PRABIR PURKAYASTHA: West Asia: Cheap Drones and the Shifting Strategic Balance

dronesReproduced from People’s Democracy of 1st and 22nd September 2019, with thanks

SAUDI Arabia, which started the Yemen war with its own coalition of the willing, is now facing the blow-back with Houthis launching a series of drone and missile attacks on infrastructure. Earlier Houthi missile attacks on Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports seems to have led to a rethink in the United Arab Emirates leadership on the dangers of military interventions abroad, leading to their partial disengagement from Yemen. The US also has now announced direct talks with the Houthis. It is clear that the Houthi drone and missile attacks are causing a fundamental shift in the strategic outlook of the friends of Saudis as well.

Similarly, the strategic balance between Hezbollah and Israel also has shifted, with Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal now not only much larger than what it was during the 2006 Israel’s war on Lebanon, but also with adding a precision guiding component to it. It is not that Israel is still not far more powerful than Hezbollah; it of course is. But in a war with Israel, Hezbollah does not need to win. It has only to inflict unacceptable damage on Israel and while being able to survive militarily at home. If it can continue its rocket attacks and prevent Israeli forces from overrunning it at home, it would have reached strategic parity.

It is this frustration that may be leading to Israel upping the stakes and launching limited attacks on Iraqi, Syrian and Hezbollah installations. If Hezbollah retaliates, Israel may then be able to secure direct US support in its war against Hezbollah. Without this support, it cannot destroy Hezbollah, which is its goal.

In both Yemen and Lebanon’s case, the Houthis and Hezbollah are changing the way we look at military parity and strategic balance. They are showing that strategic balance is not parity or winning, but inflicting damage while retaining the ability to fight.

In a larger sense, this is also Iran’s strategy against the US. If Iran can control the Straits of Hormuz and the oil flow from the Persian Gulf, they are still in the game with the US. They don’t need a military balance anywhere else. Only in the Straits of Hormuz. They have only to implement the threat that if they can’t export oil through the Straits of Hormuz, nobody else will. And to back this up, they have missiles, fast boats and submarines which can stop any attempt to hold the Straits of Hormuz for tanker and other traffic against the Iranian forces.

So what has led to this change in the military balance? Strangely enough, the impulse for this strategic shift over the last three decades has come from the US, followed by Israel. The US has a long history of ‘targeted killings’ – or in the UN language, ‘extra-judicial killings’ – using weaponised drones. These have killed an estimated 8,459-12,105 people. (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, on August 29, 2019).

Though Israel is way behind the US in its targeted killings, it has also used drones, missiles and other means to kill people outside its borders. Both of them produce and export a large number of such drones abroad, India being currently the recipient of a large number of such Israeli drones. Apart from their military use, these are also meant for surveillance against insurgents in central India and Kashmir.

What has led to the shift in strategic parity using drones, missiles, and even explosive packed boats being used as naval drones? It is the same shift that the world is seeing: the large-scale use of drones from pizza delivery to delivering mail and transporting goods. It is the same reason Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement has picked on the drones as an ideal showpiece. All you need is hobby aircraft models, which a lot of us have flown (or in my case tried to fly!). Some of them had even miniature petrol engines for prolonged flights. Earlier, all of them had to be tethered to the hobbyist in some way. What has changed is our ability to add intelligence, GPS tracking device, gyroscope, camera, processor and other chips to such hobby planes to convert them to autonomous vehicles capable of independent flight. And if we add a communicating device to it, it can then be remotely guided a long way from the person flying it. In other words, it becomes the equivalent of a full-blown drone, capable of flying to a target, delivering its payload and even flying back.

How can we add all these elements to essentially what used to be a hobby toy aircraft? Guess what? All the above components are the basic chipset of a mobile phone. This is what led to the huge growth of hobbyists and the toy manufacturing industry. Chris Anderson wrote (‘How I Accidentally Kickstarted the Domestic Drone Boom’: June 28, 2012, Wired), “It’s safe to say that drones are the first technology in history where the toy industry and hobbyists are beating the military-industrial complex…”

A pre-programmed drone today can be created by buying from any number of commercial civilian drones used from crop spraying to surveying or commercial delivery drones at a cost of $1,000 to $5,000 depending on payload and range. And making it using do-it-yourself from off-the-shelf components is equally easy and comes at an even lower cost!

This is the genesis of the drone revolution. The cost of adding intelligence of what is simple model airplane and converting it to an ‘autonomous aircraft’ is not a major technical achievement. The components are easily available, the chipset, communication and camera are bog-standard components available in any mobile phone. What is required are people with knowledge. Once that is added to the mix, we have intelligent devices not vastly dissimilar to the ones that the military industrial complex develops.

