Increased Interest for Drones in the Middle East

By Fadi Assaf.

In the fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen, seemingly intensifying since recent political arrangements were imposed under direct American supervision, it was announced that drones were massively used by U.S. forces. These American unmanned aerial vehicles also played a central role in military operations in Libya. International coalition forces engaged in operations, including British and French forces, were able to benefit from an operational perspective, as Americans willingly cooperated. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and its operational arms in Pakistan, Somali pirates, Iran, Iraq and others are all “clients” of the same U.S. drone,  the “enemy to be defeated”, at least for those who have – or presume they have – the means to pit themselves against such systems.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah seems to have chosen two ways to counter Israeli superiority. First, it “hacks” Israeli systems, as it successfully did until the enemy was misinformed, and second it attempts to use the same weapon by adopting Iranian-made mini-drones, as recently announced by Israeli media.

Similarly, Iranian forces are trying to counter violations of their airspace by U.S. drones, by acquiring their own drones to face American drones, particularly in the Gulf.

Iranians tend to claim too easily the credit for an accidental crash of an enemy drone on their territory. Yet, their immense success announced last December can only be recognized, with the “capture” of the American stealth drone RQ-170.

RQ-170 Sentinel captured by Iran. Press TV.

Without tracing the chain of alliance back to Russia – to which some people attribute a role in the “diversion” of the RQ-170 – the incident is clearly a great American failure in the Iranian airspace. The Americans, who may fear the “copying” of their new drone technology by the Russians or the Chinese, seem rather reassured based on alleged Iranian constraints in this area, though Iranians announced the development of a version “superior” to the original…

The drone war is then in full swing between Iran and the United States. Revelations about the American deployment of F-22 Raptors on the Emirati al-Dhafra base have not failed to provoke the Islamic republic.

Amid rising tensions between Tehran and Abu Dhabi in light of the conflict on the three “Emirati” islands at the Gulf entrance (recently visited by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and where Iranians are deploying a “defensive and offensive” arsenal), Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi reacted violently to the deployment of F-22 Raptors in the UAE, which presumably undermines regional security (al-Aalam TV, 30/04).

[box style=”rounded” border=”full”]The U.S. deployment of F-22 Raptors in the Emirates did not fail to provoke Iran. Yet from a strictly operational point of view, this device is an interceptor, while the Iranian threat against neighboring countries is less posed by its fleet of military aircrafts than by its ballistic missiles (hence the THAAD program in Abu Dhabi). The F-22 Raptor, as an interceptor, does not seem specifically suited to countering the main Iranian threat (missiles). Does such a deployment in the Emirates hold a commercial dimension? After the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia, are Americans seeking to destabilize the utility aircrafts program in Abu Dhabi (Rafale) by offering the F-22 Raptor?[/box]

Iran pursues its drone program and considers it among its industrial, technological and operational priorities. Israel also focuses on this niche, alone or in cooperation with external industrial partners. Turkey too is  developing a similar ambition, willing to live up to its current regional status.

Undisputed leaders in the field, the United States intensely exploit their drones in their overseas operations, especially in the Middle East and Asia, not without benefit to their NATO or non-NATO allies.

To assert the status of “regional power”, the Arab states with the means to develop their military and especially aerial capabilities, will soon be interested in drones. “Mini-drones” for a start, used for border control, for example, while waiting to be able to afford more elaborate systems. In the meantime, American allies in the Arab region can count on the presence of cutting-edge U.S. drones, while complying with the will of the American military, hoping their own armed forces would benefit from American means… Later, the diversification of their military partners and sources of weapon supply could find direct application in the field of drones, with the potential acquisition of French or European drones.

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