Tactical drones are not exactly a new technology. Having emerged initially in the 1930s with the United States as a pioneer, the conflict in Ukraine has pushed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the forefront—becoming a must-have equipment in modern warfare.
From the destructive Turkish TB2 to the powerful Predator B, these are 11 of today’s most sophisticated tactical unmanned drones based on advanced technological features, payload capacity, and mounted lethal weaponry.
Not in any particular order
MQ-9B Reaper (Predator B)
Top on the list is the revered MQ-9B Reaper, also known as Predator B, manufactured by General Atomics primarily for the US Air Force.
Hailed as one of the world’s most dangerous military drones, the Reaper is a multi-purpose remote-controlled aircraft larger, heavier, and more capable UAV than its predecessor, MQ-1 Predator. Despite being introduced in the early 2000s, the Reaper has been retrofitted to extend its service life for another fifteen years.
Moreover, the Air Force has spent substantial resources upgrading and sustaining unmanned aircraft in recent years, which evolved the Reaper system from a counter-terrorism surveillance and strike platform to a valuable military warfare asset in the service branch.
Other enhancements include weaponry advancement, fuel extension, and installation of cutting-edge hardening technology capable of dodging hostile jamming systems, among many others, significantly improving the UAV’s resiliency and survivability.
Its system comprises a two-crew ground control station, a communication satellite, and the unmanned drone itself, in addition to a couple of operations and maintenance crews to support missions.
The Reaper measures about 11 meters (36 feet) in length, 3.8 m (12.5 ft) in height, and boasts a wingspan of 20.1 m (66 ft), with a maximum takeoff weight of up to 10,500 pounds (4,760 kilograms) and a payload capacity of around 3,750 lbs (1,701 kg).
A Honeywell TPE331-10GD turboprop engine powers the UAV, generating a maximum thrust of up to 900 shaft horsepower with Digital Electronic Engine Control. It can reach a top speed of 260 knots (300 miles per hour) within 1,000 nautical miles (1,852 kilometers) and a peak flight height of up to 50,000 ft (15,240 m). With a fuel capacity of about 2,278.82 liters (602 gallons), the Reaper can perform missions of about 14 hours.
Among its armaments include air-to-ground missiles such as the AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and variations of aerial laser-guided bomb and guidance tail kits, to name a few.
Currently, the MQ-9B serves the US Air Force and National Guard and countries such as France, Italy, Spain, and the Royal Air Force.
A currently popular weapon following its impressive combat performance as it participates in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) multi-purpose military drone designed to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and assault missions.
It succeeded the earlier successful Bayraktar TB1 in 2011 and has served Ankara’s armed forces since 2014 before being exported to foreign operators such as Libya, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Ukraine, among many others.
The system comprised the platform itself, a ground control station run by a crew of three, and an advanced base with generator and trailer modules. It is completely capable of self-navigation and has a tracking capability, as well as automatic takeoff and landing, parking, and semi-auto flight modes support, to name a few of its advanced features.
Read Next: The Race To Recover Reaper Wreckage: Russia Plans To Reverse-Engineer an American Drone
Compared to Predator B, the Bayraktar TB2 is relatively shorter, with a length of 6.5 m (21.4 ft), a height of 2.2 m (7.22 ft), and a wingspan of 12 m (39.4 ft). It has a maximum takeoff weight of approximately 1,540 lbs (700 kg) and a payload capacity of up to 331 lbs (150 kg).
A unit has a Rotax 912-iS internal combustion injection engine that generates up to 105 hp and is equipped with a two-bladed variable-pitch propeller. It can carry about 300 L (79 gal) of gasoline (petrol) and can endure a flight of roughly 27 hours, with a top speed of up to 120 knots (138 mph) within a 2,160 nmi (4,000 km) range.
Soaring a maximum operational altitude of around 25,000 ft (7,620 m), Bayraktar TB2 can eliminate ground and aerial targets using its four laser-guided smart munitions, which can be triggered from the ground control within a line-of-sight communication range of 186 mi (300 km).
MQ-20 Predator C Avenger
The Predator C (also known as the MQ-20 Avenger) is the next-generation unmanned drone platform built by General Atomics based on the noted lessons from the MQ-1 and MQ-9 drones.
Developed primarily for the US Air Force, the Avenger is a high-speed, multi-mission remote-controlled aircraft capable of performing medium-to-high altitude long-endurance (M/HALE) introduced in the late 2000s.
