The Proliferation of Drones in the Middle East Has Done Nothing to Change the Strategic Order There

Drones are the latest weapon on the Middle Eastern battlefields. Many countries in the region have purchased them, others are manufacturing their own. Yet thus far drones have done nothing to modify the strategic situation in that part of the world.

January 2021. Drones on display before a military exercise in an undisclosed location in central Iran
Iranian Army Office/AFP

On 17 February 2022, the Abu Dhabi industrial zone, Mussafah, was hit by a strike of drones, causing the death of three foreign workers. This strike, which was followed by others in the weeks that followed, revealed the vulnerability of the United Arab Emirates faced with the firepower of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. More generally, it showed the increasing importance of drones—those little unmanned planes piloted by remote control—in the armed conflicts in the Middle East. In recent years they have been used by both sides, from Libya to Gaza, not to mention Saudi Arabia. And while they have not modified the nature of those local confrontations, they can lead to escalation.

Flashback: the history of missile warfare

This regional competition over drones recalls in some respects the arms race around ballistic missiles which began in the 1960s when Israel, followed by Egypt, Syria and Iraq were busy trying to develop their own arsenals, either by purchases from another country (France for Israel until 1969, then the USSR for the Arab countries), or by developing their own national industries. The same logic is at work today concerning the proliferation of drones in the Middle East.

The countries in that region are purchasing more and more drones, increasingly supplied by China during the last decade. Jordan and Iraq have been among the principal buyers. In 2014, Saudi Arabia purchased two Chinese CH-4 drones as well as five other Wing Long II models. At the same time, Riyadh intends to develop its own industry in this field, relying on its partnership with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation which has taken on the task of assisting the Kingdom’s construction of its own factory. It is also believed that the UAE acquired Chinese Wing Loong II drones in 2017, though both the Chinese and Emirate authorities have refused to confirm this information.

The growing importance of China in the Middle Eastern drone market has caused something of a stir in Washington, where Congress and the State Department have long been reluctant to export these technologies to Arab countries. However, having decided to prevent its partners in the Gulf region from resorting to Chinese weaponry, the Pentagon has begun, since 2020, encouraging the sale of Predator drones to the UAE and Reapers to Qatar.

Israel: a major issue

In addition, several countries have relied on their national industries to develop their own production capacities over the last decade. Israel is a case in point, a country which has long played a major role in the development of drones, but so are Turkey, Iran and even Algeria. The case of Turkey deserves special attention, as a prime example of the rapidity with which the regional landscape has changed in just a few years. It was when the political battle between Tel Aviv and Ankara had ended in the late 2000s that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered Turkish industrials to beef up their capacity in order, among other things, to replace the Israeli-made drone, the Heron, with a system they could manufacture themselves. In a scant ten years, Turkey went from being an importer of drones to exporting them. Its industrialists have imagined nearly 130 different models, among which the Bayraktar TB2 has been the Turkish armaments industry’s “success story”. It has played a major role outside the country’s own borders: in Libya, the Turkish army deployed ten of them in support of the Tripoli government in June 2019, and also in Nagorno-Karabakh. Their use in Azerbaijan during the conflict with Armenia in 2020 proved decisive. And in the Maghreb, Morocco has procured some Bayraktar TB2s, while also investing in Israeli drones. Rabat sees these weapons as a way of making up for the inferiority of its conventional weaponry in the latent conflict which has pitted it for years against its great neighbouring rival, Algeria (which for its part has turned to China and other countries for drones of its own).

Symbolic function, military function

Whether by importing them or making their own, the acquisition of drones addresses a number of issues. Enhancing national pride is high on the list of these since today a country’s capacity to dispose of such systems plays an important role in its international image. Like missiles before them, drones fulfil a symbolic function in the assertion of power, which suggests a form of “technonationalism” to use the term coined by Robert Reich.1

But besides this political usage, drones perform a real service militarily speaking. First of all, they enable the countries of the region to make up for the shortcomings of their conventional armies. In this context, drones are a kind of a low-cost air force which can quickly enable a country’s leaders to catch up with their rivals in terms of materiel and human resources. Again, we are dealing with a phenomenon comparable with the proliferation of ballistic missiles in the sixties and seventies when the Arab countries saw the development of their ballistic arsenals as a way of making up for Israel’s superior air power.

