbollah, it becomes clear that regulation is not working, and the diffusion of UAV is providing new avenues for proxy strategies.

China –Interstate proliferation a form of arms competition and proxy

Beijing has been researching unmanned aerial vehicles since the late 1950s.[1] More recently, China’s economic boom has fuelled a substantial programme of military modernisation, one of the fruits of which has been the procurement of some 50 designs.  These range from micro-drones to unmanned combat systems (UCAV’s) like the Wing Loong II (Pterodactyl), a platform whose similarities to the MQ-1 Predator led some to believe it was procured through espionage.[2]

While the Chinese rationale for UAV’s relates directly to the patrolling of Beijing’s interests in the contested maritime waters of the South China Sea and East pacific, the most striking development has been the exporting of platforms to other countries.[3] Nigeria, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have all purchased the Wing Loong I, with Jordan, a prominent US ally in the fight against IS, also rumoured to have negotiated a deal in May 2015.[4]

A number of factors explain Beijing’s success in selling UAV’s. A recent senate report noted that China was not hindered by the same export restrictions of the two premiere UAV producers; the USA and Israel. While the two countries are bound by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement, China is not, and thus has been sheltered from competition with its more renowned competitors.[5]

Another driver is the relatively low cost of Chinese systems. The Wing Loong II is believed to cost $1 million in comparison to the $30 million Reaper.[6] Though it lacks the payload, maximum altitude and speed of its US counterpart, such deficiencies are redundant in a market strategy primarily pandering to developing countries in Africa and the Middle-East. At a 2012 air show in Zhuhai, a Chinese official explained that Asian and African countries were “quite interested in the intermediate and short-range UAVs because they are expendable and low-cost.”[7] China also attempted to capitalise on Pakistani frustration at not accessing US UAV technology by supplying Islamabad with the CH-3 Rainbow.[8] This was averted with the indigenous development of the Burraq UCAV.[9]

Worries about Beijing undercutting Washington in the sale of UAV’s led Republican rep. Duncan Hunter to urge the President to provide the Jordanian government with access to the Predator, in response to concerns that China was finalising a deal with America’s regional ally to supply a number of unmanned platforms.[10] That General Atomics (producer of the Predator) is Hunter’s largest campaign contributor should be noted, and in the face of stagnating domestic budgets, American companies are pushing for ever looser export-restrictions. Concomitantly US-aligned countries like Ukraine have begun requesting Reapers.[11] Washington’s current policy has been to help its allies by using UAV’s to provide lethal targeting information, like with French forces in Mali.[12]

With both internal and external pressure, America has eased its restrictions on exports as of mid-2015.[13]Though still abiding by the MTCR agreements, the development suggests an understanding in Washington that their stringent controls have done nothing to stall proliferation, as they risk losing market ground to China.

Iran- Middle Powers can develop significant UAV industries

The proliferation and control of UAV’s is increasingly out of the hands of great powers, with regional players like Iran developing significant capability.

The international embargoes on Tehran have so far limited it to domestic technology, but the programme; spearheaded by the Revolutionary Guard’s Aerospace division, has made considerable progress off the back of reverse-engineering US/Israeli systems.[14] An example of this is the Shahed-129 (based on the Israeli Hermes-450), which is purported to be capable of a missile payload for a non-stop 24-hour flight over 2000km.[15] Iran has also claimed to develop an air-to-air combat drone (Sarir H-110). The ability of Iran, a regional power under international embargo, to develop a thriving UAV industry primarily through the reverse engineering of Western models is impressive.

The effectiveness of regulation or embargos is unlikely to stall this development. The Iranian drone fleet is comprised mainly of small tactical platforms, and thus the majority of necessary components are accessible via the use of middlemen and front companies. In 2009, a US cable published by WikiLeaks warned about Iran trying to obtain German Limbach 550E engines and ship them to an Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Company with faked shipping labels.[16] Such accessibility to dual-use components and off-the-shelf materials makes UAV’s a difficult category to regulate compared to more expensive systems (vis-à-vis fighter aircraft). Alarmingly, Iran’s success in procuring modern UAV technology is facilitating the diffusion to non-state proxies.

Hezbollah- Non-state proxies have increased access to UAV’s

One of Iran’s key beneficiaries; Hezbollah, has had access to drone technology for a number of years, with a fleet of reportedly 200 platforms.[17] As early as 2004, Iran ferried an update of the Mohajer, the Mirsad, to Hezbollah.[18]

This has exacerbated security concerns for Israel. In2006, Hezbollah launched Ababil UCAV’s allegedly carrying explosives against Tel Aviv. They were promptly shot down by Israeli F-16s.[19] These medium-altitude UAV’s are virtually defenceless against sophisticated air defences, but the main concern for Tel Aviv is that Hezbollah will use large quantities of low-flying miniature drones that are harder to intercept. An example this came in 2014 when a low altitude reconnaissance drone was caught loitering over an Israeli nuclear reactor.[20]

UAV’s provide Hezbollah with a number of advantages; kamikaze-style strikes could have a similar casualty rate to suicide bombings. The unmanned systems could also supply the group with accurate reconnaissance of Israeli movements while potentially directing a 60,000 strong stockpile of projectiles.[21] The psychological impact is also substantive, with insurgents appearing to strike technological parity with the world’s fourth-strongest military. This constitutes a misappropriation of awe regarding the sophistication and strategic impact of UAV’s.

