Drone wars: the new blowback

The United States and Israel see armed drones as a valuable tool of "remote control". But Iran, China and Russia - and non-state actors - are working to achieve their own capacity. The emerging era is one of drone proliferation.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 November 2012

Among the changes brought by Egypt's political transformation in 2011-12 has been that international journalists find it easier to enter Gaza. In turn this ensured much greater media reporting from within Gaza of Israel's assault in mid-November 2012 than had been the case over Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. A largely unreported aspect of this situation was that many of these journalists had immediate experience of frequent and intense Israeli drone-flights over Gaza during the week-long conflict.

Suddenly, a large number of journalists was made aware - possibly for the first time - of the kind of situation villagers in northwest Pakistan had long been subject to: the sound of a drone in their vicinity, buzzing above their head, compounded by a fear that it is armed and could, at any moment, unleash a Hellfire missile at a nearby house or compound.

The use of drones in Pakistan and Gaza (over which Israel routinely deploys drones, even when there is no armed confrontation) is best seen as a signal of the emerging era of warfare by "remote control" (see "Remote control, a new way of war", 18 October 2012. It is too little realised, though, that many countries are already embracing drone technology; that it is becoming a substantial feature of the international arms trade; and that there is a particular trend towards armed drones (see "Suicide-bombs without the suicides: why drones are so cool", 13 September 2012).

A worldwide boom

In recent weeks, military journals have been full of reports of new "products" and deployments. Britain's first squadron of Reaper armed drones has been flown from bases in Afghanistan, under the control of an RAF team at Creech air-force base in Nevada; it will in due course be run from RAF Waddington, near Lincoln in eastern England (which already controls a second squadron of drones) (see Tim Ripley, "Reaper ops move to UK", Jane's Defence Weekly, 24 October 2012).

Japan, meanwhile, is purchasing Israeli drones and adapting them to fill a gap in its missile warning system (see James Hardy, "Japan plans IR-equipped UAV as part of BMD shield", Jane's Defence Weekly, 14 November 2012); and Russian state media report that Sukhoi - one of the major Russian aerospace companies - is responding to President Putin's call for Russia to catch up with the west by focusing on drones rather than manned combat-aircraft.

China now has two design bureaux working on drones similar to the United States's Reaper (see Wendell Minnick, "China's Unmanned Aircraft Evolve From Figment to Reality", Defense News, 26 November 2012. There are strong indications that it will prioritise exports (see Bradley Perrett, "Chinese Aerospace Plants See Profits in Civil Work", Aviation Week, 28 November 2012).

Iran's story

All these developments involve countries that have either been working on drones for many years or have large aerospace industries that can develop new products. What is perhaps more interesting, not least because of the regional implications, is that Israel is not the only country in the middle east that is heavily involved in drone development. Iran is in there too - in a programme that started thirty years ago and has continued throughout all the country's political changes.

By coincidence, in the very week of the intense Gaza war where Israel made concentrated use of drones, one of the first substantial unclassified reports on the Iranian programme was published (see Jeremy Binnie, "Rise of the Pahpad", Jane's Defence Weekly, 21 November 2012). The programme has its roots in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 whose greatly destructive battlefield stalemates resembled the western front's trench-warfare of 1914-18. In the effort to counter Iraqi capabilities, Iranian technicians developed crude drones that could undertake aerial photo-reconnaissance of Iraqi forces. The development of an indigenous drone industry had begun.

By the end of the 1990s, an arms exhibition in the United Arab Emirates included an Iranian exhibit of modest size, Ababil-2 (Swallow). The vehicle was around 2.7 metres in length with a 3.3-metre wingspan, had a top speed of around  280 kilometres per hour, and could reach a height of 3,300 metres. Iran then created the Mohajer (Emigrant) series with greater endurance. By early 2000, drones were being used to observe the anti-government Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK) rebels living in eastern Iraq and reportedly being supported by the Saddam Hussein regime.

These systems were far less sophisticated than those being developed by the United States and Israel. In any case, to "fly" drones over any distance requires real-time direct-communications links via satellites. Iran doesn't have such systems, and to maintain links would either need forward-operating units or have to "buy" time on commercial communications satellites.

A new phase

Yet the Iranian drone programme has a twofold significance. First, it is a mature programme developed over some thirty years - perhaps often rather crude, but showing a commitment and ability that may well be shared with others. Jeremy Binnie, for example, reports that the Sudanese government has used Iranian drones, and that Venezuela has received Iran's assistance in developing its own drones (see "An asymmetrical drone war", 19 August 2010) .

Second, a revealing Israeli experience occurred on 6 October 2012. It seems, as far as the details can be pieced together, that a drone was assembled in southern Lebanon from components supplied by Iran; launched by Hizbollah, possibly aided by Iranian personnel; then "piloted" to fly offshore down the Mediterranean coast of Israel before turning east over land towards the northern part of the Negev desert. An Israeli Defence Forces statement says that the drone was spotted off the coast of Gaza, implying that it had initially evaded Israeli coastal-surveillance systems, and was eventually shot down in the Yatir forest area near the West Bank.

Israeli sources say the drone was observed for some time before being shot down when it was approaching sensitive areas. This seems implausible, since it could have been armed and could have diverted very quickly towards a town or village at any stage.

What is more interesting is that since the drone flew a substantial distance there must have been some way in which it could be kept in communication with its operating base in southern Lebanon. This suggests that Iran had either found a way of using commercial satellite links or else had personnel established in Gaza that could maintain communications, coordinating their activities with those in that Lebanese base.

None of this is particularly threatening to a state as powerful as Israel.Yet it adds a symbolic dimension - a worrying sense of impotence - that follows the impact of the rockets fired from Gaza to the very end of the conflict.

Furthermore, it is one part of a longer-term process that is more advanced than many people think (see "Hizbollah's warning flight", 5 May 2005). Such is the nature of drone technology that states with intermediate technical capabilities are likely to become serious forces in the drone-orientated world soon to emerge. If the United States can persist with targeted assassinations in northwest Pakistan, acting with seeming impunity as it rewrites the laws of war, and if Israel can do the same in Gaza - why should other countries not follow suit?

The use of armed drones by the Americans, Israelis, British and others may seem hugely attractive in the short term. But it sets a precedent that may be followed much sooner than might be expected. If that proves the case, then Iran's thirty-year drone programme may have done much to bring it about.

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