These Arab monarchies like UAE and Saudi Arabia are becoming Arm Dealers, trading Israeli and Western technologies, yet which on of these Arab monarchies is able to militarily defend its own borders ?15 January 2021
Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), most commonly known as “drones”, are making headlines due to their increasing use in conflicts around the world and, especially, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Besides their specific military impact and their consequences for warfare, drones might also have important implications for political and security dynamics in a context of both state fragility and deepening interstate rivalry across the region. Such developments are likely to accelerate and evolve due to both the skyrocketing proliferation of unmanned platforms and the expanding number of their operators - whether state, para-state or non-state actors - with potential reverberations on international law as well. Despite the lack of robust empirical evidence, the present paper aims to contextualise the proliferation of armed drones in the MENA region by taking into account multiple factors - including available market, military, and casualties data - and assess their possible implications for the regional security landscape. Other aspects, such as the positive or negative connotations of drones are presented, but remain beyond the scope of this essay and will not be examined. The paper concludes with a useful inventory of military-grade UAVs currently used by MENA states updated according to open-source data.
Over the last few years, security dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been characterized by deepening fragmentation and persistent volatility. From a wider perspective, such a trend is also the reflection of a fluid regional landscape, where governance shortcomings, geopolitical rivalry and social unrest have become increasingly entrenched and – in some contexts – disruptive. To a certain extent, these developments emanate from both the growing competition between and assertiveness of regional powers that have manifested more or less overtly in virtually all the region’s war zones. At present, some of the most influential actors in the Middle East are native to the region itself, have heightened their geopolitical ambitions and embarked on audacious and unilateralist foreign policies, in many cases defying the constraints long imposed by junior partnerships with foreign powers and, sometimes, even going against the latters’ regional agendas. From a military standpoint, such a competition is emerging more and more distinctly when it comes to the development and use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Introduced more than a century ago in the form of rudimentary flying balloons carrying fuse-controlled bombs, UAVs, colloquially referred to as “drones”, have today reached unprecedented levels of sophistication, progressively expanding from a niche military tool only available to Israel and the United States in 2001 - when a Predator UAV was first used for a failed targeted killing mission against Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Afghanistan - into relatively cheap yet high-tech weapons in the arsenal of an ever-growing number of countries. The military segment of the global drone market is expected to attract almost $100 billion worth of investments in the next decade, with a 30% increment in terms of both research-and-development and procurement spending, confirming the expanding and strategic importance of UAV platforms in the defence apparatus of numerous states. This tendency is particularly observable in the Middle East, where military UAVs accounted for about 82% of the overall regional drones’ market in 2019, and represents a lucrative “business space” for defence companies such as the Turkish Baykar Makina, the Chinese Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group or the Emirati Adcom Systems, to name just a few.
Overall, available data indicate that since the introduction of military UAVs in the MENA market space, regional countries (excluding Israel) have plausibly spent at least $1.5 billion in purchasing these platforms. Such an estimate does not take into account weapons and training costs, although in some cases these could already be included in the final purchase price.
The regional quest for armed UAVs
A crucial but often disregarded aspect to better appraise the impact of UAVs in the region deals with their specific capabilities, which denote their ultimate – or at least primary – purpose within an expanding spectrum of military utilizations. More specifically, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), along with target acquisition (TA), remain the essential functions of drones and their foundational ones, as most of them are conceived for collecting information, especially images, and sending them in real-time to headquarters or even to the troops on the frontline, in order to improve situational awareness on the battlefield and provide more reliable intelligence about the target. Usually equipped with state-of-the-art electro-optic cameras as well as multi-spectrum sensors and capable of flying at constant low speed for several hours, modern UAVs have come to represent an essential eye in the sky for any military or security force.
As a matter of fact, ISR capabilities proved to be a decisive factor in a region characterized by porous borders and vast uncontrolled spaces, allowing many governments to collect valuable intelligence and regain the upper hand against both domestic rebel threats and transnational terrorist groups. Algeria and Egypt, for example, have repeatedly flown drones in their counterterrorism campaigns against the local brands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in south-east Algerian territories and the Sinai Peninsula respectively. Importantly, both the Algerian El Djazair 54s (an indigenous copy of the Emirati Adcom Systems’ Yabhon United-40) and Egypt’s Chinese-built Wing Loong Is have also been employed with armed configurations, providing kinetic air support to ground personnel with an array of guided and unguided ordnance. Indeed, even more than ISR platforms, weaponized drones (or unmanned aerial combat vehicles – UCAVs) are capturing the imagination of many governments in the Middle East and making headlines due to their front-row role in all the region’s conflicts. From Yemen to Libya, to Syria and Iraq, armed drones seem to be at the forefront of air operations, in particular close air support and tactical ISR. At present, thirteen regional states are either operating armed drones or in the process of acquiring such capability, with four of them, namely Iran, Israel, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also exporting UCAVs to other countries or foreign actors.