Iran’s patronage of Hezbollah represents the most striking case-study of UAV’s being used as a tool of proxy warfare by competing powers, and the technology is proliferating on multiple fronts. In the ongoing Ukrainian conflict, reports suggest the Donetsk People’s Republic has deployed the Russian-made Eleron 3SV for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) campaigns.[22] In turn, Kiev has been using modified and hobbyist UAV’s for ISR support.[23]

Looking forward

The successes of China in undercutting America by exporting cheaper drones, and the ability of Iran, despite embargos, to develop an impressive apparatus and arm its proxies, points to the fact that the stringent US-export controls and wider international regulations are not going to prevent the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles.

While the mentioned examples relate to the diffusion of drone technology via state patronage, the economics and feasibility of drones are driving proliferation beyond arms sales.

As Woods notes, non-state actors are trying to build their own UAV’s. In 2013 alone, local law enforcement has uncovered ‘drone workshops’ in three nations.[24] In Iraq and Islamabad, ‘Drone-laboratories’ have been uncovered.[25] As Iran’s procurement through reverse engineering and off-the-shelf purchasing has shown, the acquisition of drone technology is becoming increasingly feasible, so much so that non-state actors may not have to act as a proxy and rely on a generous patron for accessing UAV’s. In 2012, the RAND Corporation study noted the possibility of insurgents and terrorists being armed with substantial fleets of small, rudimentary drones and employing swarm technology.[26] There is certainly no guarantee that even the tightest international regulation of states, or even a ban, would stop terrorist organisations incorporating unmanned systems within their wider arsenals.

Despite these concerns, three considerations should undercut hyperbole regarding the diffusion of UAV’s. Firstly, unmanned systems, though tactically convenient and incorporating multiple capabilities, have yet to prove beyond doubt their strategic war-winning ability.

Second, unmanned systems remain secondary to conventional airpower. During the 2011 intervention in Libya, NATO remote crews carried out 145 strikes, compared to the 7,455 weapons released by manned aircraft.[27] This provides some context of drone usage not as transformative but as a growing development alongside traditional airpower.

Third, the growth in unmanned systems has been mirrored by counter-measures employed by both non-state actors and states. In Mali, a document was discovered which provided practical solutions on how to foil drone strikes.[28] Militants and non-state actors are receiving the military kit, like Russian-made ‘Skygrabber’ transceivers, that can interfere with UAV signals and hack into drone feeds.[29] The Kremlin has also provided its separatist beneficiaries in the Donbass with signal jamming technology.[30] The proliferation of unmanned systems is feeding a simultaneous proliferation of ‘anti-UAV’ technology.

Technologists like Elon Musk have opened a debate on banning autonomous weapons.[31] But when it comes to regulating the systems on which the prophesied artificial intelligence might run, the ship has sailed.

Rian holds a bachelor’s degree in history & politics from the university of Sheffield. He is currently undertaking his MA in science & security at King’s where his academic interests revolve around technological innovation, unmanned systems, remote warfare and strategic culture.


[1] O’Gorman, R.  & Abbott, C., ‘Remote control war Unmanned combat air vehicles in China, India, Israel, Iran, Russia and Turkey,’ Remote Control Project, Open Briefing, September 20th, 2013, p. 3

[2]Baker, B. ‘Chinese Arms Companies Are Picking Up the Pace in Africa and the Middle East,’ The Diplomat, October 21st, 2015

[3] O’Gorman, R.  & Abbott, C., p. 5

[4] Tucker, P. & Weisgerber, M., ‘China May Be Selling Armed Drones to Jordan,’ Defense One, May 15th, 2015.

 [5] Hsu, K., ‘China’s Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Industry,‘ U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 13, 2013, p. 15’s%20Military%20UAV%20Industry_14%20June%202013.pdf

[6] Baker, B., ‘Drone Wars: China and US Compete on the Global UAV Market,’ October 25, 2015 ‘

[7] Standaert, M. ‘China unveils new drones aimed at buyers in developing countries,’ Global Post, November 15, 2012,

[8] Ali Ehsan, M., ‘Drone warfare in Balochistan,’ The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2015

 [9] Baghwan, J., ‘Drone war: ‘Burraq’ turned the tide in Tirah battle, say officials,’ The Express Tribune, March 26, 2015,

 [10] Tucker, P. & Weisgerber, M.

[11] ‘‘Hostile Drones,’ p. 13

[12] Woods, C., ‘ Sudden Justice, America’s Secret Drone Wars,’ Hurst company, London, 2015, p. 280

[13] Tucker, P. & Weisgerber, M., ‘Obama To Sell Armed Drones To More Countries,’ Defense One, February 17th, 2015

[14] O’Gorman, R.  & Abbott, C., p. 9

[15] Rawnsley, A., ‘Like It or Not, Iran Is a Drone Power: Sanctions have not stopped Tehran’s robot development,’ War is Boring, September 5th, 2014

[16] Rawnsley, A.

[17] ‘Hostile Drones,’ Remote Control project, Open briefing, January 2016, p. 12

 [18] Dreazen, Y., The Next Arab-Israeli War Will Be Fought with Drones,’ New Republic, March 27th, 2014

[19] ‘Hostile Drones,’ p. 12

[20] Hostile Drones,’ p. 12

[21] Dreazen, Y.

[22] Dreazen, Y.

[23] ‘Hostile Drones,’ p. 13

[24] Woods, C., p. 275

[25] Woods, C., p. 275

[26] Woods, C., p. 275

[27] Woods, C., p. 279

[28] Woods, C., p. 273

[29] Woods, C., p. 273

[30] Hostile Drones,’ p. 13

[31] Roberts, B. & Musgrave, Z., ‘Why Humans Need To Ban Artificially Intelligent Weapons,’ Defense One, August 14th, 2015


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