Yes, the drones we are talking about – Qasef 2 – are not the equivalent of Predators or Reapers that the US uses. Or the US flying behemoth drone costing about $220 million that Iran shot down. The drones that Houthis have used cost only a small fraction of the $5 million price tag of the MQ-1 Predator drone, which of course is reusable. But if Houthis can manufacture these locally with components manufactured locally or procured from the international market, or from Iran, and copying Iranian designs, then their cost is small enough to use in large numbers against their opponents, in this case Saudi Arabia.

A number of reports have charged Iran of supplying either the components or the design to the Houthis. This of course is in contrast to what the US and the UK have done, who have not only transferred – and continue to transfer – not just the designs or components, but a large number of missiles and bombs to the Saudis. They also provide them with logistical support including help in real time targeting and maintaining these equipment in battle ready conditions. Without the US-UK support, the Saudis would be incapable of fighting any war, let alone the battle hardened Houthis.

Why is Iran’s support to Houthis for defending themselves ‘illegal’ and ‘destabilising’, while the US-UK support to Saudis is legitimate? In spite of it having caused the largest humanitarian disaster in the 21st century? To repeat well-known facts: an estimated 100,000 have died in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, one million are exposed to extreme starvation and 18 million are in imminent threat of starvation. These are only the direct deaths. Medicines, water purifying chemicals, fuel are under Saudi embargo, meaning that water, electricity sewage systems don’t work in Yemen. Schools are closed and so are hospitals. It reminds us of Madeline Albright’s infamous comment (‘In Punishing Saddam’, Catherine Olian, 60 Minutes) that half a million Iraqi children dying due to sanctions was a “price worth paying”.

Houthis have not only used drones they are also using older missiles in their armoury, and retrofitting them with precision guidance of the same kind that go into the drones. Unlike the drone payload, which is from 50 to 150 kg, the missile payloads are much higher, in the range of 600 Kg. While the number of missiles with the Houthis is smaller, the capacity to inflict damage on the Saudis is much higher: they would be then used only against high value targets. The drones on the other hand could be used in much larger numbers.

The problem that Israel faces is even worse. Hezbollah not only has a similar range of unarmed drones, but has a much larger number of rockets. It is estimated that Hezbollah has about 150,000 rockets of varying range in its arsenal today as opposed to the 15,000 it had during the 2006 War. Even if a small fraction of them have been fitted with precision guidance equipment, it is a lethal threat to Israel’s infrastructure – power plants, refineries and even the Dimona nuclear reactor. While Israel boasts of a three-tier aerial defence, no air defence is completely airtight. If a sufficient number of missiles are fired, some of them will get through. How long can Israel suffer from an air barrage and still continue its attack on Lebanon and Hezbollah, will then become the issue. As we said earlier, Hezbollah has only to continue fighting and retain enough missile capacity to inflict damage on Israel, unlike Israel which needs a decisive victory and destroy Hezbollah.

The calculus of strategic parity has changed with the introduction of cheap mobile phones in the market. Not just for military communications but in unexpected areas such as drones and missiles. This is the nature of technology, its impact is sometimes much larger than anticipated. That the mobile phone would revolutionise drone war was completely unexpected, more so it is changing of the calculus of war. This is what is unfolding in West Asia to the detriment of those who have spent huge amounts on their weapons. Ironically, Goliath – Saudis and Israel – are now faced with David – Houthis and Hezbollah. And unlike the past, all that David has to do today is just continue to fight with his slingshots!

22 September 2019

The Days of US Dominance in West Asia are Over

THE intricate war dance among the US, the Saudis and Iran on the Houthi attack on Aramco oil installations may still not spill over into a shooting war in West Asia. The Saudi defence ministry spokesman Col Turki al-Malki said the attack was unquestionably “sponsored” by Iran – this is quite different from saying that Iran actually launched the attack. Even the US is now using language such as Iran was “behind the attack”, and following up such statements with fresh sanctions on Iran – indicating that the “locked and loaded” gun that President Trump had tweeted earlier may not be fired now.

Houthis have shown to the Saudis that its mastery over drones has created new conditions. As I wrote a few weeks back in these columns, drones and missiles with mobile launchers, make it possible for weaker forces to inflict unacceptable damage on much stronger countries attacking them. This has created a new strategic balance in various theatres of war, which forces with much greater fire power have yet to register. This is the new strategic balance between Houthis and Saudis; Hezbollah and Israel; and on a wider scale, Iran-Hezbollah-Houthis and the US-Israel-Saudis. None of the weaker forces have to win: they only need the ability to keep fighting while imposing unacceptable costs on the other side.

