Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have been widely used in recent armed conflicts, particularly in the Middle East. Their low cost and effectiveness have driven the machines’ popularity in battle and as surveillance tools. Many countries in the region, including Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, have been aggressively using and marketing drones. Drones are a weapon used by poor countries and organizations that do not have access to advanced fighter jets. They are also used by wealthy countries, which find them a valuable alternative to sophisticated but costly human-crewed fighter jets.
Although Turkey is making waves with its Bayraktar drone, the real regional drone rivalry is currently between Iran and Israel. While Iran tries to compensate for its isolation from military suppliers and high technology weaponry by developing drones and supplying them to its proxies around the Middle East, Israel boasts a highly advanced repertoire of drones that are being marketed around the world, and to some Arab countries. This competition is slowly but surely changing the nature of warfare and thereby altering the geopolitical map of the region.
While Iran tries to compensate for its isolation from military suppliers and high technology weaponry by developing drones and supplying them to its proxies around the Middle East, Israel boasts a highly advanced repertoire of drones that are being marketed around the world.
Groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and pro-Iran militias in Iraq assemble and often improve upon drone kits smuggled or otherwise sent to them by Iran. Reports indicate that Israel destroyed an Iranian drone assembly factory in Syria last July which was used to distribute the UAVs to allies in the region. Non-state actors such as the Houthis and Hezbollah also use drones armed with missiles—including guided missiles—against targets such as Israel, US bases or tankers in and around the Middle East, and Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Between 2015 and 2021, the Houthis fired 430 ballistic missiles and launched 851 armed drones into Saudi Arabia, killing 59 Saudi civilians, according to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s spokesperson, who also said that Iran and Hezbollah supplied the drones.
Israel vs. Iran and its Proxies
The popularity of drones as a weapon has soared among impoverished countries and non-state actors. Several factors lie behind their popularity. First, they are inexpensive. Non-state actors from bona fide liberation movements to terrorist organizations do not have either the necessary funding or the operational capacity to purchase fighter jets. Second, many drones are capable of evading radar. Because of their generally small size and ability to fly at low altitudes, drones can fly under most countries’ radar systems, even when their targets possess highly advanced anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense. Finally, drones are good at gathering intelligence since they can act as cheap and nearly undetectable spies in the sky for countries or armed movements that do not possess a strong air force or the ability to place human intelligence operatives in enemy territory.
Following the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, Israel began developing drones to gather real-time intelligence on its enemies. Consequently, Israel has had operational drones for decades now, and shows no sign of slowing its pace of development. In 2019, roughly 50 local Israeli start-up companies were working on drone prototypes, with the country’s drone industry worth billions. And according to a study by a specialist firm, Israel was the world’s leading exporter of drones between 2005 and 2013.
Iran’s proxies have used drones for military purposes ranging from surveillance and reconnaissance to carrying bombs and guided missiles. They have also focused on improving their drone technology and expanding its uses.
Iran’s primary proxies in the Middle East and the Gulf are the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s Assad regime, various militias in Iraq, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Each of these Iranian proxies has used drones for military purposes ranging from surveillance and reconnaissance to carrying bombs and guided missiles. Iran and its proxies have been forced to rely on the use of drones since, except for Syria, none of them can purchase fighter jets. They have therefore turned their attention to improving drone technology and expanding its uses.
To Israeli officials, Iranian drones represent a real danger. The threat they pose was demonstrated in July 2022 when Israel’s military said that it shot down three drones used by Hezbollah in an attempted attack on an Israeli gas exploration rig in contested maritime waters with Lebanon. Iran and its proxies had also threatened shipping in the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Before armed drones were invented, they had repeatedly attacked tankers and merchant ships with naval and coast guard vessels, which were its main fighting tools in the 1980s, before armed drones were invented. The Iranian drone industry is also spreading to other countries. In May 2022, Iran opened a drone factory in Tajikistan that produces the Ababil-2 drone, which is capable of both reconnaissance and combat.
