Iranian-built drones now routinely puncture the skies over Kyiv. Elsewhere in Ukraine, Turkish- and American-manufactured drones help Ukrainian forces target Russian troops. These operations demonstrate the growing role of remote-controlled weapons in battle. The conflict also showcases how drone exports have increasingly become an instrument of diplomacy.
With drone use on the rise, states have capitalized on drone exports to increase their global clout. To be sure, this is part of an established trend: governments have long leveraged arms exports as a diplomatic tool. Beyond filling state coffers and defraying research and development costs, arms sales help states advance their foreign policy agendas. Selling or donating weapons to like-minded partners can be used to extract concessions, exert influence, counter rivals, and strengthen military ties. A new era of arms trade is emerging, in which new exporters such as Iran and Turkey are displacing traditional weapons suppliers and are using drone exports to extend influence beyond their borders. These exports threaten Washington’s influence and the security of its partners. To keep ahead, US policymakers should help allies build drone programs while developing approaches to counter the threat of rival drones.
GAME OF DRONES
Drone diplomacy is on the rise because it meets a growing demand. International leaders are increasingly convinced that their defense and foreign policy ambitions hinge on possessing remote-controlled weapons. Drones have changed the character of modern conflict by allowing states to project power while minimizing risk to friendly personnel. By keeping crews far from the frontlines, drones allow governments to undertake risky attacks or intelligence-gathering missions that they might not otherwise launch. Russia, for instance, frequently uses drones instead of manned attack aircraft to strike well-defended Ukrainian targets. At the same time, drones offer air support and a bird’s-eye view to ground forces, which often tips the scale during battles. Moreover, drones are usually cheaper and easier to operate and maintain than the missiles or inhabited aircraft they supplant, making it simpler for states to integrate drones into military operations.
Drone use in recent conflicts has proven effective advertising. Footage from Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh—a disputed territory fought over by Armenia and Azerbaijan—has showcased drones striking targets cheaply, prodding other militaries to add remotely piloted aircraft to their arsenals. Some countries have built domestic drone programs, but others have turned to international suppliers.
Traditional arms exporters such as the United States initially dominated drone production with systems including the MQ-9 Reaper. But export restrictions such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a multilateral agreement the United States is party to, severely limited the sale of US-built drones, even to Washington’s closest allies. Firms from countries that are not MTCR signatories, such as China and Israel, eagerly stepped in to fill the void and could engage in largely unregulated trade.
At the same time, other states that traditionally were not aircraft exporters ramped up drone production programs. Iran sold drones to other countries and made them available to its Hezbollah and Houthi proxies. Similarly, Turkey’s drone program—developed in part to reduce dependence on foreign arms suppliers—quickly made a name for itself with the Bayraktar TB2. Turkey first deployed the TB2 against Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Soon, it was on the shopping lists of nearly two dozen countries across Africa, Central Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Selling drones in a time of high demand increases a supplier state’s diplomatic power in three important, and often complementary, ways. First, exporting drones deepens ties with client governments. Selling a drone entails more than transferring a piece of machinery. Exports typically come with long-term training, logistics assistance, and maintenance agreements that have lasting effects. An importing state becomes reliant on its supplier state for upgrades and replacement parts. Exporters train drone crews in importing states, building relationships that endure as personnel climb the ranks. These connections produce new pathways through which a supplier state can sway policymaking. Indeed, one Iranian news outlet affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps proclaimed that Iran’s drone exports are “deepening its strategic influence” internationally.
Supplier states are increasingly cementing these relationships by opening overseas drone factories. Iran established drone production lines in Tajikistan and Venezuela, and Turkey plans to build a TB2 factory in Ukraine. Iran’s top general described the opening of the plant in Tajikistan as a turning point in relations between the two countries. Indeed, drones may serve as a gateway export that sets the stage for broader arms transfers by demonstrating the effectiveness of a supplier’s hardware and establishing processes for future weapons transfers. Russia, for instance, is now considering buying ballistic missiles from Iran.
Second, drone exports help supplier states compete with rivals. In some cases, exporting drones allows supplier states to challenge regional foes. For example, Turkish drone transfers to Azerbaijan contributed to Armenia’s defeat in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, humiliating Turkey’s long-time rival and forcing it to cede territory. Similarly, Tehran armed its proxies with drones to attack targets in Gulf Arab states, Israel, and Yemen.
Selling a drone entails more than transferring a piece of machinery.
In other cases, drone transfers enable states to engage in proxy wars further afield. When Iran sells drones to Russia, for example, it supports attacks on Ukraine, which is backed by the United States. At the same time, it shows off capabilities that Iran could use against the United States in a future conflict. To be sure, this involves political and military risks. Tehran’s drone exports triggered new sanctions and Iranian drone use in Ukraine is helping the United States and its allies develop countermeasures. But for Tehran, cementing ties with Russia seems to outweigh these risks.
As drone suppliers diversify production through overseas factories, their drone diplomacy will become more resilient and less susceptible to disruption from rivals. Israel, for example, has bombed drone production facilities in Iran but may find it too risky to attack Iranian factories in countries with friendlier diplomatic ties, such as Tajikistan.
Finally, supplier states use drone transfers to extract concessions from clients. According to Al-Monitor, a news website, Turkey’s sale of 20 drones to the United Arab Emirates provided Ankara enough leverage to sway Emirati officials to restrict the social media access of a prominent Turkish mafia boss turned whistleblower living in Dubai. And in December 2022, US government officials announced that Russia is now providing Iran an “unprecedented level” of advanced military equipment—potentially including fifth-generation Su-35 fighter jets—in part because of Iranian drone transfers.
By deepening ties with client states, countering rivals, and extracting quid pro quo concessions, drone diplomacy threatens regional stability and challenges the influence of established arms exporters such as the United States. Indeed, drone suppliers such as Iran routinely arm states such as Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela that were otherwise unable to acquire drones because of sanctions and other political roadblocks. Newly acquired drones allow these states to reignite frozen conflicts, violate human rights, and undercut internationally led conflict-resolution efforts. In recent years, activists and lawmakers criticized Turkey’s sale of TB2 drones to Ethiopia for enabling strikes that reportedly killed dozens of civilians.
MORE THAN A WEAPON
As states increasingly use drones as a currency for interstate competition, policymakers will wrestle with how to respond. In some cases, supplier states will compete over the same customers. Whoever ultimately wins the contract may also secure a position as a preferred security partner, making it difficult for other states to exert influence.
In other cases, states may need to help allies and partners defend themselves against a rival’s drones. In the ongoing war in Ukraine, NATO members stepped up deliveries of air defense equipment to Kyiv after Moscow acquired Iranian drones. Many of these systems, however, involve launching costly missiles to take down drones that are far cheaper. Keeping ahead of rivals in drone diplomacy will likely require an action-reaction process involving the provision of low-cost antidrone systems to states under threat of rival drones.
The war in Ukraine has highlighted the growing significance of drones to international security. To maintain an advantage, the United States and its allies should limit rogue states such as Iran from exporting drones through sanctions and export controls. At the same time, the United States should export more drones and antidrone systems to allies to help them build their own drone programs, limiting the likelihood that these states will turn to other suppliers. Drones are no longer just a battlefield weapon but also a diplomatic tool.