Drones are currently the “hot weapons.” They occupy roughly the same position as Patriot missiles after the first Gulf war, (1) sea-skimming anti-ship missiles after the Falklands War, (2) aircraft carriers after the Second World War, and submarines after the First World War. Every country’s military wants to have them, sees a use for them and wants them now. These factors are global, but they are attenuated in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – traditionally among the most eager adapters of new military equipment and always interested in military capacity that does not require big investments of manpower.
Military requirements have driven scientific advances from the earliest time in history. The forging of metal was used in weapons; the first large scale factories produced cannons for French kings; the first use of interchangeable parts in machinery was the British military’s “Brown Bess” musket. The internet started as an initiative by the US army, and many other technological advances owe their genesis to military research.
What history has shown is that if new technology has a definite military application, then those nations which field the new technology will have an advantage over nations that do not. When new military technology is successfully used in combat, all militaries rush to acquire it for themselves. A good example is the rapid development of chemical weapons by nearly all countries after they were introduced in World War I.
For some time now, the “hot” weapon has been aerial drones. The United States has conducted stand-alone drone operations for years in otherwise denied areas such as Pakistan and Yemen. Israel, Iran and Turkey have shown that even smaller countries can have an outsized effect by using drones. Drones have been used successfully by a multitude of state and non-state actors. They do not require a nation to develop a cadre of pilots at great expense; they are relatively easy to acquire or build; and they make it possible for any determined group of people to have a real air power capability.
In the wake of the Iranian attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, (3) countries, even relatively small ones, realised drones could have a strategic effect with minimal risk. Drones are well-suited for obscuring the origin of an attack. There is no danger of a captured pilot, no tell-tale launch signature as with ballistic missiles, and the flight path of a drone cannot be mathematically extended backwards to determine the point of launch as with missiles.
Advanced militaries have, in the last fifty years, gotten use to controlling the sky. The last time the US army did not have control of the air was during the Korean War; (4) and the Russian armed forces have not fought without air control since World War II. An air attack — even a “nuisance attack” from a small drone — is something that most conventional armies are not used to dealing with.
Finally, there is just a general tendency among soldiers to search for and acquire the “latest and greatest” weaponry. The stakes in combat are high, and no soldier wants to take a chance under these circumstances. If the technology seems proven, then it is a universal desire of every soldier to have new equipment. No one can afford to be caught on the wrong side of a technological development. A sudden improvement in an enemy’s technology can quickly translate into a military vulnerability. Given that drones are now proven technology, we can expect every military to seek to acquire and field them.
Appealing to GCC fascination with the “glitter factor”
Most of the GCC states have long sought to develop world class military capability by acquiring world class equipment, often to the detriment of other elements of military capability such as establishing a functioning personnel system. Some Gulf analysts have gone as far as to attribute defence acquisition decisions to pure novelty, referring to the “glitter factor” that drives decision making. (5) While there is no shortage of evidence to support this somewhat insulting theory, I speak with confidence, as a man who has spent more than a half his life as a solider, that this is a universal attribute of military men: if a military capability is new, proven and useful, soldiers will welcome its acquisition. (6)
Drones are the newest and most promising technology. They have military utility at the tactical, operational and strategic level of warfare. They are useful for observation, directing strikes, direct attack and electronic warfare. Their utility is not confined to a single service or domain: air, land, and sea services all find that their missions are enhanced by drones. Even police departments find the cheap observational capability of drones to be useful.
So while the “glitter factor” may apply to the acquisition of drones, it is only coincidentally so. Drones are relatively simple to operate and do not require the same magnitude of training investment or maintenance infrastructure needed to operate advanced aircraft or helicopters. They are easily integrated into existing armed forces command structures and are compatible with most contemporary Arab military doctrine. They represent incremental increases in capabilities — be it fires or observation — and thus can be readily integrated into developing armed forces as the recent Turkish and Azeri battlefield success has shown. (7) Put simply, drones in attack mode can be seen as a hyper-accurate guided round and thus can easily be integrated into an existing artillery, air attack or naval strike system. Drones in observation mode are only incrementally different from any other airborne sensor and thus are easily integrated into an existing intelligence or surveillance and reconnaissance network.
