Italy – The Intricate Web of Geopolitics and Arms Trafficking: Seizure of Chinese Wing Loong Drones Destined for Libya


In a dramatic revelation that has significant geopolitical ramifications, Italian authorities have intercepted Chinese-made Wing Loong drones that were ostensibly en route to Libya. The seizure, which occurred off the coast of southern Italy, has unearthed a clandestine operation to funnel military hardware into the hands of Libyan strongman General Khalifa Haftar, circumventing a United Nations arms embargo. The disassembled drones were discovered in crates falsely labeled as parts for wind turbines, marking a sophisticated attempt to disguise their true nature.

The interception took place at the port of Gioia Tauro in southern Italy on June 18. Italian officials impounded three containers filled with drones and two drone control stations, according to a report by The Times of London. Sources indicated that the containers had been unloaded from the cargo vessel MSC Arina, which had traveled from China to the Mediterranean. The containers were slated for transfer to another vessel bound for Benghazi in Libya. Subsequent investigations led to the seizure of three additional suspect containers at the same port, delivered by another cargo ship, the MSC Apolline.

Photographic and video evidence has since revealed the elaborate measures taken to conceal the drone parts. Reports suggest the components were wrapped in protective coverings typically used for transporting wind turbine blades. Intelligence provided by the United States was instrumental in alerting Italian authorities to the presence of these weapons. Other accounts suggest that routine customs checks identified discrepancies in the accompanying documentation, leading to the discovery.

The deliberate obfuscation of the cargo’s true identity, including the use of forged documents, underscores the lengths to which the perpetrators went to circumvent international scrutiny. The Italian prosecutors’ next steps remain uncertain, as does the extent of the Chinese government’s involvement in this smuggling operation. The possibility exists that the drones were sourced secondhand from other entities.

The intended recipient of the seized drones was General Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which controls eastern Libya. Haftar has maintained power since his attempt to unify the country faltered in 2020 following intense conflict with the Government of National Unity (GNA). The GNA, backed by the United Nations, operates from Tripoli and is led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. Libya remains divided, with each side maintaining its own government and armed forces.

The Wing Loong drones, particularly the Wing Loong I and II models, have been extensively utilized by the LNA in its operations against the GNA. These medium-altitude, long-endurance drones, comparable to the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper, offer significant surveillance and strike capabilities. The drones can be equipped with air-to-ground weapons such as Blue Arrow-7 missiles, enhancing their offensive potential. Despite the seizure, no weapons were found with the drones in the intercepted shipment.

The Wing Loong drones have seen varied deployment in Libya, often facilitated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has reportedly provided and operated these drones for the LNA. The UAE’s involvement reached a controversial peak in 2020 when a Wing Loong, allegedly operated with Emirati assistance, struck a military academy in Tripoli, resulting in the deaths of 26 cadets. This incident, involving a Chinese-made Blue Arrow-7 missile, highlighted the complex web of foreign influence and military support in the Libyan conflict.

The persistent losses of Wing Loong drones in combat have necessitated continuous resupply. For China, selling drones to Libya represents a strategic opportunity, potentially tied to oil deals. In April, two Libyan nationals were charged in Canada for brokering a deal to supply drones to the LNA in exchange for “millions of drums” of oil, contravening United Nations sanctions that prohibit such transactions.

Italy, under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right administration, faces a delicate balancing act. The country has sought to build relations with both General Haftar and Prime Minister Dbeibah to address migration issues from North Africa. Concurrently, Haftar’s increasing alignment with Russia has raised alarms in Washington. Haftar’s collaboration with Moscow includes allowing Russian vessels to deliver weapons to Tobruk, which supports Russian military activities across Africa.

The standoff in Libya continues, with drones playing a pivotal role in the military strategies of both the LNA and GNA. Initially reliant on fleets of aging French and Soviet-era jets, both sides have increasingly turned to drones for their operational needs. These unmanned systems have conducted thousands of airstrikes, making Libya one of the most drone-intensive conflict zones in recent history. In 2019, United Nations Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé labeled the Libyan civil war as “the largest drone war in the world.”

While Haftar’s 2020 offensive ultimately failed, the country’s division remains fraught with tension and the potential for renewed conflict. Drones continue to be a critical asset, providing both surveillance and strike capabilities over extended distances. Haftar’s determination to acquire additional Wing Loong drones, even through elaborate smuggling operations, underscores their strategic value.

