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How drones are making their way onto the battlefield

Military drones: current trends in the market

Laure Colin, PhD student at the Centre for Management Research (I³-CRG*) at École Polytechnique (IP Paris) and Alain Grandjean, Co-founder of Carbone 4 and member of the High Council for the Climate
On October 11th, 2022 |
5 min reading time
Laure Colin
PhD student at the Centre for Management Research (I³-CRG*) at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • The drone market is growing rapidly in large part due to the high demand for drones in military applications.
  • Although it has long been dominated by the United States and Israel, new players are entering the market such as Turkey and Iran.
  • It is estimated that more than 80 countries now have military drones: armed or surveillance.
  • The market is currently driven by civilian drones, which are mass-market, low-cost and can easily be adapted for military use.
  • The rapid development of drones is giving rise to new challenges: autonomy, connectivity, and cybersecurity.

Long dom­i­nat­ed by the Amer­i­cans, the rapid­ly expand­ing mil­i­tary drone mar­ket is see­ing the arrival of new state play­ers, includ­ing devel­op­ing coun­tries with a region­al pow­er base. As the range of prod­ucts expands and the reper­toire of uses con­tin­ues to grow, the armed forces are increas­ing­ly draw­ing on the resources offered by civil­ian manufacturers. 

A rapidly growing market

The glob­al mar­ket for civ­il and mil­i­tary drones was worth $4bn in 2015 and it is now boom­ing. A Sen­ate report esti­mat­ed in 2017 that it would reach $14bn by 20251, and a spe­cialised insti­tute has put for­ward the fig­ure of $72bn by 2028, with an aver­age annu­al growth rate of 14.4%2.

This growth is due to the sharp increase in demand for drones used by the mil­i­tary, for every­thing from sur­veil­lance to lethal inter­ven­tion and trans­port. Hun­dreds of com­pa­nies are cur­rent­ly work­ing on drone tech­nol­o­gy on both a small and large scale, and state and non-state actors are look­ing to inte­grate drones into their mil­i­tary pro­grammes. NATO dis­tin­guish­es between sev­er­al types of mil­i­tary drones.

The most sig­nif­i­cant sec­tor, both tac­ti­cal­ly and in terms of the mar­ket, is that of MALE (Medi­um Alti­tude Long Endurance) drones. Ini­tial­ly dom­i­nat­ed by the Amer­i­cans, with the Gen­er­al Atom­ics Preda­tor, the first exam­ples were deliv­ered in 1995 and were armed in the ear­ly 2000s. For a long time, they had a monop­oly with 360 units deliv­ered (main­ly to the US armed forces), but were grad­u­al­ly replaced by the Reaper, of which more than 300 units were deliv­ered to the US armed forces. Allies of the Unit­ed States – main­ly but not exclu­sive­ly with­in NATO – have acquired sev­er­al dozen models. 

Along­side the Unit­ed States, the oth­er lead­ing coun­try in the field for a long time was Israel, with Israel Aero­space Indus­tries, which first launched the Hunter in the 1990s and then the IAI Heron, pre­sent­ed at the Paris Air Show in 1999. The lat­ter equipped the Tsa­hal since the mid-2000s and was sold for export, notably its French ver­sion – the Har­fang from EADS. Euro­peans do not have much of a pres­ence in the MALE UAV mar­ket, nei­ther as cus­tomers nor as man­u­fac­tur­ers. The Talar­i­on project by EADS was aban­doned in the ear­ly 2010s due to lack of fund­ing, and a new MALE UAV project is strug­gling to get off the ground. 

Depend­ing on the tenets of var­i­ous nation­al armies, lethal use may be autho­rised but since the 2010s, com­bat drones have been used more and more fre­quent­ly. Along­side the ultra-sophis­ti­cat­ed air­craft devel­oped by the Amer­i­cans and Israelis, Turkey launched the famous Bayrak­tar TB2, devel­oped by Baykar from its pre­de­ces­sor, a sur­veil­lance drone launched in 2007. The TB2 flew for the first time in 2014 and was armed in Decem­ber 2015.

New manufacturers

Con­sid­ered a ‘low-cost’ ‘drone due to its price ($5m) – four times less than the Amer­i­can Reaper (it is also small­er) – the Bayrak­tar bor­rows some of its tech­nolo­gies from part­ner coun­tries, such as Cana­da for its L3Harris WESCAM MX-15D elec­tro-opti­cal sys­tem. But the involve­ment of these drones in the sec­ond war in Nagorno-Karabakh led Ottawa to ban the export of these sys­tems. The idea of a drone indus­try as an assem­bly of appli­ca­tions pro­vid­ed by sub­con­trac­tors must there­fore be con­sid­ered with cau­tion as is often the case in the mil­i­tary field, these are sov­er­eign tech­nolo­gies that the coun­try build­ing them must be able to use.

The Bayrak­tar can car­ry four intel­li­gent laser-guid­ed muni­tions capa­ble of destroy­ing armoured vehi­cles. It has been used in var­i­ous the­atres of oper­a­tion, includ­ing Syr­ia and Libya, but above all in Ukraine, where the 20 or so exam­ples deployed enabled Kiev’s forces to reverse the tac­ti­cal advan­tage giv­en to Moscow by its supe­ri­or­i­ty in the field of armour.

Some drones can car­ry four smart, laser-guid­ed muni­tions capa­ble of destroy­ing armoured vehicles.

