Drones once offered a panacea and protection for states – but are now among their greatest threats
The risk has come full circle, with a proliferation of the devices in the hands of non-state actors
In the post-9/11 era, the rise of armed military drones offered former president Barack Obama the opportunity to fulfil a promise he had made to the American people, one which helped him get elected. By the time Mr Obama came to power in January 2009, the US had lost at least 625 soldiers in Afghanistan and 4,221 personnel in Iraq. The electorate was tired of the mounting body count and the lack of certainty of a victory. As such, Mr Obama’s promise was simple. He pledged to remove America’s best and brightest from harm’s way in the “bad war” in Iraq and to prove that the US could win the “good fight” in Afghanistan. It was there, during this sombre period in American history, that drones were harnessed, allowing the US military and the CIA to combat national security threats around the world while reducing the cost to life.
Drones, of course, were nothing new in 2009. Since the first days of George W Bush’s “war on terror” in 2001, they had been used to hunt and kill Taliban militants and Al Qaeda terrorists. In total, Mr Bush utilised this killer technology in more than 50 strikes, allowing the US military and the CIA to reach further and strike deeper into enemy-held territory. Yet, as it turned out, the peak of American drone use was still to come. It would be under Mr Obama that the strike rate would exponentially increase. Now known as “the drone president”, Mr Obama deployed the lethal capacity of the drone more than 500 times between 2009 and 2017, a tenfold increase in drone use from his predecessor. These strikes were controversial, with human rights groups concerned about the ease at which the US was using force and the stark number of reported civilian casualties. Nevertheless, the use of drones continued and even increased. In so doing, Mr Obama set an example to the world: that force could be deployed with so-called “pinpoint precision” on one’s enemies, yet there need not be substantial risk to the perpetrator.
The demand for drones from both allied and antagonistic nations soon began to grow off the back of this promise of cost-free precision wars. While the US – the world’s most overt and obvious actor to use drones – was selective about where it supplied its latest armed drone technologies, newer drone nations capitalised on the growing drone market. China created its own lucrative industry, supplying armed drones to states ranging from Iraq and Pakistan to Nigeria and, most recently, Serbia. Other states such as Turkey, Israel and Iran also joined the exclusive club of drone manufacturers and exporters.
By 2017, about 24 different nation states were said to have obtained armed drone capabilities and it was within this context that the use of the drone began to evolve. Once the signature weapon in the American arsenal, the drone had become the power piece of a number of nations. Supplied by a handful of state manufacturers, many of these drones looked the same or had similar capabilities, including range, yield and lethal capacity. These systems even began to be supplied to non-state actors. It was here, in this altered drone environment, that a certain drone deniability began to form, meaning that drones could be used to deploy force by one actor over great distances, but refuted, rebutted or passed off as another actor when necessary.
The recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities provided a clear illustration of this, if illustration were needed. Iran, it is alleged, has long been supplying Yemen’s Houthi rebels with drone technologies. Armed drones, like the Iranian Ababil-II, were reportedly supplied to the Houthis and renamed the Qasef I. These were used in the assassination of six high-ranking Yemeni military officials during a parade at Al Anad military base in the south-west of Yemen in January. They have also been used to attack Saudi oil pipelines. Much more technologically advanced systems with a larger range, such as the Saamad 3 (named the UAV X by a United Nations investigation) have since been supplied to the Houthis. These are similar in look and capabilities to longer-range Iranian drones and are said to be able to strike from a distance of about 1,500 kilometres. These drones were reportedly used to interfere with, and attack, airports as far away as Saudi Arabia last year. Importantly, these incidents highlighted that the Houthis had the ability and ambition to deploy weapons with pinpoint precision over incredibly long distances. It was for this reason that when reports came in of 18 drones and seven missiles striking the Aramco sites in Abqaiq and Khurais, the confusion in attribution began. The Houthis immediately claimed the attacks as a victory and with known capabilities and previous attacks to support their assertion, the culprits seemed indisputable. Yet, as the specifics of the attacks became apparent – from the analysis of flight paths and debris – Iran, or perhaps Iranian agents in Iraq, seemed to be responsible.
The delay and confusion in attribution has led to an understandable delay in response by both Saudi Arabia and its American allies. A wider air of uncertainty has also been generated, with a level of plausible deniability, giving the Iranians’ breathing room and space to refute claims that they were responsible for shutting down about 6 per cent of the world’s oil production. This deniability, mixed with ever-greater drone range and drone proliferation, is a worrying trend.
Put simply, the Aramco attack will not be the last of its kind. Numerous non-state actors have now acquired and use drone technologies to aid them in deadly attacks. In time, more sophisticated military-grade systems, as in the case of the Houthis, will fall into the hands of even more non-state groups with malevolent intent. The availability of high-tech commercial systems will aid this proliferation. Insurgent groups such as the Houthis and terrorist groups such as ISIS have already shown how readily available thermal imaging cameras, long-range transmitters and more powerful motors make attacks more deadly. ISIS was able to obtain these advanced drone “add-ons” from European commercial suppliers and smuggle them through Turkey. This allowed them to construct hundreds of drones and use them in the fight against the US-led coalition. As general Raymond Thomas, head of US Special Operation Command, stated in 2017 when describing the battle for Mosul, “there was a day when the Iraqi effort nearly came to a screeching halt, where literally over 24 hours there were 70 drones in the air”. The threat does not stop there, however.
During my recent fieldwork in Niger, I was told stories of ISIS-affiliated operatives fleeing North Africa and moving through the porous borders of the Sahel, taking hi-tech weapons know-how with them. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Nigerian military has claimed that Boko Haram – which is fighting on the southern border of Niger – now has tactically sophisticated drone capabilities. As the New York Times reported last month, Boko Haram fighters “now have more sophisticated drones than the military and are well-armed after successful raids on military brigades”.
There is a separate yet related point to make here. While attacks such as those supposedly committed by the Houthis will be attributed (wrongly or rightly) to a nation state due to their range and precision, terrorist groups using drones that are similar in design and capability will be able to benefit from their own form of distance, deniability and confusion, making it hard to attribute killings and atrocities to a single entity and bring those responsible to justice.
In an ironic twist of fate, therefore, armed drones have now come full circle, posing a threat to the security of the nation state. This might seem fantastical but with the latest statistics by the Centre for the Study of the Drone highlighting that there are now at least 95 countries with military drone programmes and 21,000 military drones in operation around the globe, it is clear to see conflicts in the future will be fought with drones, in wars where all actors have drone technologies.
James Rogers is an assistant professor in war studies with the Danish Institute for Advanced Study and the Centre for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, and a visiting research fellow with the department of international security studies at Yale University. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book Drone Warfare: Concepts and Controversies (with Caroline Kennedy)
Updated: October 3, 2019 05:59 PM