Indeed, counter to the general “glitter factor” criticism, most drone acquisition in the region actually enhances military efficiency and is more cost-effective and sustainable than the capabilities it seeks to replace, such as the use of manned aircraft for medium and long-range strikes. The cost of training a drone pilot is a fraction of that of training a jet pilot; there is no requirement to have a pilot recovery capability on standby, and the maintenance establishment required for drones is a fraction of that needed for modern warplanes. (8) The “glitter factor” criticism is based on the idea that Arab militaries acquire equipment without consideration for the personnel and sustainment effort needed to effectively operate that equipment. The simplified nature of drones negates this criticism.
The ability to domestically produce drones is another factor which runs in parallel to military considerations. Most of the GCC states have ambitious transformation plans which aim to wean their economy off of energy exports and develop domestic production of a broad range of products. Military products are high up on this list. All governments view military spending as discretionary; most of the national transformation plans have targets for military equipment to be produced locally. For example, the Saudi Vision 2030 plan calls for 50 percent of defence acquisition to be sourced within the Kingdom. (9)
One problem with these ambitious targets is that there just is not enough local labour force to produce many defence articles. Having a domestic defence workforce requires the development of a human capital base in a triad of science, engineering and skilled craftsmanship. If a state does not have all three, its abilities are limited to the assembly of weapons components designed and produced abroad. It will have a weapons industry in the same sense that Mexico has an automobile industry.
Most countries that seek to develop a domestic defence industry tend to focus their human capital investment on science. This is the least-likely component of the triad to pay off. Real advancements in defence science require a culture of innovation and a critical mass of scientists, which take decades to develop.
Similarly, the GCC states, along with many others, are challenged to develop a skilled base of craftsmen who can perform the key tasks, such as precision welding, to build advanced weapons from scratch. This sort of work is difficult and requires a significant amount of training over time. Few in the region who have the ability and time to undergo a long period of training would be willing to do so for a job that has significantly less status than an entry-level managerial position. This problem is not unique to the Arab world: Australia discovered that their plans to build submarines was foiled by a lack of precision welders; (10) and notorious delays in building Tesla electric automobiles have been attributed to a lack of skilled workers among other factors. (11)
Engineering —the art of applying existing science to develop an optimal solution to a problem — is probably the area where Arab states can have the greatest impact on developing a domestic arms industry. Fortunately, this is also the area most suited for drone development. Most of the basic science and research required for drones is settled. The challenge now is the integration of various manufactured components into a functional whole. The Iranian experience with drones is not a triumph of scientific research but rather of engineering. Iran produces some drone components and purchases others. Turkey’s Bayraktar II drone — the star of the Nagorno Karabakh war — is also made up of components sourced from a number of countries and engineered into a system in Turkey. (12)
Drone technology has now advanced to the point where a GCC state will be able to produce a domestic drone similar to Turkish drones within a matter of years. It is possible to purchase the engine and guidance units internationally; and building the body of the drone is a relatively simple matter. The assembly of a drone is not as complex as most weapons. The challenge is of integrating proven components rather than developing them. Thus, regional ambitions for domestic arms production also points to an increase in regional drone development and usage.
What drones will the GCC use?
GCC states can be expected to drastically increase their procurement and fielding of drones in every aspect of security — over land, at sea and for internal security. The following types of drones are most likely to be seen:
Tactical observation drones. One of the most persistent problems in land warfare is knowing what lays beyond the next hill or around the next corner. Observation drones are cheap, easy to operate, commercially available and prolific. In many advanced armies, they are being fielded to formations as low as the infantry squad. Given the ongoing developments in commercial drones, this capability is now available to every army in the world for roughly the same price as a single rifle. What soldier would not want cheap capability that allows him to avoid an unpleasant surprise? Even in instances where armed forces do not procure small observation drones, soldiers going into combat can be expected to purchase them for themselves, just as US soldiers deploying to Afghanistan in 2002 bought commercial tactical radios for themselves.
Sea-based drones that must operate at greater range and without access to commercial communication systems for command and control will not be commercially produced in the region in the near future. However, they will continue to be purchased and fielded for over the horizon observation, for close observation of suspect vessels, and in constellation as an advanced warning picket line.
