1. Introduction: How We Became a World of Drones

Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen/Released

How We Became a World of Drones

Experts are still predicting that drones will change the character of warfare, but the reality is that warfare has already changed. The era of armed drone use has arrived, and the rapid proliferation of drone technology among states and militant groups alike poses a new threat to the international community.

Who has drones and how are they getting them? This site seeks to answer those questions, tracking which countries currently possess armed drones and how they acquired them, based on an analysis of hundreds of news reports and government documents.

So far, ten countries have used armed drones in combat: the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates. But many other countries are arming drones.

In New America’s World of Drones database, countries are sorted into three groups: those that use drones in combat, those that possess armed drones but have not used them in combat, and those that are developing armed drones. A country’s drone capabilities are classified according to the U.S. Air Force tier system. Tier I includes low altitude, low endurance drones like the Orbiter; Tier II is comprised of medium altitude, long endurance drones like the Reaper or the Predator; and Tier II+ applies to high altitude, long endurance drones like the Global Hawk. Mini and micro drones are not classified in the tier system.

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Imports and Exports of Drones

Click on a country to see its imports or exports

A. Top Sellers

United States

MQ-9 Reaper drone

The United States and Israel are the biggest producers and sellers of drones. America’s leading combat drone is the MQ-9 Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics, which the Air Force has used to support operations around the world for 10 years. After the September 11th attacks, the United States conducted the first strikes under the burgeoning U.S. drone program using the MQ-1 Predator, which the Air Force flew in combat for 21 years. On February 27, 2017, the Department of Defense announced the retirement of the Predator drone to “keep up with the continuously evolving battlespace environment.” The United States has sold drones only to NATO members.


IAI Super Heron Drone

Israel’s IAI Heron is designed to compete with the Reaper. Israel is the largest exporter of drones in the world. Israel accounted for 41 percent of all drones exported between 2001 and 2011, according to a database compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), though Israel refuses to release the full list of countries to which it has sold military arms. A partial list of recipients includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Australia, Germany, Spain, Brazil, India, China, the Netherlands, Azerbaijan, and Nigeria.


China is a growing drone exporter and has filled gaps in the market with its more liberal export policy. In 2015, Pakistan, Iraq, and Nigeria all conducted strikes using  armed drones supplied by, or developed in coordination with, China. As of 2018, China confirmed the export of drones to 10 countries, in addition to unconfirmed reports alleging sales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In November 2013, Pakistan’s military unveiled two domestically produced drones that experts say appear to be based on China’s CH-3, a model which Pakistan also has in its arsenal. The CH-3 appears to be China’s most popular model, with exports to both Pakistan and Nigeria, and an upgraded Chinese model, the CH-4, has appeared in arsenals across the Middle East. On December 6, 2015, Iraqi armed forces released footage of a CH-4 in action, striking an ISIS position in Ramadi. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are reported to have purchased the CH-4 as well. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have operated unarmed versions of the CH-4 in their campaign in Yemen, and in 2014, Jordan was reported to be in talks to purchase armed drones from China to combat ISIS in Syria.

A new addition to the Caihong family, the CH-5, debuted in 2016. The CH-5 has increased altitude, operational, and payload capacities. According to Caihong developers, a number of nations are in talks to purchase the new model.

B. Top Buyers


According to SIPRI’s arms transfers database and Statista, India and the United Kingdom are the largest importers of drones internationally. According to a Business Insider report based on SIPRI data, India accounted for 22.5 percent of drone imports between 1985-2014. That percentage shrinks to 13.2 percent when measured between 2010-2014, but still puts India in second place. In addition to its imports, India also has indigenous Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) in its drone arsenal. On November 16, 2016, India’s Rustom-II, an armed Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance (MALE) drone, successfully completed a test flight.

United Kingdom

From 2010-2014, the United Kingdom was the largest importer of drones, accounting for 33.9 percent of drone imports for this period. The United Kingdom produces small, MALE, and Watchkeeper drones, which is based on an imported Hermes 450 drone from Israel, domestically and is the only country to which the United States exports armed Reaper drones from United States.

UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced at a 2016 security conference hosted by the United States a new contract with General Atomics that will double the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) drone fleet. The “Protector” drones developed under the contract will provide an update to to the Reapers in the military’s arsenal, improving imaging and increasing the airborne time. The UK will arm the Protector with indigenously developed Brimstone 2 missiles and Paveway IV laser-guided bombs, according to a Guardian report.