Last weekend, the US launched airstrikes against militant groups loyal to Iran near the Iraqi-Syrian border. According to a statement issued by United States defense officials, the strikes were in retaliation for the groups’ drone attacks on American troops in Iraq.
The US military said that drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (or UAVs), have been used against their personnel at least five times since April. In the most recent attacks, an armed drone was detonated at a dining area used by Americans inside Baghdad’s airport. Another damaged an American hangar in northern Iraq.
The drone attacks are part of a disturbing trend in the region: The escalating use of UAVs, both for surveillance purposes and to attack opponents, by countries in the region — but also by nonstate actors there, like militia groups in Iraq, Yemen and Syria, among others.
Political pressure by drone
Research by the Milan-based Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) suggests that Middle Eastern nations (excluding Israel) spent at least $1.5 billion (€1.27 billion) on military drones over the last five years.
Of all nations in this area, Israel is probably the most advanced drone-maker. But the country tends not to pass on its technology to those it considers potential enemies. Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and China are other major suppliers of drones in the region.
Iran has one of the longest-running drone programs, ISPI researcher Frederico Borsari explains. Hampered by international sanctions and lacking a modern air force, Iran has long understood that drones, supplied to allies elsewhere, could add to their air power and give them “plausible deniability,” Borsari said.
Drones are likely being used by Iraqi militias against the US, or by the anti-government Houthis in Yemen against Saudi Arabia, yet experts agree it’s highly likely the technical know-how comes from neighboring Iran. At the same time, Iran can deny it had anything to do with it.
“From Tehran’s point of view, this is an advantage,” Borsari told DW. “The drones in their hands can be used to exert political pressure.”
Superior air power
The proliferation of drones in the Middle East is “dangerous because it alters military hierarchies in the region,” explained Fabian Hinz, an independent Middle East analyst based in Berlin, who focuses on drones and ballistic missiles. “Previously, you predict the outcome of any conflict. As in, this country has so many planes and this much training, so you could estimate how strong they were. Drones and ballistic missiles shake all that up.”
One key to resolving the Middle East’s growing drone issue could be better regulation. In a December 2020 editorial in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Agnes Callamard, a former United Nations special rapporteur on executions, warned that the world has entered a “second drone age … marked by the uncontrolled proliferation of armed drones, the most advanced of which are stealthier, speedier, smaller, and more capable of targeted killings than a previous generation.”
At last count in March 2020, there were more than 102 countries with military drones, along with an additional estimated 63 nonstate actors.
Robust standards needed
Callamard argued that nation-states must work together to establish a new regime that would include “robust standards for the design, export and use of drones” and the transfer of related military technology.
But would such a regulatory regime work in the Middle East, given how widespread drones are there already? And, would this be any better than what the US military did over the weekend — that is, simply striking back at drone users?
“When it comes down to military strategy, it would seem most effective to strike at points where these systems are being manufactured, or by taking out those who are highly trained to make them,” agreed James Rogers, a professor of political studies and special advisor to the UK government on drones, who is based in Denmark.
“However, when there is still a very clear link between the nation-state as a supplier — for instance, to the militias in Iraq or the Houthis in Yemen — then there are other diplomatic means that I think should go alongside this. It is also imperative that any strikes are in line with international law and uphold, not degrade, a nation’s sovereignty.”
Custom designs by Iran
While in the Middle East, Rogers was able to inspect some of Houthi drones closely. They are a mixture of Iranian-inspired drone design, with wiring from China, the latest digital cameras from leading international manufacturers and drone engines coming from a variety of European companies, Rogers told DW. A number of parts are likely made by the Houthi militants themselves, probably copied from original parts from elsewhere.
Evidence points to Iran providing proxies in other countries with custom designs, Hinz said, referring to a report from UN experts that listed components in just one Houthi drone flown against Saudi Arabian targets. Some parts were made locally, he noted — but there were also components from the United Kingdom, Poland, Sweden, Italy, Japan, Ireland, South Korea and the US.
This is why both Hinz and Rogers agree that while exports of the latest military drone technology could be controlled, it would be almost impossible to stop commercially made drone parts from reaching nonstate actors with potentially criminal intentions in the Middle East.
“You could control these [commercially made] parts more strictly, but it would likely only have a limited impact,” Hinz explained. “It would make the whole drones arms race more expensive and more difficult, and it would slow things down a little. But those who want the parts will be able to find a middleman to sell to them, or they could substitute parts they can make themselves.”
Rogers, who with Agnes Callamard co-authored the 2020 editorial calling for a better drone regulatory regime, believes that one way of doing this might be to focus on how drones are used, rather than the supply of parts.
“There is a very important way in which drones have started to violate international law,” Rogers argued. “Drones have led to more violations of the sovereignty of other nation-states. When you conduct war by remote control, it gives the sense that it is less risky, less costly. For example, you are able to send a remote control vehicle over a border without the risk of your pilot being shot down or captured. You can also surveil vast regions without crossing a border. So we are starting to see worrying norms of use.”
Implications for future AI-based weapons
This is why he is advocating for more robust standards for drone use, and suggests something like a good-faith agreement where countries agree on how drones can be used, including on issues like crossing borders, following international law, establishing best practices and the passing on of drone technology to third parties. This could be included in agreements on use between drone-selling states and their consumer nations.
“That benefits all those involved because obviously no nation state wants their sovereignty violated,” he told DW. “And if that agreement is violated, then you do not continue to sell drones to those state actors.”
Despite the drone-watchers’ overwhelming pessimism about coming up with completely effective controls, James argues that thinking about all this is vital for the future of conflict and human rights.
“Because if you can control the most high-tech systems and how they are used,” he concluded, “then you are setting a framework in place for how you could potentially control the artificial-intelligence autonomous [military] systems that are emerging, for which drones are just the entry point.”