Particularly striking has been Turkey’s rapid and energetic debut in the (not so) exclusive club of states possessing armed UAVs, not only because of its large-scale and pioneering use of drones in conventional combat operations but also in light of what might become Ankara’s major role within the global UAV market in the near future. Turkey’s best business partners in the region are Qatar, Tunisia, and Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Doha recently received the first batch of six Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs and three ground control stations purchased in 2018, while in early March 2020 Tunisia signed a $240 million contract with the Turkish Aerospace Industry (TAI) for the supply of six medium-altitude long- endurance (MALE) Anka-S combat drones along with three control stations and training assistance. This deal, however, is currently frozen and according to recent reports, it might never see the light of day due to Tunisia’s solvency problems.
Ankara’s latest client is Azerbaijan, which sealed a contract for the purchase of Turkish-manufactured TB2 combat drones after its parliament recently endorsed deeper bilateral military cooperation with Turkey, just in time for deploying them against Armenian forces in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Last but not least, since May 2019 an unknown number of TB2 UCAVs, together with the necessary equipment and trainers, have been deployed in Libya to support the GNA against the offensive of Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA), triggering a vicious drone war with the latter’s Wing Loong IIs supplied by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). What is more, the Turkish UAV inventory could soon receive two more advanced systems that have been indigenously developed by Baykar Makina and the competitor Turkish Aerospace Industry: the Akinci and the Aksungur respectively. The former deserves special attention, as it is a strategic-class drone with high payload capacity, air-to-air and air-to-ground attack capabilities, mission interoperability with fighter jets and fully autonomous flight and take-off control systems, which provides the Turkish armed forces with a whole new level of ISTAR and strike capabilities that only Israel (and the U.S.) currently possess. Aside from enhancing the country’s military might, the Akinci – and other UAV platforms as well – is upholding its defence industry’s self-sufficiency, as Turkish firms have been forced to replace foreign components such as engines and sensor payloads that have come under embargo from several Western countries due to Ankara’s UAV supply to Azerbaijan for its military confrontation against Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Akinci, for instance, will be powered by domestic engines produced by Turkish Aerospace Industry’s subsidiary TUSAŞ Engine Industries and equipped with a locally made active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, among other payloads; similarly, the popular TB2 is on track to become the first fully-indigenous Turkish drone after the successful test of the electro-optic/infra-red (EO/IR) reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting system named CATS developed by Turkish defence company Aselsan, which will replace the previous camera suite produced by Canadian Wescam.
The Turkish “UAV awakening”, stemming from Ankara’s failure to obtain the U.S.’ UCAV systems due to repeated U.S. Congressional vetoes, is spearheaded by the positive reputation of Baykar’s combat platforms and is part of a broader autonomisation strategy in the field of defence that seeks to satisfy Turkey’s defence and security goals while making the country a major arms exporter over the next decade.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also developing their drone capabilities. Both countries have been deploying Chinese platforms, in particular the Wing Loong series produced by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, since at least 2015, as well as the Cai-Hong (CH) 4B made by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC). All these models have already been used in battle, especially in Libya and Yemen. In parallel, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh aim to strengthen their domestic UAV industries and have invested in indigenous models such as the Emirati Yabhon series, produced by ADCOM Systems, and the Saudi Saker family, with the former mainly destined for export.
On the other shore of the Gulf, Iran has made dazzling progress in terms of UAV technology, with an unclassified 2019 report of the US Intelligence Defence Agency that defines UAVs as “Iran’s most rapidly advancing air capability”. Tehran has developed several strike-capable platforms for combat and direct attack purposes such as the Ababil-3T, the Mohajer, notably its more recent 4B and 6 variants, the MALE-class Shaed-129, and the Fotros, just to name the major ones. The Shaed-129, first unveiled in 2012 and manufactured by Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industry (HESA), marks a substantial step forward in terms of flight endurance and range, as previous models in Tehran’s drone fleet had overall limited performances, largely because of the limited access to sophisticated technologies such as cutting-edge sensors, engines and other components imposed by international sanctions and export control regimes. Over the years, the Shaed-129 has undergone several upgrades that, according to Iranian officials, enable it to stay aloft for 24 hours and carry up to eight air-to-ground missiles, becoming Iran’s most combat-tested UCAV system and one of the only platforms in the country’s arsenal to possess proven capabilities of conducting air-to-ground strikes. Importantly, the drone’s second generation presents a bigger front nose bulge that could accommodate advanced technologies such as satellite data links or a more powerful synthetic-aperture radar antenna. In Tehran’s military strategy, drones have come to represent a great cost-effective solution to enhance surveillance, reconnaissance and strike capabilities, compensating for structural conventional deficiencies, especially in terms of ISR and long-range bombing platforms, but, at the same time, also increasing Iran’s reliance on unconventional means as surrogates for unavailable conventional ones. Not least important, UAVs play a significant propaganda role thanks to their “technological” aura and popularity in the public debate, helping the Iranian regime to bolster its reputation and nationalistic discourse.
