The Middle East has emerged as a leading region for manufacturing and exporting loitering munitions, single-use drones that crash into their target and explode.
In late February, Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic announced that the Balkan country was negotiating a purchase of loitering munitions built by the United Arab Emirates. Before that announcement, it was widely rumored that Belgrade was looking to buy Iranian loitering munitions.
Drones of this type built by Middle Eastern countries have already seen substantive combat in recent conflicts outside the region in recent years.
Azerbaijan successfully used Harop drones it purchased from Israel against Armenian air defenses during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. Russia has infamously used thousands of Iranian-built Shahed 131/136 against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure since last September as part of an ongoing campaign.
On Mar. 26, the U.K. Ministry of Defense disclosed that Russia had likely launched at least 71 Shahed drones against targets in Ukraine throughout that month. It speculated that Russia “had likely started receiving resupplies of small numbers of Shahed” drones following a two-week pause in the campaign in late February. A similar hiatus late last year demonstrated how reliant Moscow is on Tehran for these drones, which the Russian military use as cheap substitutes for its much more advanced and expensive precision-guided cruise and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs).
Iran has repeatedly boasted in recent months that it has received requests for its drones from all over the world. In February, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told the Munich Security Conference in Germany that Tehran is discussing the sale of drones and other precision-guided weapons “to no less than 50 different countries.”
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“Iran is no longer a ‘local supplier,’ serving proxies in the Middle East,” he said. “It is a ‘multinational corporation,’ a global exporter of advanced weapons. From Belarus in Eastern Europe, to Venezuela in South America, we have seen Iran delivering UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) with a range of up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles).”
Indeed, in Ukraine, there are fears that Iran will supply Russia with the Arash-2 drone, which is faster and has a greater range and payload than the Shahed-131/136s. However, for reasons previously outlined in this space, Tehran may be waiting until U.N. restrictions on exporting weaponry of this type expire in October before supplying these particular drones to Moscow.
Another country Tehran claims is interested in its drones is Armenia. This is unsurprising. Yerevan neglected to invest significant capital in its promising indigenous drone industry in the lead-up to the 2020 war. Instead, it spent large sums on a small fleet of advanced Russian Su-30SM fighter jets that it ultimately did not even use in that war, a decision it undoubtedly regrets in hindsight. Armenia has also expressed its disappointment with its Russian Iskander SRBMs.
Armenia may have concluded that acquiring large numbers of relatively cheap Shahed-type drones, and possibly obtaining technology transfers to bolster its domestic drone industry, would be wiser than buying far more advanced weapons systems it can ill afford and that are not likely to prove game-changers in another conflict.
The South Caucasus is not the only region where Middle Eastern loitering munitions could play a significant role in future conflicts. As an analysis published by the Jamestown Foundation warned, any potential sale of Iranian drones to Serbia would make it the “largest drone operator in the Balkans.”
“Providing Serbia with the instruments to inflict significant losses on an opponent in a short period of time will have serious implications for a hypothetical war with Kosovo or Bosnia and Herzegovina,” read the piece.
Other sales of loitering munitions have come out of the Middle East. In December, Israel signed a deal to sell Uvision Hero-120 and Hero-30 loitering munitions to Argentina.
Turkey, which has had resounding success selling its Bayraktar TB2 drones worldwide, also has plans to export indigenous loitering munitions. Last October, it unveiled a new loitering munition called the “Alpagut,” jointly developed by the Turkish STM and Roketsan defense firms. The Alpagut will be able to target “radar and communications systems, critical facilities such as command centers, and targets of opportunity,” said Ismail Demir, the head of the Turkish Defense Agency (SSB).
An official speaking on behalf of Roketsan said that the Alpagut “will also have important export potential” and will reinforce Turkey’s “leading role in the global defense sector.”
In 2021, Turkey made its first export of the rotary-wing Kargu loitering munition, also produced by STM, to an undisclosed country.
According to military aviation historian Tom Cooper, Iraq devised the first example of a modern loitering munition. He credits a joint project between Iraq and South Africa conducted in 1989-90 for developing “the first loitering PGM (precision-guided munition) ever.”
Around the same time, Israel, which also had close defense relations with South Africa, developed the Harpy, the predecessor to the Harop that had resounding success in Azerbaijani service three decades later.
Given these origins, it is little surprise that the Middle East has become a leading supplier of these deadly weapons.