Proliferation of Drone Technology in the Middle East

Author Name: Shaza Arif       08 Apr 2021     Airforce

The Middle East holds great importance due to its geopolitical position. The region has been embroiled in conflicts for a long time. The presence of oil, conflicting interests of major powers and the sectarian divide has complicated the regional dynamics to a considerable extent. For the past few decades, the region has been a testing ground of advanced armament and regional states have amassed weapons from all three big powers, i.e., the United States, China and Russia which has further added instability in the strategic environment. After the fall of Soviet Union, the US emerged as the sole supplier of weaponry to Middle Eastern countries, but its restrictive policies pushed various states to opt for Chinese weaponry. Amidst all, new technologies are gradually making their way to the region and militaries are inclined to employ them for their potential benefits.

Drones constitute one such technology which is significantly impacting the regional environment. Since, the US has stringent export regimes for drones, especially towards the Middle East, China has filled the void by emerging as a major supplier of this technology at an economical rate with fewer restrictions on their use. However, the drones acquired from China pose compatibility issues with the American equipment and command and control systems stationed in those countries. Consequently, their presence only remains a symbol of national pride in those countries rather than being any operational value.

Israel, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey and Iraq are the seven countries which possess drones in the Middle East. According to research conducted by the Royal United Services Institute, some of these states have acquired drones to augment their airpower roles, while others have acquired them as a symbol of prestige. According to the study, Iran, Turkey and UAE are the key states where the induction of drones has shown a notable impact on employment, norms and behaviour of airpower. These countries have found this technology useful due to several reasons ranging from easy availability, cost-effectiveness to overcoming the weakness of their conventional forces.

Iran has relied on its indigenous drones due to imposed sanctions. It has designed and developed two drones, i.e., Shahed - 129 and Mohajer - 6, and has successfully employed them in a number of operations, compensating for the weakness of its air force. It has used drones for ISR and long-range offensive operations. Iran also prefers them as tools for asymmetric and sub-conventional warfare. Hence, the acquisition of drones by Iran has shaped its airpower norms and behaviour.

The UAE initially purchased drones as symbol of pride and stature. However, noting the immense potential of this technology, the spectrum of its usage was enhanced. UAE has employed armed drones in joint operations with its allies in Yemen. It also conducted strikes in politically sensitive areas in Libya. UAE is using Predator XP for target identification and ISR. Its goal is to become the prime partner of the US in counterterrorism operations. With the acquisition of MQ-9 Reaper which is compatible with American systems, UAE aims to develop the strongest link with the US military in the region.

Turkey is expanding its fleet of indigenous armed drones in three series: Anka, Bayraktar TB2 and Karayel. Turkey has been using drones for counterterrorism operations, ISR and targeting Kurds within and outside the country. Furthermore, it is also exporting drones to a number of other countries including Azerbaijan, Tunisia, Qatar and Ukraine. The clear victory of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict demonstrated that drones can prove to be a game-changer technology.

Although the study conducted by RUSI asserts that Israel’s airpower norms have not been significantly impacted by drones, yet given that Israel extensively uses drones for both ISR and offensive purposes, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that it is also one of the key states whose airpower norms have been shaped by drones.

There are some states in the Middle East such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia that have acquired drones, but they have had a relatively less impact on their airpower norms due to compatibility issues with their already existing weaponry.

Notwithstanding the above argument, drones are playing a significant role in the Middle East, which are evident by the following examples:

  • In 2018, Turkey used drone strikes to kill Ismail Ozden, a prominent member of the Kurdish Worker’s Party who was present in Iraq.
  • Houthi rebels attacked two oil pumping stations on 14 May 2019. In February 2020, they launched two drone strikes against Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport a few days apart. On 19 September 2020, they launched drone attacks on oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. On 7 March 2021, they launched drone attacks on a major oil port and Aramco residential area in Saudi Arabia. The US has launched a number of drone strikes against these Houthi rebels in Yemen.
  • In the beginning of 2020, General Qasem Soleimani was killed by a drone strike launched by the US.
  • Israel occasionally uses drone strike on areas where Hezbollah segments are suspected.

These events suggest that proliferation of drones is a threat to regional stability, especially in the Middle East given its various hot spots. The most disturbing aspect in this regard is the asymmetric warfare and its serious consequences. The presence of non-state actors has complicated the situation even further. Hence, the proliferation of this technology will trigger an arms race between various states as well as non-state actors.

In addition, with increasing Chinese weaponry, it is fairly evident that Beijing will likely increase its access and influence over potential Arab buyers, further intensifying big power competition in the region.

Whether drones are developed indigenously or acquired through some other state, it will have significant repercussions for the region. Taking into account regional dynamics of the Middle East, this technology can result in unwanted escalation which will not only impact the region but also the world at large.

 

Shaza Arif is a Researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). The article was first published in Khaleej Mag. She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com