When looking at the specific North African context, long-standing geopolitical rivalries with Algeria may explain Morocco’s decision, earlier this year, to eventually acquire 3 Harfang MALE UAVs (a variant of the Israeli Heron I) decommissioned by France in 2018. Although Rabat maintains that they will be used for surveillance and reconnaissance against jihadists and rebels in Western Sahara, their primary purpose is probably to counterbalance Algeria’s more developed drone capabilities. The kingdom’s parallel purchase of the Ukrainian-made Bukovel counter-UAV system in September 2019 is certainly not coincidental, as Algeria remains its only neighbouring country with an active UAV program.
Finally, some considerations about Israel’s UAV program are necessary. Israel is certainly amongst the dominant countries in terms of drone capabilities, possibly second only to the U.S., and until 2014 was the world’s major drone exporter, accounting for 61% of global UAV exports. The Israeli armed forces, which boast the oldest continually operating drone unit in the world, can count on some of the most capable platforms ever developed in terms of payload capacity, flight endurance, and technological features. The largest Israeli drone, the MALE class Heron-TP, can perform strategic missions up to a maximum altitude of more than 13 thousand meters, loiter for more than 30 hours, and carry a variety of sensor suites and ordnance combinations for a maximum payload capacity of 2700 kg. This platform can also operate beyond line of sight (BLOS) thanks to a satellite communication link, while counting on an automatic taxi-take-off and landing (ATOL) system that enables it to autonomously operate in inclement weather conditions and adapt to specific mission contingencies. Produced by the Israeli Aviation Industry, the Heron-TP has recently seen a 50% growth in the number of models in active service with the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and is leading the operational ascent of unmanned platforms within the IAF’s arsenal, with more than 80% of total flight hours in 2019 performed by UAVs. These developments are indicative of a broader trend that sees unmanned platforms replacing manned aircraft in some types of missions in the near future.
In terms of regional market share, however, it is worth noting that Israel does not sell its advanced UAVs to any states in the Middle East and North Africa, and usually even refrains from disclosing the identity of UAV customers from other regions as well. This is largely due to constant suspicion of and perception of threat from its Arab neighbours, because of which Jerusalem avoids selling cutting-edge military technologies that might be used against it, notwithstanding the recent diplomatic normalization between the Israeli government and some Arab countries. Put differently, Israel is absent from the regional market of medium and heavy UAVs. All recent Israeli drone exports are aimed at countries across Europe, chiefly Germany and Great Britain, Latin America, and Asia, with India topping the list in terms of spending. According to data from the SIPRI Arms transfer database, from 2010 to 2019, 21 states and two international organizations purchased a disparate range of UAV platforms from Israel, including India, the leader in these purchases. In 2016 India preliminarily signed a $400 million contract for the acquisition of 10 Heron-TP armed UAVs that should be soon co-manufactured in India by IAI and the Indian state-funded Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
China’s gains, U.S.’ pains?
The fact that TB2 or Chinese UCAV models such as the Wing Loong and the Cai Hong 4B are the most popular in the region, confirms the leading role of Turkey and especially China within the regional UAV market. This, in turn, has come somewhat at the expense of U.S. defence companies, something that might be unexpected given the U.S. still uncontested global primacy in military drone technology. In fact, while Ankara and especially Beijing follow quite liberal exporting policies and have no qualms about selling armed UCAVs even to authoritarian regimes, American companies have so far observed both the tight restrictions imposed by U.S. national arms export regulations such as the Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) Policy, and the non-binding criteria established by the international Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), to which Washington voluntarily adheres. The MTCR is not a treaty and does not dictate any legally binding obligations, instead providing a framework of understanding among states aimed at limiting the proliferation of missile technology, with a focus on “rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km and on equipment, software, and technology for such systems”. Turkey joined the MTCR in 1997, whereas China does not participate in the initiative. Overall, the synergy between the MTCR and both U.S. domestic statutes – chiefly the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) – and other international regulations such as the Arms Trade Treaty has significantly restricted U.S. armed drone exports since their first operational appearance.