The broader geopolitical implications of this incident are profound. China’s involvement in supplying military hardware to Libya, whether directly or through intermediaries, reflects its growing influence and interests in the region. The intersection of arms trafficking, oil deals, and international sanctions presents a complex challenge for global governance and enforcement mechanisms.

The situation in Libya is a microcosm of the broader dynamics at play in global conflicts where technology, geopolitics, and regional power struggles intersect. As drones become increasingly central to modern warfare, their proliferation and the methods by which they are acquired and deployed will continue to shape the contours of international security and diplomacy.

Historical Context and Evolution of the Conflict

To understand the current dynamics, it is essential to revisit the historical context of the Libyan conflict. The downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, following a NATO-backed uprising, plunged Libya into chaos. The power vacuum left by Gaddafi’s ouster led to a fragmented state with multiple factions vying for control.

Initially, the transitional government struggled to assert authority, leading to the rise of various militias. The country split into rival administrations, with the GNA forming in Tripoli and the LNA consolidating power in the east under General Haftar. The conflict escalated into a full-scale civil war, drawing in regional and international actors with vested interests.

The GNA received support from Turkey, Qatar, and Italy, among others, while the LNA was backed by Egypt, the UAE, and Russia. The involvement of these external powers complicated the conflict, introducing sophisticated weaponry and military expertise into the fray.

The Role of Drones in the Libyan Conflict

Drones have transformed the nature of the Libyan conflict, providing both sides with critical advantages. The Wing Loong drones, supplied by China, have been particularly significant for the LNA. These drones, with their long endurance and substantial payload capacity, have been used for surveillance, targeting, and direct strikes.

The Wing Loong I and II models can operate for up to 20 hours, covering vast distances and providing real-time intelligence. Their ability to carry weapons like the Blue Arrow-7 missile has made them formidable assets in the conflict. The LNA has used these drones to target GNA positions, disrupting their operations and gaining tactical advantages.

The GNA, in response, has utilized Turkish-supplied Bayraktar TB2 drones. Although smaller and with a shorter range than the Wing Loong, the TB2s have proven effective in both surveillance and combat roles. These drones have enabled the GNA to conduct precise airstrikes and gather valuable intelligence.

The proliferation of drones in the Libyan conflict has not only intensified the fighting but also highlighted the evolving nature of modern warfare. Unmanned systems have become essential tools for military operations, reducing the risk to human pilots and allowing for persistent surveillance and targeted strikes.

The Geopolitical Landscape

The seizure of the Wing Loong drones underscores the intricate geopolitical landscape surrounding the Libyan conflict. China’s involvement, directly or indirectly, in supplying these drones points to its strategic interests in the region. Libya’s vast oil reserves make it an attractive partner for China, despite the risks associated with circumventing international sanctions.

For the UAE, supporting the LNA aligns with its broader regional strategy. The UAE has been a key ally of Haftar, providing military assistance and backing his efforts to control eastern Libya. However, incidents like the 2020 strike on the Tripoli military academy have brought scrutiny and raised questions about the extent of Emirati involvement.

Russia’s growing influence in Libya, through its support for Haftar, is another critical factor. Moscow’s interest in Libya extends beyond military alliances to economic opportunities and strategic positioning. By securing a foothold in Libya, Russia can project power in North Africa and potentially disrupt NATO operations in the Mediterranean.

Italy, balancing its relationships with both the GNA and LNA, seeks to address migration challenges and secure its interests in the region. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government has navigated a complex diplomatic landscape, aiming to foster stability while managing the implications of Haftar’s ties to Russia.

The Humanitarian Impact

Amid the geopolitical maneuvering and military strategies, the humanitarian impact of the Libyan conflict cannot be overlooked. The prolonged fighting has resulted in significant civilian casualties, displacement, and destruction of infrastructure. Both the GNA and LNA have been accused of human rights violations, exacerbating the suffering of the Libyan people.

The use of drones, while providing military advantages, has also raised concerns about civilian casualties. Precision strikes can minimize collateral damage, but the fog of war and the complexities of urban combat environments often lead to unintended consequences. Ensuring accountability and adherence to international humanitarian law remains a pressing challenge.

