Drones have clearly established themselves in theaters of military operations around the world in recent years. The have become widespread to a large degree among states and even armed non-state actors, particularly due to the multiple military advantages these aircraft offer, both in intelligence gathering and reconnaissance and in offensive military operations. This has led many countries to strengthen interest in technologies related to countering this type of aircraft in order to achieve sufficient deterrence in any future wars. This could have a large impact in Middle East conflicts, especially in light of the use of drones by some militias and terrorist organizations.
International and regional interest in developing anti-drone technologies, especially those countering small drones, is mounting:
1- Increased American spending on research and development: The United States Department of Defense is working to develop counter-small-drone systems for domestic use as well as in countries that host military bases, alongside various conflict zones. It is expected that one of the developed systems will be announced in April 2021. The Pentagon and US Department of Defense plans to launch an academy at Fort Sill, Oklahoma by fiscal year 2024 with the aim of training in tactics to counter military drones.
Armed drones have proliferated in recent years, with many countries seeking to possess them, as well as some armed non-state actors, as they are a low-cost technology and offer multiple capabilities related to conflict zones, including reconnaissance, intelligence, and adversary monitoring. This is what prompted the US Department of Defense to spend about half a billion dollars on anti-drone research and development in the 2021 fiscal year.
2- Russian urgency to prepare for the wars of the future: Russia has turned to developing a helicopter drone to assist anti-drone weapons systems. The mid-2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan laid bare the importance of developing such technology in order to enhance Russian military capabilities. This Russian technology is likely to pursue small drones, and has been in development since November 2020. Moscow has stepped up its research and development efforts to meet the rising dangers associated with that type of aircraft.
Thus, Moscow is developing more than one anti-drone model in light of the important role drones play in modern warfare, whether in reconnaissance operations, intelligence gathering, or even offensive strikes. Strengthening anti-drone roles stems primarily from their importance in future wars: those technologies will serve as important cover for ground forces by deterring any unmanned aerial attack.
3- Chinese development of anti-drone technologies: China is a main producer of drones in the world, especially given the associated large economic returns and important military advantages. Some estimates even point to China owning 70 percent of the global market share in such aircraft. In the same vein, Beijing has sought to develop anti-drone technologies, announcing the launch of the first anti-drone combat system in September 2020.
The system is primarily against small drones flying at low altitudes, which are becoming a growing threat to global security. Relying heavily on artificial intelligence, the system can conduct surveillance patrols, especially of government and military sites, as well as nuclear plants and oil depots. It is also able to use electronic jamming to disable armed drones.
4- Regional interest in drones: Some countries in the region have moved towards acquiring anti-drone technologies. Leading them is Turkey, which has also sought to export them. In October 2020, Turkey’s National War Technologies Defense Systems Inc. announced the export of anti-drone aircraft to some countries, such as Qatar. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, in the face of increased targeting by the Houthi militia, aims to possess modern drones as well as defense technology to counter them.
In the same context, Israeli aerospace production companies, in March 2021, announced their cooperation with the United Arab Emirates’ EDGE Group to develop an advanced anti-drone defense system.
The development of anti-drone systems will significantly impact conflicts in the Middle East. The main implications can be detailed as follows:
1- Deterring armed militias: The Houthi militia carried out approximately 400 drone attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2020, a figure that is likely to significantly increase this year given the escalation of the militia’s attacks in the first quarter or 2021. This type of aircraft provides the militia with the ability to threaten adversaries.
Developing anti-drone systems would therefore curtail the militia and would be an opportunity to deter it. This, in general, poses an opportunity to put nation-states once more at the forefront of the security scene, neutralizing the attacks of non-state actors. It would also strengthen the protection of areas with civilians as well as oil facilities, thereby greatly reducing the human and economic losses in the region.
2- Curtailing terrorist organizations: Some terrorist organizations have succeeded in developing drone technologies for use in terrorist operations, especially ISIS, which has used drones since at least 2014. The organization has been able to expand the use of those aircraft, be it in intelligence gathering, propaganda films, monitoring borders, or delivering all kinds of explosives. At the same time, estimates indicate that around six armed organizations used drones in the Syrian civil war, including and especially ISIS.
A report by the Financial Times in February 2021 revealed that the British army conducted covert cyber operations to paralyze drones in the possession of ISIS. Developing anti-drone systems will reflect positively on mounting international and regional efforts to prevent those organizations from repositioning in the region.
3- Rolling back hostile infiltration: Turkey has employed drones to strengthen its influence in some conflict zones in the Arab states. This became clear in Libya, through its support for militias of the Government of National Accord, and had an impact on the retreat of the Libyan National Army from areas in the country’s west. Consequently, strengthening anti-drone defenses will negatively impact Turkish influence in the region, presenting an important opportunity to boost the strength and ability of regular national armies to confront militias and foreign mercenaries employed in various conflict zones in the Middle East.
4- Enhancing conflict resolution opportunities: The ability to curtail and neutralize armed non-state actors and cause them to lose one of their main strengths in combat—a large portion of which is the possession of armed drones—will enhance opportunities for resolving conflicts and making peace in the Middle East.
In short, increased international and regional interest in acquiring and developing anti-drone systems and technologies will have positive implications for the Middle East in the coming phase. This will mainly benefit nation-states, since it will help curtail non-state actors that have had a major negative impact on the region’s security and stability over the past decade. It will also be necessary to redouble efforts in order to ensure that such actors do not possess this technology in the foreseeable future.