Another reason behind the U.S.’ tight export policy concerns Israel’s security and the reluctance to sell cutting-edged technology to Arab countries that might use it against the latter in a potential conflict. Until now, Washington has sold its products, especially the iconic General Atomics MQ-1 “Predator” and MQ-9 “Reaper”, only to a limited number of NATO allies, while choosing to reserve more easily licensed unarmed models such as the Predator XP for Middle Eastern countries, albeit with minor success. According to the SIPRI International Arms Transfers Database and other publicly available sources, only Saudi Arabia and the UAE purchased the XP model, whereas Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, among others, faced repeated U.S. vetoes for armed systems and decided to either develop indigenous UAVs or opt for the cheaper and quickly deployable Chinese solutions. Contrary to the assessment of some reports, whether this strict policy represents a substantial strategic misstep or a temporary market setback for the U.S. is perhaps too early to say. In fact, as the Jordan example suggests, Washington’s Arab allies largely rely on Western-type Command and Control (C2) structures for their militaries and might be happier to procure American platforms that would be more easily integrated and employed. Nevertheless, recent developments suggest that China is in the regional UAV market to stay and will likely remain one of the main exporters of combat drones in the Middle East in the future, thanks to lower prices and a no-questions-asked policy. Turkey, and possibly the UAE, will follow suit. The deal signed in 2017 between the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the Saudi government to co-produce CH-series drones in a new factory in Riyadh is yet another example corroborating this trend. From a business perspective, China is a first mover in the regional UAV market and the spread of its drones has essentially upset the market by making it more accessible to a wider pool of customers. Inevitably, the question arises about what this means for the U.S. and how Washington could re-adapt its strategy. According to a study of the U.S.-based RAND Corporation, the restrictive approach so far adopted by the United States in selling its UAVs, especially armed models, has proved to be a double-edged sword, moderately safeguarding U.S. technological primacy and avoiding UAVs’ misuse but also reducing the American economic and trade share in the market, straining bilateral security partnerships, and limiting allies’ capabilities. Since Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House, however, things have – at least on paper – remarkably changed. To begin with, the new administration withdrew the U.S. from the international arms trade treaty after only six years in it. Although never ratified by U.S. lawmakers, the treaty establishes common standards for responsible international trade in conventional weapons and represents an important multilateral framework to help states curb the illicit arms business. Secondly, but more importantly, in May 2018 Trump approved a new policy on the export of unmanned aerial vehicles that aimed, in particular, to “increase trade opportunities for U.S. companies[,] bolster partners’ security and counterterrorism capabilities[, and] strengthen bilateral relationships” for the benefit of U.S. national security. While this decision underscores Trumps’ idea that “economic security is national security” and was praised by the president and his inner circle as a crucial step towards a more competitive presence of American drones in a market increasingly awash with Chinese “knockoffs”, in practice there have been only limited changes so far. In theory, the administration’s amendments to the previous legislation should make it easier for U.S. defence companies to directly sell their products, including UCAVs, to interested states via Direct Commercial Sales (DCS), albeit preserving the overall oversight of relevant U.S. agencies. As a matter of fact, the White House’s strategy seems to be paying the first dividends as the administration, in contrast with a long-standing history of reluctance and strict selling regulations which prevented armed UAVs from being delivered to Middle Eastern allies, recently notified the U.S. Congress of its intention to sell up to 18 high-tech armed MQ-9B drones to the United Arab Emirates in a deal worth as much as $2.9 billion. Four MQ-9Bs have also been promised to Morocco, with the agreement worth $1 billion still pending approval. If green-lighted, these sales are indicative of a structural shift that may inform Washington’s future policy regarding the sale of armed UAVs abroad. However, with President Trump about to leave the White House, the future of these and other similar deals will depend on the approach chosen by the upcoming Democratic administration of Joe Biden.
The race to advanced UAV capabilities
Besides crucial problems of C2 incompatibility and interoperability, some Chinese UAVs deployed by countries in the Middle East and North Africa region are to some degree limited by the relatively narrow operational range - usually 150-300 km - granted by ground control stations’ line of sight (LOS), an impediment that only more powerful satellite communication (SATCOM) systems can overcome. The use of ground relay stations can partially obviate this limitation, though with slight improvements. Currently, deploying UAV assets beyond line of sight (BLOS) remains the exclusive preserve of a limited number of countries, although this could rapidly change if China starts to provide SATCOM capabilities to its customers or the latter develop them autonomously. Currently, six countries, namely Egypt, Israel, Iran, Morocco, Qatar, and the UAE are known to possess more or less advanced military satellite capabilities, thus suggesting the possible access to BLOS-capable UAVs for more regional states than is generally assumed.
