The Drone Navy

We are living at the beginning of a new age: An age of wars fought by drone. The war in Ukraine has already suggested the outlines of this drone era. But these are early days.  

Some excitable commentators predicted that the Russo-Ukrainian war would be the first primarily fought by guided missiles and unmanned aircraft – but this has not proven true. Instead, drones and missiles have staked out their limited territory in Ukraine – serving as spotters for artillery, aerial grenadiers, and have – in the case of fan-favorite Turkish-made TB-2 Bayraktar drones on the Ukrainian side – brought about the destruction of Russian vehicles and positions in the ordinary UAV way.  

Meanwhile, manned aircraft are guarded closely, fighters used sparingly, and helicopters used to conduct resupply missions only at extreme risk. Anti-air weaponry is good enough – and on so many soldiers’ backs – that this hesitance to risk manned aircraft is likely to continue. 

That much is true in warfare fought between two states on land. At sea, things are different. Two U.S. Navy ‘maritime drones’ were seized by the Iranian navy last Thursday, although the Americans were able persuade Tehran to hand them after turning up in force. This is a taste of what’s to come. 

Across the region, America is planning for a future filled with drones and missiles. Surveying the landscape, this is a reasonable prediction. Six years ago, the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorized coalition fighters attempting to take its capitals of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria by using rudimentary drones to drop grenades on unsuspecting attacking forces. Ever since, drones developed for military use have become more widely available and more sophisticated, and the commercial kind, ripe for repurposing, have become cheaper, too.  

The primary threat to Middle East regional peace, and the Gulf status quo, is Iran and its network of proxies. Historically, Iran has threatened shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman with naval vessels and small coast-guard-type ships. It has attacked tankers and merchant ships repeatedly in this way, notably during the Tanker War of the 1980s and recent attacks on shipping carrying the flags of many countries. 

Efforts to rein in this campaign have proven only partially successful. A fleet of nautical drones, developed and deployed by the United States and its allies – entirely possible with today’s technology – could play a more effective spoiler. 

America fears a near-term future in which Iran not only further militarizes the Gulf, but where all of its proxies from Lebanon and Yemen to Iraq are armed with fighting drones – air and sea – and ballistic missiles.  

Yemen’s Houthis have so successfully attacked the Saudi oil economy with Iranian ballistic missiles that Israel apparently considers the Houthi missile program a threat to itself. Enough allegedly to attack the Houthi missile program, anyway. 

Israel is an inevitable target of drone air wings and fleets. Hezbollah in Lebanon has used armed drones to antagonize Israel by breaching its borders and attempting to damage its economy, leading to a number of shooting down incidents.   

In early July, Israeli forces shot down a swam of Hezbollah drones it said were heading for an Israeli offshore gas rig, close to waters claimed by Lebanon as its maritime territory. Two weeks later, Israel intercepted another drone, likely of Hezbollah origin, which originated from the Lebanese side of the border.  

Hezbollah’s drone strategy is brutally simple. It arms drones and sends them running headlong kamikaze-style into key targets. If they are able to attack, the benefit handily exceeds the cost of the weaponry. If they are shot down – preferably by an expensive Israeli missile – the few hundred dollars the drone and its armament cost are pennies compared to the millions spent on, for example, Israel’s Patriot systems (which Israel has repeatedly used to shoot drones down). This is asymmetrical and very cost-effective warfare.  

In their own way, other nations like Saudi Arabia have tried to build anti-drone technology and tactics to fight the drone battalions they fear appearing on the horizon. American intelligence believes the Iranians have already used drones to attack an Israeli tanker last year – and that attack resulted in two deaths among the crew.  

The United States believes a unified strategy is needed. Part of this is coordination of intelligence. With a variety of Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Bahrain participating, more eyes can scan the Persian Gulf than ever before. Michael Brasseur, who heads the U.S. Navy task force in Bahrain on maritime drones, told the Wall Street Journal that the navy anticipates over 100 floating surveillance drones to be deployed to spy the waters from the Suez Canal all the way to Bahrain.   

One note of caution. All American attempts to build Arab-on-Arab, and Arab-on-Israeli, cooperation on defense are fraught. Donald Trump’s idea of an “Arab NATO” was a failure which was universally disdained by its supposed paying members the moment it was suggested.  

Any unified command – especially of a drone navy – would prove equally troublesome.   

American officials might share Jared Kushner’s belief in the transformative power of the ‘Abraham Accords’ to unite Arab and Israeli interests against Iran. But with the United Arab Emirates attempting diplomatic rapprochement with both Iran and its client, the Assad regime in Syria, full agreement seems unlikely. 

But the drone future is coming. It is in many ways already here. A new tanker war, this time fought by unmanned ships and aircraft, seems entirely possible. And with Iran’s proxy militias largely in the ascendant, no one can yet tell if this U.S.-led surveillance-plus initiative will be enough to rein the rain of drones and missiles in – and how vulnerable even innovative countermeasures might leave both commerce and civilians in the Middle East and beyond. 

This piece was originally published in Haaretz.

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