Electronic warfare (EW) drones. Arab states have not been innovators in EW. Most capabilities are purchased from states with more advanced defence industries. Drones will allow the GCC states to significantly enhance their capabilities in this neglected field. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict showed the valuable role that drones could play in compromising the enemy’s air defence radar: the Azeris simply had drones loiter in areas where air defence systems were suspected until they were “painted” by an air defence radar. Once that happened, it was relatively easy to locate the source of the emitter. The activated and located air defence system could then be targeted by conventional artillery – a “suicide” munition drone or an air-launched missile. As an expendable system, drones are ideal for baiting air defence radars into emitting and thus betraying their location. For this tactic to succeed, however, the drone must be completely integrated into a fires network which links all systems — aircraft, missiles and cannons — into an integrated command system. Those forces which decline to pursue true joint operations will find that this technique is accordingly degraded.
Loitering munitions. One of the most militarily significant uses of drones is as a loitering munition. The Azeris used the Israeli “Harop” system for this purpose to great effect. The drone is in effect a guided missile: it is flown into an area of interest and circles, waiting for a target to be identified or appear. When the target is identified, the drone flies into it and detonates an explosive warhead. (13) In addition to this explosive effect, having the drone in the air loitering has the effect of adding to the air defence monitoring burden, providing the attacker with the ability to “flood” the defensive pattern, distract the air defenders from other tasks, and degrade an air defence system by overwhelming the operator’s situational awareness.
Direct strike drones. One particularly attractive use of drones is in the direct strike mode, whereby a suicide drone is launched at a target, sort of as a low-speed high-accuracy artillery round. If the target is fixed, the drones can operate without any active guidance system, thus reducing vulnerability to electronic warfare defences. These are the sort of drones that Iran has launched at Saudi infrastructure. (14) They provide a means to project power from long distances at a fraction of the cost of manned strike aircraft or even ballistic missiles. An additional benefit is that the low flight path of these drones mask them from most strategic air defence systems looking for threats at altitude, such as ballistic missiles. The main drawback to direct strike drones is their relatively small payload. But they compensate for this with precision and with numbers: an attacker could overwhelm most air defence by flying a large number of drones together.
How will the GCC states defend against drones?
Drones have proven to be a vulnerability for all states. Partners of the United States have become accustomed to operating without consideration of air attack. Now, however, even subnational groups such as the Islamic State (IS) can field a credible air attack capability. In fact, Iraqi forces were forced to suspend operations during the recapture of Mosul because of the threat of attack from drones. While these threats are significant, their disproportionate effect primarily derives from novelty. As militaries process the lessons of drone warfare and become accustomed to dealing with drones on the battlefield, they will devise and incorporate tactics and weapons which will serve to degrade the impact of drones.
Refocusing on short-range air defence (SHORAD). Many nations had assumed that short range air defence was no longer a credible threat. In the midst of the Iraq war, the US army moved most of its short range air defence capabilities into the reserve component, and left only the strategic air defence assets – i.e. anti-missile assets such as Patriot and THAAD – completely in the active component. (15) Drones cannot be effectively countered by these systems. Unfortunately, the current leadership of most air defence forces is more culturally attuned to strategic threats than to short range threats. This will require a significant shift within each military’s air defence culture regardless of what service it is assigned to. SHORAD can defeat low-flying drones which, if not countered, may have a tactical effect. Re-invigorating SHORAD skills and importance is a key military imperative.
Focusing on the whole of defence, not just on killing an attacking drone. The cost imbalance of drones – multimillion dollar missiles deployed to shoot down a ten thousand dollar drone – makes exclusively kinetic defences unsustainable. Passive solutions such as identifying and hardening key targets, employing decoys and obscurants, creative and adaptive use of electronic warfare, and disabling sensors on attacking systems are probably much more cost effective and tactically effective. Technology has not yet delivered a reliable drone-killer. Hardening assets and obscuring targets is a much more cost-effective solution until an effective weapon defence emerges.
Integrating drones into existing systems. History teaches us that even the most effective weapons – such as tanks and aircraft carriers – are most effective when they are deployed as part of functioning systems, not just as stand-alone solutions. The Azeri success with drones was largely due to their integration into existing fire support networks: an Azeri drone could identify a target for elimination by artillery, for example. If a drone gets an air defence radar to reveal its position but there is no rapid attack on that position, chances are the opportunity will be lost. Like all other weapons, drones are not most effective when used alone; they must be integrated with other military systems and plans.
The GCC is always among the leading weapons purchasers in the world. The development of this new type of weapon system has already set off a rush both to acquire drones and systems that can defeat drones. As with other emerging technology, there will be some false starts and mistaken developments made before dealing with drones becomes routine. However, a focus on the basics of defence development, particularly the enhancement of passive defence measures that are effective against almost all threats, seems to be the most effective short-term measure for the GCC states. The Pandora’s box of drones is open, but we do not yet know what will fly out of it. As always, prudent defence planning will yield the best result.
