Cheap drones and the shifting strategic balance in west Asia

Prabir Purkayastha

Missiles and drone aircraft are displayed at a secret location in Yemen. Photo released on 17 September 2019.

Reproduced from People’s Democracy of 1 and 22 September 2019, with thanks.


Saudi Arabia, which started the Yemen war with its own coalition of the willing, is now facing the blowback, with Houthis launching a series of drone and missile attacks on Saudi infrastructure.

Earlier Houthi missile attacks on Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports seem to have led to a rethink in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) leadership on the dangers of military interventions abroad, leading to their partial disengagement from Yemen. The US also has now announced direct talks with the Houthis.

It is clear that the Yemeni resistance’s drone and missile attacks are causing a fundamental shift in the strategic outlook of the friends of the Saudis as well.

Similarly, the strategic balance between Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah and Israel has also shifted, with Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal now not only much larger than it was during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, but also with an added precision guiding component.

It is not that Israel is still not far more powerful than Hezbollah; of course it is. But in a war with Israel, Hezbollah does not need to win. It has only to inflict unacceptable damage on Israel while being able to survive militarily at home. If it can continue its rocket attacks and prevent Israeli forces from overrunning it at home, it will have reached strategic parity.

It is this frustration that may be leading to Israel upping the stakes and launching limited attacks on Iraqi, Syrian and Hezbollah installations. If Hezbollah retaliates, Israel may then be able to secure direct US support for its war against the Lebanese resistance. Without this support, it cannot destroy Hezbollah, which is its goal.

In the cases of both Yemen and Lebanon, the Houthi and Hezbollah-led resistance movements are changing the way we look at military parity and strategic balance. They are showing that strategic balance is not parity or winning, but the ability to inflict damage while retaining the ability to fight.

In a larger sense, this is also Iran’s strategy against the US. If Iran can control the strait of Hormuz and the oil flow from the Persian Gulf, it is still in the game with the US. It doesn’t need a military balance anywhere else. Only in the strait of Hormuz.

Iran has only to implement the threat that if it can’t export oil through the strait, nobody else will be allowed to either. And to back this up, it has missiles, fast boats and submarines, which can stop any attempt to hold the strait for tanker and other traffic against Iranian forces.

So what has led to this change in the region’s military balance? Strangely enough, the impulse for this strategic shift over the last three decades has come from the US, followed by Israel. The US has a long history of ‘targeted killings’ – or in the UN’s language, ‘extra-judicial killings’ – using weaponised drones. These are estimated to have killed between 8,459 and 12,105 people. (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 29 August 2019)

Though Israel is way behind the US in its numbers of targeted killings, it has also used drones, missiles and other means to kill people outside its borders. Both countries produce and export a large number of such drones abroad, India currently being the recipient of a large number of Israeli drones. Apart from their military use, these are also used for surveillance against insurgents in central India and Kashmir.

What has led to the shift in strategic parity using drones, missiles, and even explosive-packed boats being used as naval drones? It is the same shift that the world is seeing in many areas: the large-scale use of drones for everything from pizza delivery to delivering mail and transporting goods.

The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement has picked on drones as an ideal showpiece because all you need is a hobby aircraft model, which many of us have flown. Some of these even have miniature petrol engines for prolonged flights.

Previously, all models had to be tethered to the hobbyist in some way. Now, however, it is possible to add intelligence, GPS tracking devices, gyroscopes, cameras, processors and other chips to such hobby planes, converting them into autonomous vehicles capable of independent flight.

And if a communicating device is added, they can then be remotely guided a long way from their operators. In other words, they can easily be converted to the equivalent of a full-blown military drone, capable of flying to a target, delivering a payload and even flying back.

How is it possible to add all these elements to what is essentially a hobby toy aircraft? Well, it turns out that all the above components are featured in the basic chipset of a mobile phone. This is what has led to the huge growth of drone hobbyists and the toy manufacturing industry.

Chris Anderson wrote: “It’s safe to say that drones are the first technology in history where the toy industry and hobbyists are beating the military-industrial complex.” (How I accidentally kickstarted the domestic drone boom, Wired, 28 June 2012)

A pre-programmed drone today can be created by buying a commercial civilian drone used for crop spraying, surveying or commercial delivery at a cost of $1,000 to $5,000, depending on payload and range. Making one yourself from off-the-shelf components is equally easy and comes at an even lower cost.

This is the genesis of the drone revolution. Adding intelligence to a simple model airplane and converting it into an ‘autonomous aircraft’ is not a major technical achievement. The components are easily available, the chipset, communication and camera are standard components in any mobile phone. What is required is people with knowledge. Once that is added to the mix, we have intelligent devices not vastly dissimilar to the ones developed by the military-industrial complex.

Of course, the drones we are talking about – Qasef 2 – are not the equivalent of the Predators and Reapers that the US uses. Or of the US behemoth drone costing about $220m that Iran shot down. The drones that the Yemenis have used cost only a small fraction of the $5m price tag of the MQ-1 Predator drone, which of course is reusable.

