Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, have become a ubiquitous feature of modern warfare. For states with advanced air forces and sophisticated manned aircraft, drones are playing an ever more critical supplementary role.
However, due to their low cost and ease of acquisition, drones possess even greater transformational potential for middle powers and non-state actors, who may otherwise have limited or virtually non-existent airpower.
Several middle powers have expanded their drone arsenals over the past decade, particularly in the Middle East.
The domestic defense industries of Turkey and Iran have successfully produced their own models, whereas Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have quickened the pace of their acquisition programs.
For middle powers, drones offer enhanced offensive power as well as intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance capabilities at a discounted price. With fifth-generation fighters becoming increasingly cost-prohibitive, the appeal of cheaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is hard to ignore for ambitious states limited by tight budgets.
Beyond a greater range of capabilities at the tactical and operational level, drones have been of strategic importance to middle powers, making “the cost of influencing geopolitics dramatically less expensive.”
Turkey and Iran
Turkey has arguably used drones with the greatest success in the Middle East. UAVs have enabled Ankara to extend its military access further to hit targets in Syria and Iraq.
Turkish drones have also proved popular as an export item, and the Baykar Bayraktar TB2 has seen action further afield in Libya, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
For Iran, domestic drone production has helped bolster airpower capabilities otherwise limited by international sanctions, which have made it difficult to acquire modern manned aircraft.
Tehran has also equipped its proxies — such as Hezbollah, Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Houthis — with unmanned systems like the Shahed 136, with strategic consequences in the region.
For example, in January last year, the Houthis launched a drone strike far inside the UAE’s territory. It did little damage but shook up previous notions that the Houthis could do little to threaten the UAE’s security within its borders.
Drones may also offer middle powers new options in naval aviation with the development of dedicated drone carriers and the introduction of UAVs on pre-existing vessels.
Similarly, Iran is reportedly converting two merchant container ships into drone carriers. Like conventional aircraft carriers, drone carriers promise to provide greater power projection over longer distances.
For militants, rebels, terrorists, mercenaries, and even organized criminal groups, drones offer access to a previously inaccessible domain of warfare. Depending on their status, non-state actors can obtain military-grade drones built by the defense industry or convert commercial models.
Most recently, reports emerged that Hamas used drones to assault Israeli targets during their attack on October 7. The group’s military wing has access to a variety of unmanned systems, including the Shehab drone. Produced by Hamas itself, the Shehab is armed with a 30-kilogram (66-pound) explosive warhead and has a supposed operational range of 250 kilometers (155 miles).
Similarly, Palestinian Islamic Jihad released a video in 2019 purporting to show the use of a drone against the Israeli Defense Forces. The drone dropped an improvised explosive device on an Israeli tank, although it appeared to cause no damage.
In the mid-2010s, Islamic State (ISIS) formed its own drone unit called the Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahidin. ISIS mostly used drones for reconnaissance and intelligence purposes but also conducted attacks by attaching munitions to small fixed-wing drones and quadcopters.
According to a report by the Combating Terrorism Center, the group was able to smuggle technology from at least 16 companies based in seven countries. ISIS’ drone use became so prevalent that in the last two months of 2016, the US Central Command reported that ISIS drones were spotted every single day in Mosul.
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Drones have also been used by various non-state actors in Latin America. In August 2018, a group of Venezuelan military defectors tried to assassinate President Nicolas Maduro with commercial drones armed with homemade bombs.
In Mexico, criminal cartels have also started attaching explosives to commercially available drones. Drone attacks were unheard of in Mexico before 2020, but in the first eight months of 2023, 260 attacks were recorded.
The degree of sophistication varies widely between non-state actors regarding what unmanned systems are accessible. As noted by researchers from the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, “there is no single route of development for the use of drones by non-state entities, nor is there a pattern that these groups want to follow in order to expand their capabilities.”
One key takeaway, however, is that these groups can now pose a threat from the air, even if that threat is relatively crude, whereas previously, state actors conducting counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations against such groups had near-exclusive access to this domain.
At the tactical and operational level, drones constitute an incremental and supplementary improvement to capabilities. After all, the ability to conduct reconnaissance or offensive operations from the air has existed since introducing manned aircraft to military settings over a century ago.
Some middle powers like Turkey possess full capability air forces, whereas others, like Iran, are limited by factors such as budgetary constraints or international sanctions. For the latter, drones may be more important in tactical and operational terms. However, in both cases, the increased availability of drones has been strategically important because it has lowered the geopolitical cost of military action on a regional scale.
For non-state actors, the availability of drones is arguably even more important at the strategic level. The leap from an extremely limited or non-existent ability to conduct aerial reconnaissance or offensive operations to the acquisition of unmanned aerial capabilities is a tremendous leap from nothing to something.
Even if these capabilities are relatively crude and incapable of producing significant effects on the battlefield, they do grant non-state actors new means and ways to pursue their ends.
Alexander E. Gale is an analyst specializing in security and international relations.
A graduate of the University of Exeter, he holds a Master of Arts in Applied Security and Strategy.
He has written on defense issues for several publications, including The National Interest, Modern Diplomacy, and International Policy Digest.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.
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