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Bahbah: Drones—The New Weapon of Choice in the Middle East

posted on: Sep 4, 2019

Bahbah: Drones—The New Weapon of Choice in the Middle East

By: Bishara Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist

The use of armed drones – otherwise known as UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles in the Middle East has been driven largely by sales from China, according to a report released on December 2018 by the Royal United Services Institute.  Most of the drones currently in use in the Middle East are Chinese made even the ones used by Israel.  Three countries in the Middle East manufacture drones.  They are Iran, Israel, and Turkey.  While all other countries simply buy them and/or assemble them.

Drone sales have grown significantly over the past few years and have been increasingly used by a growing number of countries and armed groups around the world especially in the Middle East. Weaponized drones have brought a whole new assortment of security threats to the forefront.  They have also raised the stakes in the tensions between warring parties.

The Recent Use of Deadly Drones in the Middle East

Bahbah: Drones—The New Weapon of Choice in the Middle East
A drone controlled by Israeli soldiers/Photo: Amir Cohen/Reuters

During the last week of August, Israel attacked three Arab countries – Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq – presumably, all the targets were linked to Iran and involved drones.  In one of the attacks on Syria, two Hezbollah operatives were killed.  Israel launched two attacks on Syria the same week allegedly targeting Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force which Israel claimed were preparing to use drones to attack Israeli targets and civilian infrastructure.

In the August attack on Iraq, an Israeli drone struck a convoy of Shiite militia that killed nine people, including a senior local commander.  This was the third Israeli attack using armed drones in Iraq since July 19 which marked the first Israeli assault on Iraq since 1981.  In fact, it was the United States that revealed that Israel was linked to the July attack out of fear over rupturing its tenuous relations with the government in Baghdad.

The drone attacks on Beirut, which caused minimal damage, were viewed as a serious act of aggression by both the Lebanese government and Hezbollah.  The latter viewed it as the crossing of a red line that it had warned Israel not to violate.  The drone attacks and the attack on an alleged missile factory in Lebanon resulted in a brief exchange of missiles between Israel and Hezbollah – the first serious exchange of fire between the two diehard enemies since their devastating war of 2006.

In the Gulf region, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen targeted the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with armed drones against oil facilities, civilian centers, and one of its airports.  UN experts identified the drones used by the Houthis as similar to the ones used by Iran.

In August, a US military MQ-9 drone was shot down in Yemen’s Dhama governate, southeast of the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa, the second such incident in two months.  And, in more serious development, the United States nearly launched airstrikes against Iran after a US military surveillance drone was shot down by Iran in June.

In Gaza, Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system has made it difficult for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to inflict substantial damage on Israel with rockets and missiles.  Hamas decided to begin relying on drones instead.  Iran began providing both Hamas and Islamic Jihad with weaponized and intelligence-gathering drones.  Over the past year, there have been reports of at least a dozen drone infiltrations into Israel from Gaza.  At times, some of these drones were intercepted while others returned to Gaza unscathed.  Hamas drones have been spotted over Ashdod and Ashkelon.  Israel, in turn, has targeted Gaza’s warehouses and production sites of drones to reduce the threat that they potentially could pose to Israel.

Why Are Drones Becoming the Weapon of Choice?

Bahbah: Drones—The New Weapon of Choice in the Middle East
Photo: U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Scott Jenkins

Drones have been called the “weapon of the weak and/or the poor.”

  • Drones are inexpensive – they can range in price from several hundred dollars to several million dollars, depending on their size and sophistication
  • Drones do not use pilots – even countries with powerful air forces often prefer to use drones so that they do not run the risk of losing their pilots
  • Drones are small enough to evade most air-defense systems and radars
  • Drones are agile and hard to detect once they are airborne
  • Drones do not need a runway for takeoff or landing
  • Drones that weigh as little as 250 grams can stay in the air for 30 minutes and can carry out day and night patrol missions
  • Drones do not need specialized teams to operate them
  • Drones can weigh as much as 180 kilograms, reach an altitude of 24,000 feet, have a range of 1,500 kilometers, and stay in the air for 24 hours
  • Drones can be equipped with sophisticated satellite communications
  • Drones can be remotely operated and perform functions such as refueling, landing, and relaunching without human contact

The Military and Non-Military Uses of Drones?

Bahbah: Drones—The New Weapon of Choice in the Middle East

Drones have manifold uses.  The non-military uses of drones are many.  They are used by hobbyists, including children and teenagers.  They are used in agriculture, photography, and delivering goods.  Airobotics, an Israeli company uses its automated-drone technology in manufacturing and mining.  In Israel, there are an estimated 20,000 drones in use, mostly by civilians.

Drones have been used in criminal activities such as landing goods in prison yards.

Yet drones have innumerable military functions.

  • Drones can be used for intelligence gathering and reconnaissance
  • Infantry and armored units have used drones for observation or as “flying binoculars”
  • Loitering munitions drones are used to scatter explosive weapons in various areas
  • Bomb-carrying drones fly to a particular destination; They are likely programmed before their flight.  They either explode in the air over their target or on impact against their target.

Drones are Not the Most Devastating Weapon, Yet Send a Powerful Message

Bahbah: Drones—The New Weapon of Choice in the Middle East

Weaponized drones can be damaging but truly, they are not used to inflict the maximum physical damage.  However, they are used for a variety of other reasons:

  • Drones send a message of the adversary’s vulnerability. In other words, the message is– we can hit where you are vulnerable – in strategic locations, inside and over your population centers, and across your border.
  • Drones are intended to instill fear in the enemy and increase their insecurity – that is usually the objective of the drones launched from Gaza into Israel. They are intended to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Israeli population despite Israel’s overwhelming military power.
  • Drones are intended to draw media attention – It is the David and Goliath story. If one party can sneak a drone into a powerful country, then it is seen as a victory for the weak.
  • Drone attacks are unpredictable, very hard to detect, and can appear at any time; their attacks represent classic psychological warfare among enemies.

Drones’ threats are expanding as they become more sophisticated and are able to carry out multi-functions simultaneously.  And, as we have seen from last week’s events in the Middle East, the use of drones could lead to the use of missiles and rockets which could lead to the use of more serious weapons.

Drones are more of a threat to the strong than they are to the weak.  The weak now has an affordable weapon with which to threaten the presumably powerful.



Prof. Bishara Bahbah was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security.  He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.