A Bayraktar TB-2 unmanned aerial vehicle.
The skies of Syria, Yemen, and Libya swarm with armed and dangerous unmanned aerial vehicles. And the technology is spreading farther and farther afield.
The Kurdish fighters emerged from a tunnel and were spotted by a Turkish reconnaissance drone. As they were loading ammunition onto a truck in a parched Syrian landscape, the drone fed their coordinates to an F-16. It attacked seconds later, sending a huge ball of flames into the air. When the smoke cleared, there was nothing left but a crater—a success, Turkey’s defense ministry declared, as it released a video of the strike.
Turkey’s use of drones in such operations is highlighting the changing face of war in one of the world’s most volatile regions. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) turned the tide in Ankara’s decades-old counterinsurgency against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the country’s southeast, northern Iraq, and Syria. In addition, the deployment of drones has saved the lives of Turkish soldiers and money for the defense ministry. Now it’s using UAVs to gain the upper hand against the Kurdish party’s sister organization, the People’s Protection Units. After U.S. troops began withdrawing on Oct. 9, Turkish drones, in tandem with fighter jets, started pounding a strip of land along the border with Syria to clear the way for its troops. “In most cases, they reach the scene of the attack and confirm the enemy was totally destroyed,” says Nihat Ali Ozcan, a strategist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. Altogether, at least three different types of drones have been deployed: mini drones used for surveillance and photography, the much larger Anka-S surveillance drone, and the Bayraktar TB-2, Turkey’s only armed drone.
Kurdish fighters are responding mostly by setting tires ablaze to hide under veils of smoke. But they, too, have drones. They are attaching explosives to small flying devices similar to the hobby-craft drones sold in stores for just a few hundred dollars, and using them to dive-bomb targets. And their knowledge of the technology is getting better all the time. “Kurdish militants’ drone operating skills have dramatically improved during the course of the civil war,” Ozcan says. “Turkey is taking the threat seriously, even if they are no match to Turkish drones.”
Three decades ago, drones were available to only the most technologically developed state military organizations. Today they’re everywhere, being used by weaker states and small military forces, as well as many non-state actors, including Islamic State and al-Qaeda. “We’re seeing a cycle of technological innovation regarding the use of drones and associated systems, and that cycle of techno-tactical adaptation and counter-adaptation will only hasten going forward,” says Raphael Marcus, a research fellow in the department of war studies at King’s College London.
The diffusion of such technology is leveling the playing field, says Marcus, author of Israel’s Long War With Hezbollah: Military Innovation and Adaptation Under Fire. He says that because armies no longer have the monopoly on the use of drones, surveillance technology, precision capabilities, and long-range missiles, other actors in the region are able to impose their will on the international stage. “The parameters have changed,” he says.
That’s already leading to greater instability. For example, Hezbollah’s thwarted drone strike in August and increasingly sophisticated and more frequent drone attacks by Hamas raise the risk of another war with Israel; meanwhile, Yemen’s Houthi rebels made an impact on the global price of oil with a strike on Saudi Arabia, using 25 drones and missiles.
Drone wreckage from the Abqaiq refinery attack is displayed at a news conference in Riyadh on Sept. 18.PHOTOGRAPHER: VIVIAN NEREIM/BLOOMBERG
The September attack on the Saudi Abqaiq oil processing facility marked the first time multiple drones were launched from a long distance in a targeted assault with such damaging consequences. It was a nightmare come true for many defense experts, who’ve long predicted that such attacks would become a common feature of modern warfare. The technology is being used by all sides in the five-year civil war in Yemen, including a bombing campaign by the U.S.-supported coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia against the Houthis. The Houthis’ increasing use of drones has prolonged a conflict the Saudis initially said would be over within months.
Yemen has long been used to drones. The U.S. carried out its first known drone strike outside Afghanistan there in 2002 against al-Qaeda. The Houthis started using drones for surveillance and reconnaissance in 2016, then expanded their use to precision strikes, including one earlier this year that targeted a Yemeni government military parade, killing several high-ranking figures. The Houthis’ targeting of sites in neighboring Saudi Arabia is making it harder for the Saudis to extricate themselves from the war.
Damage from a missile attack on a police station in Aden, Yemen, on Aug. 1.PHOTOGRAPHER: WAIL SHAIF/PICTURE ALLIANCE/GETTY IMAGES
The Houthis say they carried out the strike on the Abqaiq refinery, using locally made or developed drones and missiles. But many observers doubt that’s true, given the weapons’ sophistication, and believe they may have even been launched from outside Yemen. A report by a United Nations panel of experts that looked particularly at the Houthis’ Qasef-1 drone concluded that “in reality they are assembled from components supplied by an outside source and shipped into Yemen” and are “virtually identical in design, dimensions and capability to that of the Ababil-T, manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries.” Iran denies it played any role in the attack against its archrival, Saudi Arabia. That’s part of the allure of drones: The ubiquity of the know-how allows suspected users a degree of plausible deniability.
Historically, the main supplier of drones for the region was the U.S. It’s a global leader in military drone technology but must follow tough rules about the sale of armed UAVs. Those regulations opened the way for China, which dominates the global market for smaller, less expensive drones and has fewer restrictions on sales. A Chinese Wing Loong II is estimated to cost $1 million to $2 million per unit.