According to a detailed UN Security Council report of December 2019, there is satisfactory evidence that satellite capable UCAVs are being used in Libya, where Wing Long IIs deployed by the UAE have performed combat operations in support of the LNA around Tripoli and Misrata, both located more than 500km west of the drones’ main take-off point at the al-Khadim airbase. Although LNA ground control stations could redeploy closer to the area of operations according to tactical contingencies or rely on ground relay units, their destruction by enemy air forces - including Turkish drones - appears too big of a risk for Haftar’s supporters.
As a matter of fact, by dramatically increasing UAVs’ operational range, SATCOM capabilities can transform these platforms into lethal reconnaissance and even vanguard forces that can provide valuable intelligence and close air support (CAS) without risking the loss of more sophisticated fighter jets and their pilots. Iran, which has flown armed drones since 2012, is another country eager to acquire or expand SATCOM capabilities for its indigenous UAV fleet.
Notwithstanding the Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure, in mid-April the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) successfully launched into orbit its first military satellite, demonstrating a remarkable technological advancement that could bolster Tehran’s UAV fleet. In addition to already tested armed models such as the Mohajer-6 and the Shaed-129, Iran recently announced the delivery of the larger and more capable Fotros UCAV to the IRGC. This model, which was first unveiled in 2013 but has yet to debut in combat, features both a bigger front bulge, likely hosting an antenna for satellite-based navigation, among other technologies, and a heavier payload capacity. Iranian armed drones have already proved their effectiveness in Syrian and Iraqi battlefields, where they were employed against both Islamic State (IS) and Syrian opposition targets, albeit relying, at least initially, on ground control stations for their operations. In a later stage, though, the deployment of more sophisticated versions of the Shahed-129 suggests the plausible reliance on satellite capabilities, perhaps accessed by Tehran through its adhesion to the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), led by China. This would limit the exposure of Iranian UAV operators in a contested environment characterized by a stable U.S. presence in north-eastern Syria and the constant threat of Israeli air raids hailing from the west. In June 2017, for instance, U.S. fighter aircraft downed two Shahed-129 that were flying close to American troops, while to date, Israel has conducted dozens of air incursions against Iranian objectives in Syria. The new “Noor” satellite might therefore turn the tables of UAV capabilities in the region by providing Tehran with invaluable satellite independence and extended geographical radius for its drones, while reducing its logistical vulnerabilities. Even though these remain pure assumptions due to the lack of robust evidence, Iran is certainly on its way to becoming a major drone actor in the Middle East, with other regional states that will not stand idly by for long. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is continuing the development of its indigenous fleet of UAVs, including the advanced MALE-class Saker-1c, which can fully operate beyond line of sight thanks to a full satellite link system that underwent testing on different Saker family models in recent years.
Drone proliferation and the risk of a regional “security haemorrhage”
Drones are no longer an exclusive asset in the hands of national governments. In recent years, a rising number of non-state or sub-state armed actors in the Middle East have added more or less sophisticated UAV platforms to their inventories. To be sure, these do not include hi-tech military drones comparable to the U.S. Predator or the Reaper, but powerful sub-state paramilitary groups and non-state militias such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Ansar Allah (or Houthis) in Yemen have nonetheless gained access to military-grade ISR systems provided by state entities. The former are believed to possess a fleet of more than 200 drones, including rebranded Iranian-made Ababil-2T UAVs and the more powerful Mohajer-4 that have been used on several occasions to penetrate Israeli territory and, to a larger extent, to support Hezbollah’s military campaign in Syria; the latter have employed Qasef-2K (a modified variant of the Ababil-2T) and more capable UAV-X models to strike the Saudi-led coalition’s military targets as well as civilian facilities in Saudi Arabia. Other non-state or terrorist groups in the region, above all the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), have also developed their UAV capabilities by exploiting cheap and easily accessible civilian drones, either for surveillance and reconnaissance or for offensive purposes by fitting them with a variety of fixed or releasable explosives. Daesh’s drones, for instance, were particularly effective in slowing down Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) advancing towards Mosul in 2016, with surveillance quadcopters used to improve artillery and mortar accuracy as well as coordinate deadly attacks carried out with vehicle-borne suicide bombers on ISF’s columns and checkpoints.
Overall, these developments are paramount and should not be underestimated, for the access to drones - even basic ones - provides non-state and sub-state actors with unprecedented airborne capabilities that, if skilfully employed, can dramatically enhance their performance on the battlefield. These include not only gathering real-time intelligence, crucial to anticipating enemy movements and planning effective military actions, but also launching deadly attacks through kamikaze drones or loitering munitions against high-value targets such as military bases and fortified compounds, otherwise difficult to strike. Although still to a limited extent - and to varying degrees depending on the context - drones are reducing the gap between conventional and unconventional armed forces in terms of air capabilities, something unthinkable only a few years ago. Besides ISR and strike purposes, asymmetric actors such as IS and Hezbollah have also used drones as propaganda tools, indicating a smart and more elaborated integration of UAV assets in their military strategy that could inspire other actors as well, deeply impacting the regional security landscape. In parallel, these dynamics are being compounded by a less and less discernible distinction between state and non-state actors, making it increasingly difficult not only to track both the origins and transfers of UAVs but also to foresee their possible use and effects, as state agencies have already supplied them to influential para-state formations that have close links with political circles.