Unlike MQ-9, Predator C features a unique design and speed that makes it more flexible and stealthier, therefore, has an increased change in survivability, particularly in a highly contested environment. It also has an expanded quick-response armed reconnaissance capability, bolstering its capacity to execute wide-area ISRs. Moreover, capable of performing time-sensitive strike missions over land or sea.
It has the same armaments, avionics, and ground support infrastructure as its predecessors, in addition to an advanced synthetic aperture radar and an electro-optical targeting system similar to that found in F-35 fighter jets. Weapons include Hellfire missiles, bombs, guidance tail kits, precision-guided glide bombs, and laser-guided bombs.
As a next-generation UAV, Avenger is highly advanced and agile, equipped with a “Pratt & Whitney turbofan engine capable of producing over 5,000 pounds of thrust (lbf)” and a fuel capacity of approximately 3,583 L (946.53 gal) that allows an endurance flight of more than 20 hours. Its engine provides Predator C with a top speed of 400 knots (460 mph) at a service ceiling of over 50,000 ft (15,240 m).
Furthermore, the drone has an overall length of 13 m (44 ft) and a wingspan of 20 m (66 ft), with a maximum takeoff weight of 18,200 lbs (8,255 kg) and a payload capacity of up to 6,500 lbs (2,948 kg).
Beginning in the 2010s, General Atomics developed two variants of the Avenger: 1) a sea-based UAV for the Navy and 2) an Extended Range (ER) version, which successfully completed its flight test program in 2017.
Reportedly, the Air Force planned to deploy the Predator C to Afghanistan in 2011 to undertake ISR flights against neighboring Iran and Pakistan. The military then explained that the next-generation multi-mission drone was being purchased as a test asset. The service, however, later clarified that the next-generation multi-mission drone was being purchased as a test asset, not for commissioning.
General Atomics pitched the drone to the Central Intelligence Agency to support reconnaissance operations. Nonetheless, the Avenger remains operationally ready, with around 9-10 built units. Exports to Canada and India are also being considered.
RQ-4 Global Hawk
Built by Northrop Grumman in the 1990s, the high-altitude long endurance (HALE) remotely-piloted unmanned platform provides a cutting-edge surveillance weapon for the US Air Force. The premier UAV has been retrofitted through the years to maintain superior intelligence-gathering capabilities, including sophisticated radar and sensor packages, communication systems, and powerful infrared imagery.
With its success, the Navy developed the MQ-4C Triton variant to perform littoral/maritime surveillance duties. It is to note that this UAV does not carry any armaments, unlike the first three tactical drones discussed in this article. It is solely used for ISR and monitoring missions over strategically significant territories.
It features a Rolls-Royce F137-RR-100 turbofan engine that generates about 7,600 lbf (34 knots) thrust and can operate over 34 hours within 12,300 nmi (22,800 km).
The RQ-4 is around 14.5 m (47.7 ft) in length, 4.7 m (15.3 ft) in height, and has a wingspan of 130.9 ft (39.9 m), with a top speed of up to 340 knots (391 mph). Meanwhile, manning its operations, the platform has three crew remotely controlling the UAV.
The Air Force announced in July last year its plans to retire the revered surveillance drones in 2027. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most advanced recon drones in the US arsenal.
Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray is an aerial refueling drone built for the US Navy under the Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) program. The drone is designed to boost the Navy’s air superiority further, extending each fighter jet’s combat coverage with its robust refueling capability.
Apart from refueling warplanes, the Stingray can also conduct ISR tasks and could be converted to perform low-density counter-terrorism missions if needed.
While the UAV remains under development, Boeing has already performed several flight tests—demonstrating its capabilities in refueling the Navy’s aircraft, including the F/A-18 Super Horney, EA-18G Growler, E-2 Hawkeye, and F-35C fighters.
It is powered by a Rolls-Royce AE 3007N turbofan engine delivering 10,000 lbf (44 knots) of thrust, an engine variant of the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton. It measures about 15.5 m (51 ft) in length, 3 m (9.8 ft) in height with its wings extended, and a wingspan of up to 22.9 m (75 ft).
A promising UAV off the Turkish arsenal, the Aksungur is a MALE tactical drone built by Turkish Aerospace International (TAI) in the late 2010s. It is currently TAI’s largest unmanned aircraft intended for tactical operations such as ISR, maritime patrol, or as a combat munition with three high variations of payload options. The Turkish drone integrates an array of advanced radars and sensors, as well as a variety of air-to-ground weapons such as laser-, precision-guided missiles and bombs.