For Gulf monarchies like Qatar and the UAE, drones are an efficient way to get around their shortage of human resources; Qatari and Emirati military personnel represent respectively 16,500 and 63,000 men (and their air forces only 2,000 and 4,500). The contrast is staggering between the regional ambitions of these tiny countries and the size of their armies, the logical consequence of a small native population available for military service. This demographic parameter explains why resorting to robotics and artificial intelligence has become the main focus of their security policies, on both the domestic front (as witness the use of robotic police officers in Dubai2) and abroad (with the deployment of drones).

The development of their fleets of drones has also enabled Middle East countries to intervene more often beyond their national borders. For Israel, drones can not only carry out reconnaissance missions to collect intelligence but also for targeted strikes in Gaza and Lebanon. While they do not entirely replace Israel’s air force or special forces, drones have come to be the favourite option of Israeli decision makers in situations considered more complex or dangerous.

Nonetheless, despite this frantic purchasing and use of drones, these have not, for the moment, revolutionised the way in which MidEast countries wage war against one another. The armies of the region have not undergone any fundamental modification in doctrinal or organisational terms as a result of these new systems. For Israel and Turkey, the most advanced countries in these matters, drones have come to supplement the work of their armed forces and sometimes take over their roles, but they have not led to a marginalisation or reduction of their air forces. In other words, while the drones have exacerbated the regional arms race, they have not changed the nature of the conflicts.

The Iranian trajectory

In this mixed picture, the Iranian trajectory is perhaps the most representative of a symbiosis between a country’s drones and its military strategy, or more precisely that of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This latter controls most of the production and use of Iranian armed drones. They are deployed, especially in Syria and Iraq, against the Islamic State Organisation (ISO) and other insurgent movements. Iranian drones based in Syria are also said to have violated Israel’s airspace on several occasions.

This widening range of Iranian drones is perfectly compatible with the implementation of Tehran’s military strategy in the Persian Gulf region: the drones supplement the Pasdarans’ ballistic and cruise missiles, boosting their so-called asymmetric capacities as against the conventional superiority of the US Army in the Gulf countries.

Nor has Iran scrupled at transferring drones to non-state armed forces in the region. Thus, the drones used by Hezbollah in Lebanon, by Hamas in Gaza and by the Houthis in Yemen are the result of technical collaboration with the IRGC, which has earned Iran accusations of warmongering by the US administration as well as by the UN Group of Experts on Yemen,

The armed groups affiliated with the IRGC have made good use of these drones. Hezbollah has been using them for many years to carry out reconnaissance flights over northern Israel. In the May 2021 Gaza war, Hamas also used armed drones for the very first time. These did not, however, achieve convincing results: six were intercepted by Iron Dome while another was shot down by an Israeli F-16. And finally, as mentioned above, the Houthis have often used drones, targeting the Saud coalition troops in Yemen or for strikes against Saudi and Emirati territory. The Houthis have in particular often proven themselves skilled in the use of so-called Kamikaze drones: on several occasions the organisation has sent Qasef-1 drones (derived from the Iranian Ababil-T) to attack the Saudi coalition’s Patriot missile batteries. In fact, Iran is not the only country in the region to have relied on drones to reinforce non-state players. In Libya, the UAE also used drones imported from China in support of Marshall Khalifa Haftar forces during his campaign against the Tripoli government between 2019 and 2020.

In the near future, this scramble for drones is unlikely to abate and the only response envisaged by targeted countries seems to consist, when they have the means, in reinforcing the defence of their airspace. For example, no country in the Middle East has signed the Missile Technology Control Regime and only three of them (Iraq, Jordan, and Libya) have signed The Hague Code of Conduct Against the Proliferation of Ballistic Missiles.

It would be unrealistic to hope to moderate the production and acquisition of drones in the Middle East. Still, the implementation of a regional code of conduct which would at least prevent the transfer of armed drones to non-State actors would already limit the risks of escalation without calling into question the national prerogatives of the countries in the region. But it would mean convincing all of these that such a code would be in everyone’s interest.

1Robert Reich, “The Rise of Technonationalism”, The Atlantic, May 1987.