An asymmetrical drone war

The United States and Israel see the next generation of armed drones as a potent reinforcement of their military capacity against insurgents and rogue states. But Iran and Hizbollah too are in the race.

An upsurge in paramilitary violence highlights the continuing difficulties faced by states in controlling insurgent movements. The incidents stretch from familiar centres of conflict (Baghdad and Yemen), to unexpected locations (Kampala), to trade-routes (the attack on the M. Star super-tanker). This comes, moreover, at a time when the United States is facing serious problems in Afghanistan and committed to a progressive withdrawal in Iraq - both situations which are overshadowed by the domestic electoral timetable in which 2010 (mid-term) and 2012 (presidential) elections approach (see "Al-Qaida's business jihad", 12 August 2010).

An important part of Washington’s calculations is that domestic economic constraints and popular sentiment make new or upgraded military involvements abroad increasingly tough choices politically - even at a time of gigantic military budgets and an inexhaustible appetite to use them (see "The Pentagon's politics of war", 21 May 2009). One result of this combination of political caution (especially after the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq) and continuing military power is the escalating search for ways to wage “war by remote control” (see "America's new-old military thinking", 23 July 2009).

This can involve special-forces units working behind the scenes, and - as the technologies improve - a marked increase in the use of armed-drones. The overall result is a shift towards “war in the shadows”, where the United States conducts operations in a swathe of countries across “greater west Asia” and north and east Africa (see Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti & Robert F. Worth, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents”, New York Times, 14 August 2010).

The next generation

The development of advanced drones is one of the most active areas of current military research and development, with added emphasis now being given to stealth-drones that can fly undetected over countries with relatively advanced air-defences. A case in point is the RQ-170, a system currently deployed in a reconnaissance rather than an armed form, and now used in Afghanistan. This drone, a current report in a US defence journal suggests, might even be able to operate unobserved across both the Iranian and Pakistani borders with Afghanistan (see in the US defence journal (see David Fulghum, “UAVs Dominate Surveilance and Targeting", Aviation Week, 10 August 2010).

This development of such stealth-drones opens a new phase in automated warfare. The Pentagon and CIA have used armed-drones against paramilitary groups in a number of countries - usually ones where the local state (and the non-state movements based there) lack air-defences, or where (as in Pakistan) the government in the target-country gives its tacit approval to the attacks. Now, the aim is to apply the technologies developed in the F-117A Nighthawk and the B-2 stealth-bomber to drones, thus enabling the ability to fly over countries such as Iran - with impunity, and with minimal fear of interception (see "Drone wars", 16 April 2009).

In parallel, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is planning a new generation of fast and heavy-armed drones. A current project is to adapt the Fairchild A-10 - among the world's most powerful close-air-support planes - for autonomous operations. The Warthog, as it is called, is equipped with a remarkable range of weapons - including a 30-mm gun, laser-guided rockets, AGM-56E Maverick missiles and GPS-guided 125 kg bombs (see Graham Warwick, “Unmanned, and Close”, Aviation Week, 9 August 2010).

This “flying laboratory” is designed to advance the next generation of armed-drones, most prominently the MQ-X. The currently most powerful United States armed-drone, the MQ-9 Reaper, is already able both to carry more weapons and to “loiter” far longer than manned aircraft; but the MQ-9 - planned for deployment around 2020 - would be even more sophisticated in combining the intense firepower and high subsonic speed of the A-10 with an endurance of up to eighteen hours.

The United States is the leader in the whole field of armed drones. Its ally Israel is close behind. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) possesses a wide array of systems, some developed in association with the Pentagon. Israel has used drones extensively for reconnaissance and in armed attacks in Lebanon and Gaza; it is also reported to operate drones over Iran.

In addition, Israel’s activities extend to the use of long-range drones to detect and survey shipping down the Red Sea, in the search for vessels presumed to be carrying armaments for Hizbollah or Hamas. An unconfirmed report claims that Israel used reconnaissance- and armed-drones in a raid against two convoys of trucks in Sudan that it believes were transporting Iranian-built Fajr-5 missiles to Egypt on their way to Hizbollah (see "Israel used unmanned drones to attack Sudan convoys", Ha'aretz, 29 March 2009).

Israel sees drones as an essential component of its broadly-based defence posture in an era when paramilitary groups operate near its borders, and when missile-building states such as Iran also threaten. In both cases, it sees the new weapons as helping to redress an imbalance in the state's defences in face of existing “asymmetric-warfare” capabilities (see "Israel's security trap", 5 August 2010).

The new balance

The United States and Israel are leaders in a huge expansion in drone technology, though others - several western European states, Russia and China - are also involved. But there is a sting in the tail of such powerful states: namely, that drone technology is amenable to proliferation, not least as many of the components can be bought “off-the-shelf” and have perfectly legitimate non-military functions (see "Hizbollah's warning-flight", 4 May 2005).

Hizbollah has, since 2004 at latest, operated the Mirsad-1 reconnaissance-drone (see "Hezbollah drone flies over Israel", BBC News, 7 November 2004). This almost certainly Iran-made system has successfully been flown over Israeli cities, much to the annoyance of the Israeli military (see Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "The Hizbollah project: last war, next war", 13 August 2009).

The Mirsad-1 is an early-generation system of limited range that has to be launched close to Israel. Of far more significance is that Iran is reported ready to display a long-range drone - the Karar - at an arms demonstration on 22 August 2010 (see “Iran To Unveil Array of Weapons Next Week”, AFP/ Defense Week, 17 August 2010). The Karar is likely to have been produced with the specific intention of flying reconnaissance-missions over countries as distant as Israel.

The Karar may well be unarmed and have limited intelligence capabilities, but its very existence will reverberate. A comparison may be made to the beginning of the war against Iraq on 16 January 1991, when the United States-led coalition launched a massive air-assault in the attempt to force Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait. On the second night, Iraq’s Scud-missiles hit Israel. The damage was limited, the casualties light, but the psychological impact - in Israel and among western forces generally - was massive; the coalition expended huge resources in ensuing weeks in a series of (largely fruitless) “Scud hunts”.

If the Iranians have been able to develop a long-range drone, then it is more than likely that they will attempt to launch reconnaissance drone-sorties against Israeli territory - at a time of their own choosing. The military effect will be minimal but the political impact will be very great. The Pentagon, the IDF and many western states see drones as a valued reinforcement of their military technology; but their adversaries too are in the race. The role of drones in asymmetric warfare - or even just asymmetric psychological warfare - may come much sooner than many expect.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here

More On

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001, and writes an international-security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group

His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010)