The Aksungur drone belongs to and uses existing technology from the manufacturer’s Anka series, which will be tackled later, powered by twin-turbocharged diesel engines with a twin-boom configuration that generates about 170-220 hp each. It measures 12.5 m (41 ft) in length, 3.1 m (10.2 ft) in height, and has a wingspan of 24.2 m (79.4 ft).
Furthermore, it features a wide range of cutting-edge features, including 360-degree camera coverage, an operational range of up to 150 km (93 mi), a service ceiling of 12,192 m (40,000 ft), and a top speed of 180 km/h (112 mi/h).
Compared to the other sophisticated UAVs on the list, the TAI Aksungur is considered the most cost-effective and ideal for countries that seek to arm themselves with tactical drones but have a limited defense budget.
Current users include the Turkish Naval and Air Forces, while Algeria, Angola, and Kyrgyzstan have been mentioned as prospective operators of the Aksungur drone.
Bayraktar Akıncı “Akinja”
Bayraktar “Akinja” is a Turkish HALE combat drone manufactured by Baykar in 2019 and has been in service in the Turkish armed forces since 2021 and recently in Pakistan Air Force in 2023. It is the renowned Bayraktar TB2’s successor, designed to operate various ammo configurations and execute different missions supporting fighter jets.
The company introduced the Akinja at Turkey’s largest aviation, aerospace, and technology festival in September 2019. Three months later, the unmanned aircraft completed its maiden flight. The UAV went through a couple more test flights before the Turkish armed forces inducted the UAV in late 2021 to ramp up its ISR and combat capabilities.
Like its predecessor, the Akinja UAV features advanced communication systems and cutting-edge radars. Moreover, it can carry potent payloads such as precision missiles, long-range anti-tank missile systems, and mini smart munitions, to name a few. It has a length of 12.2 m (40 ft), a height of 4.1 m (13.5 ft), a wingspan of 20 m (65.6ft), and a maximum takeoff weight of 12,125 lbs (5,500 kg) capable of taking off and landing via runway.
With its ability to carry different payload types, the Akinja can also perform missions conventionally assigned to fighter jets. For its engine, Baykar fitted the drone with twin turboprop engines that generate a power output of 450 hp each, with an option for the operators to add a 750 hp engine or indigenously-built 240 hp engines. As a result, the Turkish UAV can reach a top speed of 361 km/h (224 mph) within a range of 7,500 km (4,700 mi) and a service ceiling of 13,716 m (45,000 ft) in 25 hours of endurance.
So far, more than 20 built Bayraktar Akinja, most of which serve the Turkish armed forces. Its military reportedly used it during Pençe-Kilit Operations, where it sought to dissolve an uprising group in Northern Iraq. Another mission the UAV did was surveying the extensive damage of the recent Turkey-Syria earthquake, providing eyes to rescue efforts and other humanitarian efforts.
Battlefield tested during its participation in conflict in Asia and Africa, this Turkish-built unmanned aircraft earned quite a status as a reliable indigenous assault munition. Like its Aksungur variation, the TAI Anka served the armed forces as a ground attack, close-air support, and ISR missions since 2010. Its most basic version, MALE, was designed for recon operations (similar to the US MQ-1). Its second variation, released four years later, focused more on combat-related duties (like MQ-9B).
The Anka drone series was a result of Turkish authorities’ ambition to have a supply of indigenous UAVs without relying on exportation. It has a wingspan of over 17 m (56.5 ft), a length of about 7.9 m (26 ft), and a ground height of 3.4 m (11 ft). It is powered by a domestically-built PD-170 four-cylinder liquid-cooled turbocharged diesel engine capable of producing up to 170 hp, reaching a top speed of 217 km/h (135 mph), a range of 4,896 km (3,042 mi), and a service altitude of at least 6,096 m (20,000 ft). The older version of the unmanned aircraft used a German-made engine rated at 155 hp and has since been retrofitted to increase its capabilities and ramp up its endurance of up to 30 hours. Moreover, the drone has a more modern, sleek look and a three-bladed constant-speed propeller option.
The combat UAV version has been proposed to carry precision-guided munitions, smart micro bombs, and long-range anti-tank missile systems. Other variants of the TAI Anka include Anka-A (recon), Anka+A (assault drone), Anka Block B (improved), Anka-I (Signals intelligence variant), Anka-S (over-the-horizon capability), Anka-TP (proposed MALE variant), and Aksungur.
Turkish military remains the active operator of the UAV, while the Republic of Chad, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Tunisia all express interest in procuring some of the variants in the future.