But if the Houthis can manufacture their drones locally with components manufactured locally or procured from the international market, or from Iran, and copying Iranian designs, then their cost is small enough for use in large numbers against Saudi Arabia.

A number of reports have charged Iran of supplying either the components or the design to the Houthis. This, of course, is in contrast to what the US and Britain have done, which is to transfer not only the designs and components, but also a large number of missiles and bombs to the Saudis.

They also provide them with logistical support, including help in real-time targeting and maintaining the equipment in battle-ready conditions. Without this support, the Saudis would be incapable of fighting any war, let alone one against the battle-hardened Yemenis.

Why is Iran’s support to help the Yemeni people defend themselves ‘illegal’ and ‘destabilising’, while US/UK support to the Saudis is legitimate? And this despite having caused the largest humanitarian disaster in the 21st century?

To repeat some well-known (and well-ignored) facts: an estimated 100,000 people have died in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, one million are suffering from extreme starvation and 18 million more are in imminent threat of starvation.

The 100,000 cited are only the direct deaths. Medicines, water purifying chemicals and fuel, among other things, are all under Saudi embargo, meaning that water, power and sewage systems don’t work in Yemen. Schools are closed and so are hospitals.

The situation reminds us of Madeline Albright’s infamous comment that half a million Iraqi children dying as a result of US sanctions on Iraq was a “price worth paying”. (Punishing Saddam, Catherine Olian, 60 Minutes)

Yemen’s Houthis have not only used drones; they also have older missiles in their armoury, and have been retrofitting them with precision guidance of the same kind that goes into their drones. Unlike the drone payload, which is from 50 to 150kg, the missiles can take much larger payloads, in the range of 600kg.

While the Houthis total store of missiles is smaller, their capacity to inflict damage on the Saudis is much higher: they are used only against high-value targets. The drones, on the other hand, can be used in much larger numbers.

The problem that Israel faces in Lebanon is even worse. Hezbollah not only has a similar range of unarmed drones, but has a much larger number of rockets. It is estimated that Hezbollah has about 150,000 rockets of varying range in its arsenal today, as opposed to the 15,000 it had during the 2006 war.

Even if a small fraction of these have been fitted with precision guidance equipment, they represent a lethal threat to Israel’s infrastructure – power plants, refineries and even the Dimona nuclear reactor.

While Israel boasts of a three-tier aerial defence, no air defence is completely airtight. If a sufficient number of missiles are fired, some of them will get through. For how long would Israel be able to absorb an air barrage and still retain its ability to attack Lebanon and Hezbollah?

As stated earlier, Hezbollah has only to continue fighting while retaining enough missile capacity to inflict damage on Israel, whereas Israel would need a decisive victory and the destruction of Hezbollah.

The calculus of strategic parity has changed with the introduction of cheap mobile phones into the market. Not just for military communications, but in unexpected areas such as drones and missiles.

This is the nature of technology – its impact is sometimes much larger than anticipated. That the mobile phone would revolutionise drone war was a completely unforeseen consequence, which is changing the calculus of war.

This is what is unfolding in west Asia to the detriment of those who have spent huge amounts on their weaponry. Ironically, Goliath – in the form of the Saudis and Israel – is now faced with David – in the form of the Houthis and Hezbollah. And, unlike in the past, all that David has to do today is just continue to fight with his slingshots.

The days of US dominance in west Asia are over

The intricate war dance among the US, the Saudis and Iran following the Yemeni resistance attack on Aramco oil installations may still not spill over into a shooting war in west Asia.

Saudi’s defence ministry spokesman Col Turki al-Malki said the attack was unquestionably “sponsored” by Iran – but this is quite different from saying that Iran actually launched the attack. Even the US is now saying that Iran was “behind” the attack, and following up such statements with fresh sanctions on Iran – indicating that the “locked and loaded” gun that President Trump had tweeted in the aftermath of the attack may not be fired after all.

The Houthis have shown the Saudis that their mastery over drone technology has created new conditions. As I wrote previously, drones and missiles equipped with mobile launchers make it possible for weaker forces to inflict unacceptable damage on much stronger attacking countries.

This has created a new strategic balance in several theatres of war, which forces with much greater firepower have yet to register. This is the new strategic balance between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia; between Hezbollah and Israel; and, on a wider scale, between the Iran-Hezbollah-Houthi allianec and the US-Israel-Saudi one.

The weaker forces do not have to win: they only need to keep fighting while imposing unacceptable costs on their adversaries.

The Aramco facilities damaged by the Houthi attack were at Abaqaiq and Khurais, and took out nearly 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. The Saudis currently produce 12 percent of the world’s oil, and any long-term damage to its oil installations has huge consequences for the world’s oil supply, as well as for oil prices.

In spite of the Saudis saying that they have enough stocks to meet the shortfall and the US releasing its strategic reserves onto the market, the oil price immediately jumped by $10, or nearly 20 percent, making clear how important Saudi oil production is to the global economy.

