Over the last five years, violent non-state actors have acquired armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and have been using them extensively. This paper presents the main non-state actors involved and the areas in which they have used this tool, as well as how UAVs are used and procured. To date, armed UAVs have mainly been used by non-state actors in the Middle East and Central Asia. They have also been used in the conflict zones of Ukraine, Myanmar, Mexico, and Ecuador. While this is worrisome, limited evidence suggests that violent non-state actors use armed UAVs intentionally in areas where mostly civilians are present. The paper details the state of UAV usage by non-state actors and develops a thesis of cyclic adaptation between state and non-state actors. Not only do non-state actors learn from state actors, so does state and state-backed actors learn from non-state actors in conflict zones.
This process have been visible on the battlefield in Ukraine, where state-backed actors on both sides have incorporated smaller consumer style UAVs into their repertoire. As the use of armed UAVs developed substantially following Hezbollah’s early UAV operations in 2004 and spread to many regions of the world, the adaptation of non-state cleverness and ingenuity can be harnessed by state actors in times of poor or limited access to weaponry and support systems.