IAI Eitan (Heron TP)
IAI Eitan is the advanced version of the 1994 Machatz-1 Heron by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), also known as Heron TP (export designation). Like its predecessor, the Heron TP takes on the role of ISR, battle damage assessment, target acquisition, and intelligence gathering. In addition, it can also be configured to perform aerial refueling and serve as missile defense.
Israel’s 21st-century unmanned drone is equipped with advanced radars, multi-sensor payloads, real-time imagery, and an array of signals intelligence capable of all-weather, MALE operation and reaching heights above commercial air traffic of about 14,000 m (46,000 ft). Furthermore, it has a range of up to 7,400 km (4,598 mi) over 30 hours of flying time and a towing capacity of up to 5,952 lbs (2,700 kg).
IAI Eitan features an all-composite airframe with a wingspan of about 26 m (85 ft) and a length f 14 m (45.9 ft). Moreover, it has a twin-boom configuration and a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67A turboprop engine generating about 1,200 hp and can soar at a top speed of 407 km/h (253 mph). Four-blade propellers are installed at the rear of its fuselage, shifting the UAV into a pusher configuration.
The earlier years of the IAI Eitan were shrouded with secrecy, especially during its developmental phase around the early-to-mid 2000s. It wasn’t until 2007 that IAI was publicly unveiled in a media event and displayed several times at airshows.
According to reports, the IAI Eitan was integrated into the Israeli Defense Force in the mid-to-late 2000s—and an exporting agreement was reached with India, Greece, and Germany beginning in the 2010s.
Chengdu Wing Loong II
Wing Loong II, also known as Chengdu GJ-2, was built by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force and has been in service since 2017. Its prototype was first introduced at Zhuhai Airshow 2016 before it was formally inducted into the PLA Air Force, capable of providing long-range air-to-ground assaults and aerial reconnaissance.
The Chinese MALE drone can either be remotely controlled or set to autonomous flight featuring an enlarged airframe compared to its Wing Loong I predecessor. It also has a long body and wider wingspan, measuring around 11 m (36.1 ft) and 20.5 m (67.3 ft), respectively. Moreover, the UAV has retractable landing gear, and each of its three hardpoints under its wings can carry bombs, rockets, or air-to-surface missiles with a payload capacity of up to 1058 lbs (480 kg).
Reportedly, the unmanned aircraft has a turboprop engine capable of powering a top speed of 370 km/h (230 mph) and a service ceiling of 9,900 m (32,500 ft) within 32 hours of endurance operation. The drone also has a satellite communications antenna, which allows it to communicate data from the UAV to the base station over a long distance.
Regarding operational history, Wing Loong II had a decent record of performing airstrikes and ISR missions. Apart from the PLA, the Emirates purportedly acquired and deployed the Chinese drone to support the Liyan Air Force during the Libyan civil war in 2019. As well as employed by Saudi Arabia (Yemen Civil War), Nigeria (Boko Haram insurgency), Pakistan, and Morocco.
Yabhon United 40 (Smart Eye)
Manufactured by an Emirates-based company ADCOM Systems, Yabhon United 40 is a MALE UAV designed to perform near real-time assessment of combat and battle damage, ISR missions, communication relays, border surveillance, and other special missions such as humanitarian aid.
Nicknamed Smart Eye 2, it was introduced at the Dubai Air Show in 2011 as part of the Yabhon family of UAVs. It demonstrated its capabilities at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi in February 2013 before its maiden flight took place a month later that year.
It has a length of 11.13 m (36.52 ft), a height of 4.38 m (14.37 ft), and a wingspan of 20 m (65.62 ft), with a maximum takeoff weight of up to 3,307 lbs (1,500 kg) and a freight capacity of 2,205 lbs (1,000 kg)—carrying equipment such as two gyro-stabilized gimballed camera platforms and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and armaments like air-to-ground missiles, cruise missiles, and dumb and guided bombs.
Moreover, its airframe design includes a longitudinal curvature that is nearly unique among UAVs, as well as fixed tricycle landing gear to aid in takeoff and landing.
A side note: Taking the weather conditions of its home country, the Yabhon United 40 can conduct missions in hot and high environments.
For its propulsions, the UAE-made drone is fitted with a hybrid turbine-electric propulsion system with a four-cylinder turbocharged Rotax 914 UL engine capable of generating up to 115 hp. It also has a three-bladed propeller attacked at the extreme rear of the UAV and an electric starter with an output of 80 hp.
With this, the United 40 aircraft has a maximum speed of 220 km/h (136.7 mph) at a 7,000 m (22,966 ft) altitude and can fly up to 120 hours or five days.
Current operators include Algeria, Egypt, Russia, and UAE.
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