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Recent UAV strikes against Saudi infrastructure or the shooting down of a US drone in the Persian Gulf region point to the Middle East’s role as the globe’s thriving lethal laboratory in which UAV technology, in contravention of relevant arms control measures, is evolving and maturing rapidly under combat conditions.
When the US developed the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle in the 1990s it seemed plausible that costly, militarily effective UAVs (unmanned or uninhabited aerial vehicles) would remain, as it was for WMDs, the preserve of few states. Multilateral arms control agreements, such as the Missile Treaty Control Regime, therefore adopted drone-related measures similar to those that had proven effective during the Cold War: particularly export controls covering UAVs and their components which the now 35 member states develop and agree to implement nationally.
The first recorded swarm drone attack in 2018 was only one of the recent instances which have instead marked the breakout of UAVs – now following a trajectory of rapid evolution and largely uncontrolled spread – notably into the Middle Eastern region’s roiling turmoil and complex proxy warfare. With international disarmament aspirations at a low ebb, the example of this region suggests that any past restraint of individual exporting states and international regulatory frameworks have been no match for the demand for the capabilities of armed UAVs, rapid combat-driven experimentation and innovation – including by non-state parties – and the ability and willingness of a state – China – to transform supply. This confluence of factors has also delivered regional UAV operators with capabilities which only a few years ago had been the preserve of just three states: the US, Israel and the UK. With brisk quantitative growth and deployment of armed UAVs, Middle Eastern players are themselves emerging as key UAV operators . Notwithstanding various international legal concerns they are now extending a playbook for the deployment of military UAV technology against regional actors. A few examples since 2018 illustrate this:
- January 2018 – first recorded and tactically effective swarm drone attack, in Syria.
- January 2018 – Turkey claimed its UAVs ‘neutralized 1,129’ Kurdish fighters.
- March 2018 – Chinese-made UAV used to kill a key moderate prior to Yemen UN talks.
- Various UAV incursions into Israel and strikes on Iran's Syrian drone infrastructure.
- Regional UAV forces operating from 2018 in support of different Libyan proxies.
- Up to May 2019 – Houthi UAV operations against diverse military, civilian and what may be described as economic targets, such as oil installations near Riyadh.
These examples suggest that the sheer tactical and strategic versatility of this force multiplier will keep UAVs an essential tool for states and maintain rapid demand which was stymied in the past. Israel was previously a high-end global supplier and leader in UAV technology innovation while the US severely restricted foreign sales. The region therefore had no access to sophisticated drones. The quickly growing supply of Chinese multi-role strike capable UAVs has since transformed regional UAV numbers and capabilities with competitively priced armed UAVs sold to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In addition to existing factories in Turkey and the UAE, new factories to assemble Chinese UAVs in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are further lifting supply. At the ‘entry level’, Chinese manufacturers such as the market-leader, DJI, have also expanded markets with low-cost, off-the-shelf UAVs. With unnerving ingenuity these have been used by non-state groups – such as Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Hizbullah and Hamas – to devise UAVs of propaganda or even military value – as such basic and generic drones can trigger resource-intensive defensive measures and can help mask an attacker’s identity.
This element of masked identity was also a hallmark of the first recorded use of a self-guided swarm attack against two Russian bases in Syria in January 2018. The attack was defeated by high-end defences and no clear attribution has emerged in the public domain. The GPS-guided swarms used in the attack consisted of ten and then three rudimentary drones. Each drone was armed with eight to 10 bomblets of improvised explosives and travelled over 50 kilometres along a programmed path with guidance to specific targets. Further attacks followed and these too were defeated by costly, high-end air defence systems. Regional non-state parties such as Hizbullah and the Houthis have also innovatively used mostly very basic drones, some costing as little as $200, to successfully infiltrate the airspace of technologically superior adversaries and probe reaction times, capabilities and gather intelligence. In May 2019 Houthi forces succeeded in the highly complex task of launching stand-off drone strikes, sufficiently precise to fly 800 kilometres into Saudi Arabia and put a distant oil production infrastructure near Riyadh out of action. A 2018 United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen pointed to an initial role of Iranian technology and supply in the Houthi programme. The panel experts and others also noted experimentation and innovation to substitute any necessary drone components and to localise production to the greatest extent possible as well as the role of commercial off-the-shelf Asian components.
The responses in the Israeli, Russian and Saudi examples illustrate the challenges in preventing the infiltration of UAVs and their disproportionate effect: in Israel’s case, sophisticated $3.4m Patriot anti-ballistic missiles were reportedly used against basic UAVs between 2014 and 2017. The development of counter-UAV systems by firms such as Israeli ELTA underlines the pervasiveness of the challenge given the lack of appropriate counter-UAV options and the unsustainability of using million-dollar missiles against targets costing hundreds of dollars. The character of the January 2018 attack against the Russian bases and much larger current swarm drone trials also foreshadow the possibility of bigger future attacks with similar potential deniability with as yet unpredicted consequences on regional deterrence and stability.
The failure to prevent the proliferation of UAVs in the Middle Eastern region, beyond the scope of multilateral agreements and intent, poses many questions and is a timely reminder about a divided international community’s inconsistent record of controlling the spread of emerging lethal technologies. In time, this may prove calamitous.
Alexander Balas is a former investment manager at Invest Australia and member of the Arms Control Association who is currently working towards a postgraduate international law degree at the Australian National University.
BANNER IMAGE: UAV technology from China has arrived in the Middle East. Courtesy of Mztourist/wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.