Why the ubiquity of drones means civilian technology is heading to the battlefield

Canadian manufacturer Bombardier Recreational Products (BPR) has confirmed that the engine it found in a drone used in Russia was not directly sold by any of its distributors, following reports that its engine was in an Iranian-made drone in the Ukraine war be found.

In mid-October, several photos circulated on Twitter that appeared to show downed military drones containing Austrian Rotax engines, said to be Iranian-made, including postal Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, said the drone was shot down over the Black Sea.

“We confirm that with the cooperation of our Ukrainian partners and the assistance of local authorities, we have identified the engine found in the downed Mohajer-6 drone,” BRP-Rotax spokesperson Biliana Necheva said in a statement.

The engine in question is most likely a Rotax 912 engine, used primarily by light aircraft and drone enthusiasts. Civilian aircraft engines like these are popular because they are cheap and easy to retrofit, so they are used in unauthorized military equipment, experts say. Because they are designed for civilian use, the engines are also likely to be subject to fewer export controls than components intended for military use.

Earlier this month, Iran admitted It sells drones to Russiamonths before the war in Ukraine.

In its statement, BRP-Rotax said it began an investigation shortly after becoming aware of the situation to determine the source of the engine. Rotax is the Austrian subsidiary of BRP.

Its investigation also confirmed its “full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations,” the company said.

This is not the first time unauthorized use of BRP technology has been reported.

In 2020, BRP-Rotax suspends deliveries to countries with unknown use after similar Rotax engines emerged Featured in Turkish drone used in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Similar technology to that found in BRP’s Sea-Doo, which powers maritime drones, was reportedly discovered in Ukraine earlier this month.

On October 10, a drone approached Kyiv to launch an attack. 17. Russia used drones to target power stations and civilian infrastructure during its invasion of Ukraine. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Retrofitting engines is cheap, experts say

According to the list maintained by BRP-Rotax, more than 150 engines was stolen From 1996 to 2021.

According to the list, the two most targeted models are variants of the 912 or 914 engines. BRP-Rotax said it was not aware of any recent spike or increase in engine theft.

Jeremy Laliberte, an aerospace engineer and professor at Carleton University, said it was not uncommon to find such engines in unauthorized military equipment.

“There’s nothing special about the engine,” Laliberte said.

“They happen to have military applications, but they’re not great. They’re not supersonic, they’re not stealthy, there’s really nothing fancy about them.”

What might appeal to those retrofitting engines for combat use is their quality and price, since they can be less expensive than military-grade engines, he said.

Regulatory Dual Use Products

BRP-Rotax says their engines are not designed for military purposes and “are not classified as dual-use items”.

But according to experts such as Laliberte, these engines can still be used as a “dual-use” product. These items, although designed for civilian use, can be easily modified for military use.

canadian government describe Dual-use goods “have the potential to be used or converted to produce weapons and military items”.

Some dual-use goods are subject to Canadian export controls control listand the European Union (EU) control list When they clearly delineate military use.

Although the Rotax engine is a dual-use item, it has not been identified as a military item.

Global Affairs Canada said in a statement to CBC that Canada is closely following the BRP investigation and that “export controls, combined with extensive Canadian and United Nations sanctions on Iran, severely restrict imports and exports.”

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Experts agree that since the engines are manufactured in Austria, they are not subject to Canadian export regulations, but are instead subject to export controls listed in the European Union.

Alexandra Perl, spokeswoman for the Austrian Ministry of Labor and Economy, said: “At the moment the EU sanctions on engines such as the Rotax 912 engine are not clear.”

Not all dual-use items are on the EU sanctions list, the ministry noted.

Items that can be used for civilian or military purposes can include a wide range of products, such as cars and smartphones, creating regulatory challenges.

“The export of such common household items to countries that are not sanctioned would require an authorization, which is logically impossible and ineffective,” Perl said.

In countries that are sanctioned or have an arms embargo, such as Russia, the export control list includes a wider range of military and non-military dual-use products.

Therefore, the export of these dual-use items from Austria to Russia is illegal, but legal from Austria to Iran, the ministry said. The company said that, to its knowledge, Austria had not exported any Rotax 912 engines to Iran in the past five years.

The ministry also said that the engines may never have been exported from the EU to Iran, and may have been “exported to another third country under the false pretense that they will be used for civilian purposes, where they may then be illegally transferred (resold) to entities in Iran. “

A Ukrainian serviceman stands next to a downed Russian drone northwest of Kyiv following a drone strike in March. Engines from civilian drones are popular for use in unauthorized military equipment because they are cheap and easy to retrofit, experts say. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Experts want stronger regulation and tracking methods

Experts recommend a multifaceted approach between governments, companies, their subsidiaries and consumers to ensure that dual-use items do not end up in unauthorized military equipment.

Laliberte pointed to commercial aircraft regulation, which he said was stricter.

“Individual parts are identified, and it takes a lot of effort to prevent counterfeit parts and parts from leaving the supply chain and entering other applications,” Laliberte said. “This is probably where the rest of the aviation sector can take some action.”

Mark Bromley is Director of the Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

As the defense sector increasingly borrows and uses civilian technologies in its weapons systems, the challenge of trying to draw a line around the defense sector will become greater.– Mark Bromley, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

Integrating civilian technology into military systems creates enormous control challenges, as the Ukraine war demonstrated, he said.

“As the defense sector increasingly leverages and uses civilian technologies in its weapons systems, the challenge of trying to draw a line around the defense sector will become greater,” he said.

“Besides export controls, what else can we do to try and track these types of diversions, and if diversion occurs, identify the type of diversion point and then cut it off?”

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Companies should know their direct and third-party customers, Bromley said, and they should also require the wholesalers they supply to track their buyers.

“Even if hard law requirements in the area of ​​export controls do not apply, companies still have soft law obligations under the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights in Business.”

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