The Path Forward

The seizure of the Wing Loong drones is a reminder of the ongoing volatility and complexity of the Libyan conflict. The international community faces a daunting task in

addressing the myriad challenges posed by this situation. Strengthening enforcement mechanisms for arms embargoes, promoting dialogue among the warring factions, and addressing the root causes of the conflict are essential steps toward achieving lasting peace.

For Libya, the path forward requires reconciliation and the establishment of a unified government capable of providing security and services to its citizens. The international community must support these efforts, balancing the need for stability with respect for Libya’s sovereignty and self-determination.

In conclusion, the interception of Chinese-made Wing Loong drones destined for Libya is a significant development with far-reaching implications. It highlights the intricate web of geopolitical interests, arms trafficking, and regional power struggles that characterize the Libyan conflict. As the situation continues to evolve, the role of drones and other advanced technologies will remain central to the strategies of both the LNA and GNA.

Achieving a resolution to the Libyan conflict will require concerted efforts from regional and international actors, a commitment to upholding international law, and a focus on the humanitarian needs of the Libyan people. The complex interplay of military, economic, and political factors underscores the need for a comprehensive and multifaceted approach to peacebuilding in Libya.


APPENDIX 1 – Wing Loong  UCAV – Technical Specifications and Capabilities

  • Category: Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE)
  • Manufacturer: Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC)
  • First Flight: 1 February 2017
  • Introduction Year: 2018
  • Number Produced: 100 units
  • Length: 11 meters (36.1 feet)
  • Wingspan: 20.5 meters (67.3 feet)
  • Height: 4.1 meters (13.5 feet)
  • Maximum Takeoff Weight: 4200 kg (9259 lbs)
  • Engine: Single piston engine with a three-blade propeller
  • Maximum Speed: 370 km/h (230 mph)
  • Endurance: 32 hours
  • Service Ceiling: 9900 meters (29528 feet)
  • Operational Radius: 1500 km (932 miles)
  • Payload Capacity: 400 kg
  • Max Payload Weight: 480 kg
  • Armaments: Capable of carrying up to 12 laser-guided bombs or missiles including:
    • FT-9/50 50 kg bomb
    • GB3 250 kg laser-guided bomb
    • TL-10 bomb
    • BA-7 missile
    • AKD-10 missile
  • Sensors and Avionics:
    • Electro-optical sensor turret
    • Satellite communication dome
    • Daylight and infrared cameras and sensors
    • GPS communication system
    • Air-to-ground radars
  • Design Features:
    • Monoplane slender fuselage and empennage with a V-tail and ventral fin
    • Tri-cycle landing gear with two main wheels under the fuselage and one single wheel under the nose
    • Three underwing hardpoints per wing for carrying armaments

Combat and Operational Use

  • Primary Roles: Surveillance, aerial reconnaissance, and precision strike missions.
  • Control: Remotely controlled by one operator from a mobile ground control station.
  • Export and Operational History:
    • Countries that have used or acquired the Wing Loong II include China, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya, and Algeria.
    • It has been used in various conflicts, notably by the UAE in the Libyan Civil War.

Updates and Recent Developments

  • The Wing Loong II UAV was showcased at the Airshow China 2016, emphasizing its capabilities in reconnaissance and strike roles.
  • It is marketed as a more affordable alternative to Western counterparts such as the MQ-9 Reaper.

Scheme Table

ManufacturerAviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC)
First Flight1 February 2017
Year of Introduction2018
Number Produced100 units
Length11 meters (36.1 feet)
Wingspan20.5 meters (67.3 feet)
Height4.1 meters (13.5 feet)
Max Takeoff Weight4200 kg (9259 lbs)
EngineSingle piston engine with a three-blade propeller
Max Speed370 km/h (230 mph)
Endurance32 hours
Service Ceiling9900 meters (29528 feet)
Operational Radius1500 km (932 miles)
Payload Capacity400 kg
Max Payload Weight480 kg
ArmamentsFT-9/50 50 kg bomb, GB3 250 kg laser-guided bomb, TL-10 bomb, BA-7 missile, AKD-10 missile
Sensors and AvionicsElectro-optical sensor turret, satellite communication dome, GPS, air-to-ground radars
Design FeaturesV-tail, ventral fin, tri-cycle landing gear, three underwing hardpoints per wing
Primary RolesSurveillance, aerial reconnaissance, precision strike missions
ControlRemotely controlled by one operator from a mobile ground control station
Export and Operational HistoryChina, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya, Algeria

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