Two major implications come to the fore. First, the magnifying effect on proxy war dynamics across the region thanks to a highly advantageous cost-effectiveness tradeoff and, above all, to the “deniability” scapegoat they offer to the user, as the Hezbollah and Houthis case studies, let alone the Libyan, do suggest. Unsurprisingly - and perhaps counterintuitively - proxy war situations offer the ideal environment for drone operations, given the external players’ need to maintain a low profile and avoid political exposure as much as possible. Turkey, probably the most assertive regional drone power at the moment, has been able to rely on proxy groups both in Libya and Syria also because of the extensive use of drones as surrogate air assets, capitalizing (at least initially) on low political exposure and, above all, even lower material and human costs. What is more, in a proxy-war environment not only are drones cheaper to manufacture and more quickly deployable than conventional combat jets, but they are also easier to disassemble and smuggle.
Second, the lack of transparency as well as institutional and legal oversight on drone use – an important and controversial issue even in contexts of solid state monopoly on the use of force – rises dramatically in a non-state actors’ environment, as these groups operate outside of a legally defined framework, have inadequate or no accountability structures, and often do not comply with the laws of war and international humanitarian law. Such a situation, in turn, increases the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damages, compounding dynamics that are already detrimental to peace and stability. The conflicts in Syria and Yemen, where several non-state or para-state groups have employed armed drones and loitering munitions, are cases in point. In Iraq, too, there is evidence of military-grade UAVs being used by para-military branches of the Iraqi Security Forces for ISR purposes. In late May this year, for instance, an Iranian-made Samad-1 UAV was allegedly shot down by Islamic State militants in the Diyala province, where several brigades of the Badr Organization and other semi-state militias incorporated into the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) operate. Other components only used for the Iranian-made Ababil-3 UAV have been recovered from a drone operated by an Iranian-backed militia and downed by the Islamic State near Bayji, north of Tikrit. Accordingly, the possibility that some para-state groups within the PMU continue to have access to military-grade UAVs is anything but remote and could potentially reverberate on the already tense security relations between the U.S. and some of the PMU’s hardliner militias.
In Libya, where both warring parties’ drone sorties have likely caused civilian victims, the situation is more complex, as it remains unclear whether UCAVs (Wing Loong IIs supporting Haftar and Bayraktar TB2s supporting the GNA) are directly operated by Emirati and Turkish personnel or by the two patchy Libyan factions. Therefore, notwithstanding important military advantages – among others, a seemingly easier distinction between legitimate targets and non-combatants, reduced financial costs of specific operations, and no risks for human pilots – drones may not be weapons as precise as is generally assumed and have controversial aspects in terms of humanitarian costs that grow in parallel with their expanding role in proxy war scenarios. The higher these costs are the worse the long-term impact on stability is likely to be, as impacted communities would be less prone to recognize and deal with authorities – whoever these might be – that they associate with pain and suffering. Adding to this situation is that drone operations such as targeted killings, which regional countries such as Turkey and the UAE are increasingly keen to conduct, rest on dubious legal foundations and have been widely criticized by legal scholars and humanitarian organizations alike. On the whole, in contexts of weak or eroded state monopoly over the use of force where para-state or non-state armed actors play a prominent security role, drones could represent yet another incentive to employ military means and create new potential obstacles to guarantee the accountability and transparency of security apparatuses.
Armed UAVs have been employed by both state and non-state actors in all the region’s major conflicts - Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Libya – but also, and more worryingly, in domestic scenarios. The clearest example of this is Turkey, which since 2015 has used drones to spearhead its domestic counterterrorism campaign against the PKK. As the Turkish case suggests, drones may in fact become states’ favourite tool in dealing with domestic insurgencies, opposition groups, and even refractory minorities, relegating dialogue and negotiation to the background and making governments lose sight of the very grievances underlying those dynamics in the first place. According to official figures provided by the Turkish Ministry of Defence regarding Turkey’s southeastern Hakkari province, drones killed more than 70 PKK militants in the first two months after their deployment, while the number of civilian victims remains unknown. In the case of the Libyan civil war, publicly available data on civilian victims from airstrikes since April 2019 show that out of almost 200 confirmed or alleged incidents involving civilian casualties, 22 (11%) were most likely carried out by armed drones, while in many other cases UAV support was in all likelihood instrumental for target acquisition or reconnaissance.