The Aramco facilities damaged in the Houthi attack was Abaqaiq and Khurais, and has taken out nearly 50 per cent of Saudi oil production. The Saudis currently produce 12 per cent of the world’s oil, and any long term damage to its oil installations has huge consequences for the world’s oil supply, as well as oil price. In spite of the Saudis saying that they have enough stocks to meet the shortfall and the US releasing its strategic reserves of oil to the market, the oil price immediately jumped by 10 dollars or nearly 20 per cent, making clear how important Saudi oil production is to the global economy. With continuing US illegal sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, the world is now critically dependent on oil from the Saudis, who have promised to increase production to meet the shortfall. Any hit on this supply will have global repercussions and drive the world into a new recession.

For India, the consequences are more dire. India imports more than 80 per cent of its crude oil. We have cravenly followed the US ‘orders’ on Iran and Venezuela sanctions, and are now even more dependent on the Saudis. The US offer for shale oil is no solution to the Indian economy, as shale oil is much more costly and will drive our balance of payments deep into the red. Unfortunately, jettisoning Iran under Trump’s diktat has serious consequences for India.

The Houthis have shown that the days when Saudis lorded it over Yemen’s airspace, bombing Houthi forces and civilian centres at will, have consequences. The Houthi drone strikes can now hit the soft Saudi underbelly – its oil installations, power plants and desalination facilities. Armed by the NATO powers, Saudi Arabia has overwhelming air dominance over the Houthis. Its defence spending is next only to the US and China, and more than India’s, which is in the fourth place (SIPRI Database). The Saudis spent 70 billion dollars on its defence, compared to Iran’s 6.3 billion dollars, or less than a tenth of the Saudi expenditure. Certainly the Houthis cannot defend themselves from Saudi air attacks, but neither can Saudi Arabia against drone or cruise missile attacks that hug the ground and defeat easy detection by radar.

After the Iraq war and the then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Oscar winning performance on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in the UN, the bible thumping, current Secretary Pompeo’s claim that it was Iran who dunnit, will carry very little conviction with the rest of the world. The coastline facing Iran has a very dense set of radar networks, housing the US Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and the US Uded Airbase in Qatar, as well Saudi radar installations. They should have detected such a strike coming over the open waters of the Persian Gulf. That the US and the Saudis have produced no such evidence tells its own tale.

The Saudis are now claiming that Iran was “behind the attack”, and a climb down from blaming Iran directly. Their spokesperson, Turki al-Malki said in his press conference that the drone and cruise missile attack came from the north, meaning that drone swarm that hit Aramco did not come from the direction of Yemen. This is very thin evidence, as we know that drones do not need to fly in a straight line, and can hit a target from any direction irrespective from where it originated. Neither does it prove that if it came from the north, it must have come from Iran. Even the BBC was forced to say that this ducked the essential question: were the weapons used in the attacks against the Saudi oil installations actually fired from Iranian soil?

While the Saudis have presented the debris of the missiles and drones, showing a fallen wing of a missile and calling it Iranian or calling the data inside the ‘computer’ Iranian, can at best prove that Iran did transfer drone technology to Houthis. To present this transfer of drone technology as somehow a smoking gun against Iran, simply overlooks that it is not technology that the US, France and UK have transferred to Saudis but real aircrafts, bombs and missiles that have devastated Yemen.

The attack from the Houthis on Aramco was not an isolated one. They have been carrying out a series of drone attacks on Saudi Arabia for the past few months, testing their capabilities and probing the Saudi defence. Open source information ( on the type of radar, air defence systems and the centres protected by Saudis show that while the Saudis have some capability in defending against air attack by conventional means – bombers and other attack aircraft – they have very little defence against drone attacks. Most of their air defence is based on the assumption that the only serious threat they have is from Iran, that too using aircrafts and conventional missiles. What the Houthis have shown is that in the age of asymmetric war, there are cheaper attack options using UAVs – unmanned air vehicles – or drones.

A number of people have written about open source drones, its guidance systems and the small piston or jet engines that are commercially available. All these can be used to create a viable drone that can do what Houthis claim they have done. And all of it for about $20,000 tops.

The western media have extensively covered the UN Report that has talked about Iran’s involvement in Houthi drone programme. What has yet to find similar coverage, is that the same report also shows that laser guidance missile systems from the US and UK have been used in attacks on civilians that breached international humanitarian law. And they were launched from aircraft that only the Saudis possessed. It is NATO countries that have armed the Saudi air force to carry out more than 20,000 attacks on the Yemenis. It is this asymmetric nature of the coverage that shows that the western media is in the business of manufacturing consent on a worldwide scale for their security state establishments.

The importance of Saudi Arabia to the US and its allies is that Saudi Arabia underwrites the dollar, and makes it possible for the US and the western financial institutions to control the global financial order. But the days of US strategic dominance over the West Asia are now over. Yes, the US can destroy Iran, but cannot save the region and its oil infrastructure from destruction as well. This is the new strategic balance that is emerging and sooner the US and its NATO partners accept it, the sooner can we look for peace in the region. We can either have collective security in the region, or no security. That is the lesson of the current events in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.