Remarks do not represent the views of any US Government body or agency.
- Guy Halvorson ,“Gulf War Boosts Defense Electronics,” The Christian Science Monitor, 4 February 1991, https://www.csmonitor.com/1991/0204/fwal04.html (a ccessed 23 April 2021).
- Dan Morgan and Walter Pincus, “U.S. Made Harpoon Battles French Exocet for Canadian Contract,” The Washington Post, 8 July 1982, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1982/07/08/us-made-harpoon-battles-french-exocet-for-canadian-contract/2225979b-f02c-47fc-a689-e935f29d6d2a/ (accessed 23 April 2021).
- Natasha Turak, “Drone and Missile Debris Proves Iranian Role in Aramco Attack, Saudi Defense Ministry Claims,” CNBC, 18 September 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/18/saudi-arabia-drone-and-missile-debris-proves-iranian-role-in-attack.html (accessed 23 April 23 2021).
- Peter Grier, “No US Ground Troop Has Been Killed in an Enemy Aircraft Attack Since the Korean War,” Air Force Magazine, June 2011, pp 55-57.
- The term was coined by Anthony Cordesman and refers – somewhat condescendingly – to the desire to purchase new weapons regardless of their utility or the purchaser’s lack of ability to effectively employ them; e.g. “The Military Balance in the Middle East: An Executive Summary,” Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, 1999, p. 85.
- Of course, if it is new but not proven, it will not be welcomed, as with the UK’s SA-80 rifle, which remains suspect. James Meek, “Off Target,” The Guardian, 9 October 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/oct/10/military.jamesmeek (accessed 23 April 2021).
- Robyn Dixon, “Azerbaijan’s Drones Owned the Battlefield in Nagorno-Karabakh – and Showed Future of Warfare,” The Washington Post, 11 November 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/nagorno-karabkah-drones-azerbaijan-aremenia/2020/11/11/441bcbd2-193d-11eb-8bda-814ca56e138b_story.html (accessed 23 April 2021).
- The hourly flight reimbursement rates for US Department of Defense aircraft gives us a good point of comparison. Even in 2016, an F-15 aircraft (which is the main Saudi strike fighter) was estimated to cost $23K per hour of flight. John Roth, “Fiscal Year 2016 Department of Defense Fixed Wing and Helicopter Reimbursement Rates,” Department of Defense Comptroller, 2015, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/documents/rates/fy2016/2016_f_h.pdf (accessed 23 April 2021).
- There are many analyses of these various modernisation plans. What is remarkable is the consensus on what is to be done. Stephen Grand and Katherine Wolf, “Assessing Saudi Vision 2030: A 2020 Review,” The Atlantic Council, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Assessing-Saudi-Vision-2030-A-2020-review.pdf (accessed 23 April 2021).
- “Welder shortage threatens Australian jobs on ships and submarines,” Weld Australia, https://weldaustralia.com.au/welder-shortage-threatens-australian-jobs-on-ships-and-submarines/ (accessed 23 April 2021).
- Bettina Büchel, “Tesla’s problem: overestimating automation, underestimating humans,” IMD, May 2018, https://www.imd.org/research-knowledge/articles/teslas-problem-overestimating-automation-underestimating-humans/ (accessed 23 April 2021).
- Burak Ege Bekdil, “Canadian block on drone parts shows Turkey’s defense industry still not independent,” Defense News, 13 October 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2020/10/13/canadian-block-on-drone-parts-shows-turkeys-defense-industry-still-not-independent/ (accessed 23 April 2021).
- Thomas Newdick, “The Sound of This Night-time Suicide Drone Strike is Absolutely Terrifying,” The Drive, 21 April 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/40265/the-sound-of-this-nighttime-suicide-drone-strike-is-absolutely-terrifying (accessed 23 April 2021).
- David Wainer, “Missiles in 2019 Saudi Oil Attacks Came From Iran, UN Says,” Bloomberg, 12 June 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-12/missiles-used-in-sau… (accessed 23 April 2021).
- Gary Sheftick, “Army rebuilding short-range air defense,” Army News Service, 3 July 2019, https://www.army.mil/article/224074/army_rebuilding_short_range_air_defense (accessed 23 April 2021).