Next to Turkey, Iran is anoth­er ref­er­ence coun­try, with a MALE drone, the HESA Sha­hed-129, and the Sha­hed-191 stealthy fly­ing wing, both equipped with lethal mis­siles. Rus­sia report­ed­ly placed an order for these UAVs in 2022, for use in Ukraine. The Rus­sians also man­u­fac­ture their own drones, as do the Indi­ans, South Africans, Pak­ista­nis and, of course, the Chi­nese, whose Wing Loong (1 and 2) and Cai­Hong (1 to 6) have been sold to oth­er countries.

Euro­peans are not build­ing MALE com­bat drones. When Ger­many decid­ed in 2018 to acquire MALE drones, it chose Israeli Heron TPs, which it decid­ed to arm in 2022. How­ev­er, Euro­peans – main­ly the French and the British, togeth­er with Ger­man and Ital­ian sup­pli­ers – have devel­oped dif­fer­ent mod­els of tac­ti­cal drones used for sur­veil­lance and intel­li­gence pur­pos­es. EADS’ Bar­racu­da and BAe’s Tara­nis have remained in the plan­ning stage, while Safran’s Patroller is used by the French army and the Egypt­ian armed forces. Thales’ Watch­keep­er WK450 is in ser­vice with the British Army. Today, the Organ­i­sa­tion for Joint Arma­ment Coop­er­a­tion (OCCAR) is devel­op­ing the future Euro­pean MALE UAV on behalf of France, Ger­many, Spain and Italy. Air­bus Defence and Space Gmb, assist­ed by their major part­ners, Das­sault Avi­a­tion, Leonar­do, and Space SAU, are pro­duc­ing the future “Euro­drone” which will pro­gres­sive­ly replace the Reaper drones in France.

More than 80 coun­tries are said to have mil­i­tary drones of all types (sur­veil­lance and armed). Over the past two years, more than 15 coun­tries have car­ried out drone strikes, includ­ing Sau­di Ara­bia, the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates (UAE), Iraq and Nigeria.

Innovation driven by use

Although drones orig­i­nat­ed in the world of defence, the mar­ket is now dri­ven by civil­ian drones, such as the Anafi drone from the French com­pa­ny Par­rot. These pro­fes­sion­al and con­sumer drones are becom­ing increas­ing­ly pow­er­ful. Avail­able “off the shelf”, these low-cost drones (€3,000-€100,000 each) can be adapt­ed for mil­i­tary use, par­tic­u­lar­ly by non-state groups (Hezbol­lah or Islam­ic State), for obser­va­tion mis­sions as well as for armed action.

The dynamism of both the civil­ian and mil­i­tary mar­kets, the incor­po­ra­tion of tech­nolo­gies devel­oped for civil­ian use in the fields of secu­ri­ty and sur­veil­lance (pho­ton­ics, optron­ics, AI, image analy­sis, sen­sors of all kinds, etc.), but also in trans­port (auton­o­my), are lead­ing more and more indus­tri­al play­ers, and more and more var­ied, to invest in this boom­ing industry.

The pure­ly mil­i­tary mar­ket and the civil­ian mar­ket are inter­min­gling, in a dual tech­nol­o­gy approach: the French com­pa­ny Pho­to­nis, leader in night vision, offers a cam­era in the form of a micro-cube that can be graft­ed onto drones. Its pri­ma­ry mar­ket is defence, but it is also very inter­est­ed in the civil­ian secu­ri­ty mar­ket. Rapid evo­lu­tion of drones is bring­ing new chal­lenges: their autonomous oper­a­tion, con­nec­tiv­i­ty, coop­er­a­tion between drones and robots in het­ero­ge­neous swarms, and of course the cyber­se­cu­ri­ty that is essen­tial to these developments.

A par­tic­u­lar­ly dynam­ic field, at the cross­roads between the civil­ian and mil­i­tary sec­tors, is that of coun­ter­ing unmanned aer­i­al sys­tems (CUAS). For exam­ple, the DroneCon­trol of the Brazil­ian com­pa­ny Neger is an inte­grat­ed sys­tem that detects, locates, tracks and blocks hos­tile drones in secure areas. It is used in Brazil to mon­i­tor pris­ons and pre­vent gangs from being able to send drugs to pris­on­ers. The Drone­B­uster from France’s T‑OPS is a portable CUAS tool, the only one of its kind autho­rised by the US Depart­ment of Defence. The BXDD sys­tem from Hun­gary’s BHE Bonn Hun­gary Elec­tron­ics is a state-of-the-art solu­tion based on soft­ware defined radio to detect, clas­si­fy and mea­sure the direc­tion of the drone and the RF sig­nal from the remote con­trol. There are also anti-drone guns such as the Drone­Gun MKIII, a com­pact and light­weight UAS coun­ter­mea­sure solu­tion designed for one-hand­ed operation.

Com­bined with minia­tur­i­sa­tion, the incor­po­ra­tion of var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies opens up the range of pos­si­bil­i­ties in a log­ic of inno­va­tion dri­ven by uses. Thir­ty years ago, the drone was an unmanned air­craft. In 2021, the US Marine Corps test­ed the Drone40 from the Aus­tralian start-up Defend­Tex: a tiny drone so named because it can hold a 40 mm grenade and drop it almost 20 km from its oper­a­tor. The autonomous fly­ing grenade has a GPS-based autopi­lot sys­tem and a portable ground con­trol sta­tion that com­mu­ni­cates via an encrypt­ed radio link. Drones are mil­i­tary tech­nolo­gies that have been used in the civil­ian sec­tor before return­ing to the mil­i­tary, with all the advan­tages of the civil­ian sec­tor: opti­mised by the com­pe­ti­tion, cheap, easy to handle.

Interview by Richard Robert
1Sen­ate Report, Drones in the Armed Forces, No. 559, 2017.

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