With continuing illegal US sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, the world is now critically dependent on oil from the Saudis, who have promised to increase production to meet any shortfall. Any hit on this supply will have global repercussions and drive the world into a new recession.

For India, the consequences are even more dire. India imports more than 80 percent of its crude oil. We have cravenly followed the US’s ‘orders’ on Iran and Venezuela sanctions, and are now even more dependent on the Saudis.

The US’s offer of shale oil is no solution to the Indian economy, since it is far more costly and will drive our balance of payments deep into the red. Unfortunately, jettisoning Iran under Trump’s diktat has had serious consequences for India.

Yemen’s Houthi resistance has shown that the days when the Saudis lorded it over Yemen’s airspace, bombing Houthi forces and civilian centres at will, have had consequences. Houthi drone strikes can now hit Saudi Arabia’s soft underbelly – its oil installations, power plants and desalination facilities.

Armed by the Nato powers, Saudi Arabia has overwhelming air dominance over the Houthis. Its defence spending is second only to that of the US and China, higher than India’s, which is in fourth place. (SIPRI Database)

The Saudis spent $70bn on defence, while Iran spends $6.3bn dollars, less than a tenth of Saudi expenditure. Certainly the Houthis cannot defend themselves from Saudi air attacks, but neither can Saudi Arabia defend itself against Yemeni drone or cruise missile attacks that hug the ground and defy radar detection.

Following on from the Iraq war and former US secretary of state Colin Powell’s Oscar winning performance regarding Iraq’s alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMDs) at the UN, bible-thumping current secretary Pompeo’s claim that it was Iran what done it will carry very little weight with the rest of the world.

Coastal Iran is surrounded by a very dense set of radar networks, including that of the US’s Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and its Uded airbase in Qatar, as well as many Saudi installations. These would surely have detected any such a strike coming over the open waters of the Persian Gulf. That the US and the Saudis have produced no corroborating evidence for their assertion tells its own tale.

The Saudis are now claiming that Iran was “behind” the attack, a climb-down from their former position of blaming Iran directly. Saudi spokesperson Turki al-Malki said in a press conference that the drone and cruise missile attack had come from the north, meaning that the drone swarm that hit Aramco did not come from the direction of Yemen.

This is very thin evidence, since we know that drones do not need to fly in a straight line, and can hit a target from any direction, irrespective from where they originate. Neither does coming from the north prove that the strike must have come from Iran.

Even the BBC was forced to admit that assertion ducked the essential question: were the weapons used in the attacks against the Saudi oil installations actually fired from Iranian soil?

While the Saudis have presented various pieces of missile and drone debris, simply holding up a fallen wing of a missile and calling it Iranian, or calling the data inside its ‘computer’ Iranian, can at best prove that Iran may have transferred drone technology to Houthis.

To present this transfer of technology as an Iranian smoking gun is ludicrous. After all, it is not merely technology that the US, France and Britain have transferred to Saudi Arabia but any number of operational aircrafts, bombs and missiles, all of which have been used to devastate Yemen.

The attack by the Houthis on Aramco was not an isolated one. Yemen’s resistance forces have been carrying out a series of drone attacks against Saudi Arabia for the past few months, testing their capabilities and probing the Saudis’ defence.

Open source information on the type of radar, air-defence systems and centres protected by the Saudis show that while Saudi Arabia has some capability to defend itself against air attack by conventional means – bombers and other attack aircraft – it has very little defence against drone attacks.

Most of its air defence is based on the assumption that the only serious threat it faces is from Iran, using aircraft and conventional missiles. What the Houthis have shown is that, in the age of asymmetric warfare, there are cheaper attack options using unmanned air vehicles (UAVs, aka drones).

A number of people have written about open-source drones, their guidance systems, and their use of small piston or jet engines that are commercially available. It is eminently possible to create a viable drone that can do what Houthis claim to have done – and within a budget of $20,000.

The western media have extensively covered the part of the UN’s report that discusses Iran’s possible involvement in the Yemeni drone programme. What has had far less coverage is the part of the report that details how US and British laser-guided missile systems have been used in attacks on civilians that breach international humanitarian law.

These attacks were launched from aircraft that only the Saudis possess. It is Nato countries that have enabled the Saudi airforce to carry out more than 20,000 attacks on the Yemeni people. And this asymmetric media coverage shows that the western media is in the business of manufacturing consent on a worldwide scale for their security-state establishments.

The importance of Saudi Arabia to the US and its allies is that Saudi Arabia underwrites the dollar, and makes it possible for the US and the western financial institutions to control the global financial order.

But the days of US strategic dominance in west Asia are now over. Yes, the US can destroy Iran, but it cannot save the region and its oil infrastructure from destruction while it does so.

This is the new strategic balance that is emerging, and the sooner the US and its Nato partners accept that, the sooner we can hope for peace in the region.

We can either have collective security, or no security. That is the lesson of recent events in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

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