In September 2022, the Iranian Navy seized two US naval drones, which the United States persuaded it to hand back after a show of force. The incident has stoked US fears regarding the increasing armament of Iran and its proxies with aerial and naval drones, in addition to their tried-and-true use of ballistic missiles.
Iran has also provided its proxies with the tools to build their own drone factories. Drones manufactured by Hamas, Hezbollah, and possibly the Houthis are usually copies of Iranian drones, but are given new names to distance Iran from their actions. Hamas has engaged Israel with its drones over the past several years, and some Hamas drones have even managed to enter Israel and return safely to Gaza.
Hamas and Hezbollah have reportedly been developing and operating drones targeting Israel since at least 2004. Hamas and Hezbollah’s drone technology originated in Iran, which has maintained an active military drone program since the Iran-Iraq War. And reports also indicate that Iran has dramatically increased the military capabilities of its drones in recent years, and has been exporting drones to countries in Africa and Central America.
A Steady Escalation
Iran decided to research, develop, and operate drones to counter the superiority of Israel’s aerial military capabilities and to aid its proxies in the Middle East. Worried about Iran’s advances in drone technology, in February 2022 Israel chose to attack Iranian factories involved in manufacturing and deploying drones. The attack represented an escalation of the two countries’ covert and indirect campaigns, which have been waged for years.
In May 2022, however, Iranian television broadcast footage of a drone base beneath the Zagros mountain range in Iran that reportedly contained “more than 100 combat, reconnaissance and attack drones.” Iran is also beginning to supply Russia with drones. In July 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Iran to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to discuss coordination strategies in Syria. Iran wanted Russia to flex its aerial military superiority over Syria by refusing to allow Israel the freedom to attack Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah targets on Syrian soil. Putin’s visit was also intended to ensure that Iran provides Russia with as many weaponized drones as possible since Putin and his generals have realized that they are behind in developing and manufacturing what is a valuable and inexpensive field weapon.
Israel has adopted an aggressive stance vis-à-vis Iran and its proxies’ drone-oriented warfare. In August 2019, for example, Israel attacked targets in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq that were linked to Iran.
Israel has adopted an aggressive stance vis-à-vis Iran and its proxies’ drone-oriented warfare. In August 2019, for example, Israel attacked targets in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq that were linked to Iran. In the attack on Syria, two Hezbollah operatives were killed. Israel launched two additional attacks on Syria the same week, allegedly targeting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, which Israel claimed was preparing to use drones to attack Israeli targets and civilian infrastructure.
And in the attack on Iraq, an Israeli drone struck a Shia militia convoy, killing nine people, including a senior commander, in what was the third Israeli attack using armed drones in Iraq since the country’s July 2019 strike on an Iranian weapons depot, which marked the first Israeli assault in Iraqi territory since 1981. The drone attacks on Beirut, which caused minimal damage, were labeled a “declaration of war” by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah promised to retaliate.
In Gaza, Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system has made it difficult for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to inflict substantial damage on Israel using rockets and missiles. Hamas therefore decided to rely on drones instead, and Iran subsequently started providing the two groups with weapons-equipped and intelligence gathering drones. There have reportedly been a significant number of drone infiltrations into Israel from Gaza, which led it to target Gaza’s suspected drone warehouses and production sites. On the other hand, Hamas has acquired commercially available small drones manufactured by China that it uses for surveillance purposes. One such drone, a quadcopter, was downed by Israel on its border with Gaza on October 11,
Changing the Face of Conflict
The drone war between Israel and Iran and its proxies has been raging for at least two decades now and exemplifies how strategic warfare has evolved along with the development of drone technology, especially as it has come to be used by poor countries and non-state actors. Iran is using drones to make up for its relative lack of military aircraft while Israel is continuing to use drones to bolster its already impressive aerial military capabilities.
The drone era of modern warfare has indeed arrived. Drones’ effectiveness and popularity in the Middle East have sent military strategists and arms producers a clear signal that inexpensive drones can confront armies and wreak havoc on unsuspecting targets miles away. The already widespread use of this technology is becoming more apparent by the day—a trend that is likely to alter the nature of warfare for years to come.
Featured Image credit: Iranian Army Handout