From a broader perspective, drones seem to have affected conflict dynamics, functioning as incentives for armed actions by lowering the threshold of governments’ availability to employ force, thanks to a series of advantages and an alluring cost-effectiveness ratio from both the political exposure and military standpoints. As stated by scholar Amy Zegart, “drones radically reduce the costs of war in terms of blood, treasure, and political reputation and […] make it more politically feasible for states to ‘keep shooting forever”. At the same time, UAVs might have induced a transformation in the realm of threat perception and the associated level of acceptable risk between rivals by making it more asymmetrical. This means that, especially in asymmetric contexts, the remote nature of drone-warfare as well as its inherently reduced military hazard for the user risk widening the divide with an opponent that does not possess the same capabilities, pushing the latter’s attention to more accessible and vulnerable targets, including civilians. What is more, as less capable adversaries get acquainted with the drone threat, they are more likely to adapt their strategies or conceal their operations, for instance by hiding among the civilian population, thus increasing the risk of collateral damages, as the significant number of civilian casualties in the U.S. drone campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan suggests.
In a region marked by chronic instability and plagued by some of the world’s most devastating conflicts, drones have come to represent weapons of choice for many regional states, which have employed them as “emancipation tools” to bolster their power projection at a time of tangible U.S. foreign policy apathy towards the region’s increasing volatility.
Furthermore, as armed drones’ proliferation continues unabated, it also increases the temptation to embark on “remote warfare” operations often portrayed as “surgical” and bereft of collateral damages, but whose secrecy and lessened risk for the attacker contribute to eroding the institutional scrutiny, legal accountability, as well as careful deliberation that should inform the use of lethal force on the international stage. According to a recent UN Special Report on drone strikes and targeted killings, “[d]rones are a lightning rod for key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, counterterrorism operations, and so-called peace situations[…]” and “generate fundamental challenges to international legal standards, the prohibition against arbitrary killings and the lawful limitations on permissible use of force[…]”. In Turkey, for instance, no debate on the use and implications of armed UAVs has been held by the Turkish parliament so far while, in a similar vein, all regional states possessing UCAVs have refrained from disclosing relevant information about their use. Washington’s widespread and controversial targeted-killing campaign was certainly instrumental in such developments. As an observer put it, “spurred by America’s example, other nations are now more likely to threaten or conduct drone strikes”, even in defiance of international standards that regulate the use of coercive force.
In this context, the risk increases of miscalculation and military incidents that could eventually flare up into something bigger. In August, a Turkish drone strike aimed at PKK operatives mistakenly killed two high-ranking Iraqi Border Guard officers north of Erbil, sparking a harsh diplomatic reaction in Baghdad, with the Iraqi government cancelling a Turkish ministerial visit and seeking political condemnation from Arab countries within the Arab League. While the overall good relations between Ankara and Baghdad and the latter’s long-standing tolerance for Turkish cross-border incursions against the PKK kept the row within the diplomatic sphere, such an episode could have ignited a violent confrontation had the countries involved been already mired in difficult or antagonistic relations. Such circumstances may become increasingly frequent in what is set to become a new and more fluid operational environment. So far, drones have been mainly employed in the asymmetric context of the Global War on Terror led by the U.S., against terrorist threats or unconventional opponents possessing no or very rudimentary air-defence capabilities. However, as these threats recede and the region’s geopolitical rivalries take centre-stage, drones might be deployed – and developed – with an eye to regional peer competitors, with consequences that are still too fuzzy to be fully appreciated. Quite interestingly, the empirical evidence from the few cases in which drones have been used against conventional targets or have been downed in conventional or near-conventional operational environments seems to confute the likelihood of armed escalation. In the first case, for instance, and similarly to the recent Turkish-Iraqi case, the highly controversial U.S. drone strike that killed the Iranian General Qassem Suleimani early last year did not provoke a real escalation (apart from a largely symbolic Iranian missile attack against U.S. military compounds in Iraq). Likewise, when it comes to the shooting down of UAVs, episodes such as those involving an Italian MQ-9 “Reaper” downed by the Libyan National Army near Tarhuna, south of Tripoli, and two U.S. drones (a “Reaper” and a much more expensive RQ-4 “Global Hawk”) downed by Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in June 2019 did not spark further military actions. Other episodes between India and both China and Pakistan resulted in similar outcomes. However, such a trend might change if states embrace a more aggressive use of armed drones, including their possible deployment against high value targets, but as available data remain limited, it seems premature to draw robust conclusions about their impact on the use of force at the interstate level.
