Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA), author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future, and a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, spoke to an August 2 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the growing role of military drones in the Middle East.
Crude remote piloted aircraft "have been around for a very long time," initially used for "mundane tasks," such as target practice. In 1970s, Israel developed more sophisticated drones designed to collect intelligence on mobile surface-to-air (SAM) missile batteries without putting pilots at risk. In 1982, these drones were used with great success in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, enabling the Israeli Air Force to "wipe out all of the Syrian air defense batteries there in basically an afternoon." Israel recognized early on that "drones were going to be the weapon in the future" and has since became a leading innovator and global exporter of drones.
For Israel, drone innovation is "not just about developing a drone that flies faster or longer," said Frantzman. It is about developing better "artificial intelligence, algorithms, all sorts of optics and sensors and scanners and radars" to enable these platforms to do more things. Increasingly, Israeli drones don't require remote piloting. "It's more point and click ... You don't have to fly it. You just have to make decisions about what to target and things like that. ... [Y]ou're not sitting there with a [joy]stick."
For combat drones, speed and payload are only the tip of the spear. It is things like software and optics that enable Israel to carry out "precision strikes ... [that] don't kill as many civilians." Nowadays drones are capable of "automatic target recognition" – distinguishing, for example, between "a pickup truck carrying a broomstick and a pickup truck carrying an RPG in the back" and communicating to the operator "better look at this one."
For surveillance drones, Israeli innovation goes beyond enhancing their ability to gather data. Equally if not more important is the technology used to synthesize raw data. In the recent Gaza war, Israel deployed surveillance "drone swarms" for the first time. "Instead of having one large drone buzzing around in circles, taking video and pictures ... you have dozens of little drones buzzing around, and they're all ... networked ... [to] a kind of brain using artificial intelligence that is able to synthesize all the data that they're collecting" into a "uniform picture."
The U.S. is focused on building "fancy" drones that mimic the functions of manned aircraft "but just do[n't] have people in them." Most notably, the Predator drone was used by the U.S. post 9-11 to collect surveillance and conduct "targeted airstrikes" in areas where the use of conventional aircraft would come under criticism or the loss of pilots would be unacceptable. But "U.S. procurement tends to be quite slow," Frantzman said, and "it's not entirely clear if the United States is at the cutting edge of [drone] technology."
Iranian drone development is "not as sophisticated as America or Israel," but the use of proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza enables Iran to "do a lot with very little" in the way of drone technology, threatening a vast arc of territory across Middle East with attacks. Proxies also enable Iran to maintain a cloak of "plausible deniability" for drone attacks. Although the U.S. and Israel have been able to identify Iran's fingerprint through examination of drone wreckage, Iran can still claim not to have authorized attacks by its proxies.
Most of Iran's combat drones are "kamikaze" drones designed to fly into targets. "They're kind of like the German V1 in the sense that the machine goes somewhere and then slams into a target. It's not coming back to base." Such drones have been used with a high degree of precision. Frantzman cited the September 2019 drone attack on Saudi oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, which was apparently intended to cause immense damage without killing anyone.
More recently, the July 29, 2021 drone attack on an Israeli-managed ship off the coast of Oman was notable in that a moving target was hit, which pointed to accurate "human intelligence." To counter future attacks of this nature, Frantzman suggested using American warships to "shepherd commercial vessels" in the area and provide "an air defense umbrella ... around them."
China has made its mark exporting military drones "all over the world" to countries that the U.S. will not sell to. Turkey's exports of Bayraktar drones are also rising, though they are effective only against adversaries that lack advanced air defense systems. The Azerbaijanis used Bayraktars to great effect against Armenian ground forces in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, though Frantzman emphasized that it was their use of Israeli drones to take out air defenses that made it possible for the Bayraktars to reach their targets – a combined "one, two punch" that exemplified the potential of drones to tip the balance in conventional warfare.
Countering the proliferation of drones around the world today is a difficult task given the willingness of the Chinese and Turks to sell to nearly anyone and Iran's willingness to provide drones – and know-how to build drones – to proxies across the Middle East. The prospect of "large swarming attacks" against U.S. ships is "the elephant in the room" for Washington. The solution, of course, is "build[ing] better detection systems and air defenses." Here again, Israel is leading the way with new technology "to shoot down drones with lasers."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.