Other countries have developed their own UAVs for the market. Turkey has been making drones since 2010. Its Bayraktar TB2s don’t cost more than $6 million apiece—much cheaper than the American-made Reaper, which costs $16 million, and certainly more affordable than an F-16, at $14 million to $18 million. Making its own drones has allowed Ankara to end its dependence on Israel, which had supplied it with armed Heron drones. Turkey now sells its UAVs. In January, Ukraine signed a $69 million deal for six Bayraktar TB2s.
Israel is the main regional powerhouse when it comes to making drones—and deploying them. Every Israeli combat unit has a drone operator. It began using drones for photography as early as the 1960s and ‘70s, says Liran Antebi, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. She says some people believe Israel’s early successes inspired the continued development of UAVs in the U.S. in the 1980s and ‘90s. However, Israel doesn’t have diplomatic relations with most of its neighbors, and its biggest customers are outside the region.
Iran develops and manufactures surveillance and armed drones to compensate for the weakness of its air force, in line with a defense doctrine that prioritizes asymmetrical warfare. Iran’s been deploying them beyond its borders more regularly and is widely believed to pass its technology on to its Hezbollah proxies, as well as the Houthis.
Syria’s skies may be saturated with drones from at least seven countries and innumerable armed groups, but nowhere is the use of armed UAVs more ubiquitous than in Libya. There, two rival administrations have been fighting for power for four years, both flooding the zone of operations with drones supplied by foreign countries. It’s led to a stalemate on the battlefield that’s affecting the ability of politicians to broker a peace deal and cobble the country back together. For example, when forces under eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar marched toward the capital, Tripoli, in April to wrest power from the UN-backed government of Fayez Serraj, they were supported by Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones belonging to the United Arab Emirates, which backs Haftar. Turkey then delivered Bayraktar TB2 drones to Serraj’s administration, allowing it to rout Haftar’s forces from their forward base in the city of Gharyan. Libya is under a 2011 UN Security Council arms embargo, but the sanctions are among the world’s least-enforced.
Drones still make up only a fraction of Middle East arsenals, according to reports by the London-based Royal United Services Institute and inventories by such organizations as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, but a deal signed between China and Saudi Arabia in 2017 shows how that could change. It includes provisions to set up a factory in the kingdom to manufacture 300 Wing Loong II drones.
As drone technology proliferates, a second industry is growing: technology to defend against them. And just as Israel started the drone revolution, it’s leading this one. Drone detection systems now make up about 17% of Israel’s drone industry, which itself comprises some 10% of the country’s annual defense exports, according to a report from Invest in Israel, a government initiative to encourage trade. Among the front-runners are Elbit Systems Ltd. and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The latter markets the Drone Dome, a takeoff on its Iron Dome missile defense system.
An Iron Dome missile interceptor at the Aero-India air show in Bangalore.PHOTOGRAPHER: PALLAVA BAGLA/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES
Rafael sells to the British army, which is said to have used its technology to end the drone operations that shut down Gatwick Airport for 36 hours last December. Another Israeli company, Skylock, though smaller than its rivals, is making a name with its mobile anti-drone solution that can be packed in a carry-on suitcase. Its drone signal jammer blocks connection between hostile drones and their operator and has a range of up to 10 kilometers. Its rotating radar drone-detection system, with 360-degree coverage, creates a sort of invisible dome overhead, covering about 3.5 km.
The Institute for Strategic Research in Paris has already recommended that NATO and European militaries ready themselves for drone threats in future conflicts. The institute also urged countries to cooperate on a joint research and development strategy to defend against the threat in a report issued in September, much the way NASA has urged international cooperation in cybersecurity to prevent a catastrophic cyberattack on the global digital economy.
Does that mean that future wars will be automated? “Drones will definitely be taking more important roles in the next few years, but they aren’t about to replace soldiers,” says Ben Nassi, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. For that to happen, he says, drones will need longer battery life and the development of a centralized computer command-and-control server that will allow a single person to control a swarm of drones, similar to how individual players manage their militaries in a computer game. A swarm is a group of unmanned systems working together in a high level of collaboration autonomously (or almost autonomously), as birds or insects do. In 10 years, expect to see more autonomous systems operated by artificial intelligence “working at a high level of collaboration as a swarm, which will alter fighting, as we know it, by changing the rhythm of decision-making, for example, and many other factors that influence war making,” says Antebi.
“The fantasy that many of us have is to have units of robots going in, and that will take a lot of time,” says Daniel Statman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel who studies drones, robots, and the ethics of war. “Let’s say that in 30 years, we will see more and more automated tools on the battlefield but still see a lot of soldiers.” Statman also sees a future with “robots in the air and on the ground and underwater, and all of them will be based on artificial intelligence and be completely autonomous and very well programmed and know—so to speak—the rules of war, the general conventions on how to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. We will give them everything we know, and how to identify legitimate military targets, and they will do a much better job than human beings.”
That’s well and good for robots. But as long as humans are in charge, the rules of war are likely to be broken. —With Caroline Alexander