What is certain is that while armed UAVs have unlocked unprecedented capabilities, these have not yet been complemented with the necessary body of international norms and regulations that discipline most weapons’ use. Therefore, can we expect countries in the region to apply the same standards and follow the same rules of engagement that Western countries (supposedly) use? What are the implications of drones for the Just War theory and ethics in war? And to what extent does the type of political regime affect their use? To what extent do UAVs exacerbate conflict dynamics? Although these questions might never receive unanimous or comprehensive answers, they nonetheless deserve further scrutiny by scholars and relevant stakeholders in order to better understand drones’ impact on international politics and anticipate possible future security developments in the region, and beyond.
At the same time, it is worth noting that combat drones should not be regarded as harmful assets per se, and that, similarly to other military technologies, their implications largely depend on how – and for which goals – they are employed. Thanks to their capacity to loiter over a target for prolonged periods and collect multiple information, drones can indeed offer unique potential to hit only specific targets, provided that the intelligence available to the user is sufficiently reliable and properly interpreted. Nevertheless, it is possible that their unique features, along with the myth of their surgical precision, may induce more confidence – and less carefulness – in the user as well as an easier acceptance in public opinion. In light of what can be defined as the “top-down perspective” they operate from, drones certainly provide unprecedented strike capabilities and quality of intelligence that should not, however, overshadow their potential risks and impair a frank and serious examination of their specific drawbacks, when and how these occur. The implications for international law and the law of armed conflicts as well as the tangible humanitarian impact caused by drone strikes in many regional conflicts are, in this regard, the essential departure point for such an exercise.
Considering available data on both combat drones’ market forecasts and usage in the MENA region, the upward trajectory of UAV proliferation appears beyond question and basically irreversible.
Drones, and remotely controlled weapons more generally, are also influencing the way coercive force is employed by both state and non-state actors and perceived or discussed in the public sphere, with potential repercussions on international law and other regulations informing the use of force. In the MENA region these dynamics are tangible and may gain further relevance in the near future.
A word of caution is necessary, though. Despite their expanding role, drones have not (yet) replaced manned aircraft as the main air platforms in any military in the world, let alone in those of MENA countries. While UAVs represent disruptive assets for ISTAR and kinetic operations in asymmetric scenarios, they still have to prove that same level of effectiveness against conventional and well-equipped forces and in communication-denied environments or contested operational spaces characterized by sophisticated air defences, where they remain highly vulnerable. New technological improvements will likely counterbalance or at least reduce these limitations, but states are still investing huge amounts of resources in developing manned platforms. The way UAVs are carving their military role out remains therefore incremental, although the pace of this process is set to accelerate exponentially in the coming years as the next UAV systems will be stealthier, more precise, and capable of operating at longer distances while carrying heavier payloads. With that being said, however, in the MENA region drone proliferation may follow a faster-growing trajectory, due to two main reasons: first, the increasing need for combat-capable tools on the part of many political regimes to get rid of internal threats, such as armed militant groups, and to deter external ones; second, the difficult economic situation many countries are currently going through, which could force goverments to invest immediately and heavily in cheaper unmanned solutions in the face of reduced defence budgets, as UAVs are overall more cost-effective to acquire and operate than manned aircraft procured by U.S. regional allies such as the F-16C or D. In this respect, the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic may have a deep and long-lasting impact on defence spending in the region, opening new market space for unmanned platforms.
The MENA “UCAV Inventory”[a] estimate
Algeria purchased the Block 5 version
[c] service status and number unknown. According to a 2015 article published by the New York Times and based on leaked confidential emails, in the same year the UAE transferred to Egypt an undisclosed number of Yabhon United-40 unmanned combat aerial vehicles. See David D. Kirkpatrick, Leaked Emirati Emails Could Threaten Peace Talks in Libya, The New York Times, November 12, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/13/...ails-could-threaten-peace-talks-in-libya.html
[d] Mostly I-Ds variant, allegedly purchased by Egypt at the Zhuhai Air Show in 2018. This variant features a larger wingspan and a doubled payload (up to 400kg). This acquisition has not been officially confirmed. See: Egypt inducts armed Chinese drones, Arabian Aerospace, April 29, 2019. https://www.arabianaerospace.aero/egypt-inducts-armed-chinese-drones.html.
[e] figures retrieved by the SIPRI International Arms Transfer Database. Purchase status remains uncertain
[f] only one fully operational
[g] not operational / for sale
[h] several have been downed by enemy anti-aircraft fire between 2019 and 2020
French variant of the Israeli Heron I, decommissioned by Paris in 2018, currently with ISTAR role only
[j] status of the deal is uncertain
[l] not yet seen in combat
[m] preliminary agreement, not yet approved by the U.S. Congress