Drones are increasingly transforming warfare and their emerging use as a tactical and strategic weapon has long-term ramifications for policy. For instance, the use of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones helped define the U.S. role in Afghanistan, a role that is now apparently coming to an end. At the same time countries such as Iran are now exporting kamikaze and surveillance drones to their proxies and allies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Pro-Iranian militias have been carrying out drone attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq in recent months. This illustrates how unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming a dominant factor in many conflicts, from clashes in the Gaza Strip to Azerbaijan.
The rapid deployment of drones in war and the expansion of the market for military drones have led to a system of drone alliances. In many ways, this is similar to how U.S. and Soviet military technology was exported to allies during the Cold War. The difference today is that the growth of drone superpowers has largely occurred in the shadow of the U.S. victory in the Cold War. What this means is that the United States emerged from the 1990s as a global hegemon, advocating a new world order. That world order was shaped by America’s drone wars. The United States used drones in the Gulf War, then the Balkans, and during the war on terror. However, relying on this weapon transformed the American way of war. The United States’ reticence to put boots on the ground and fear of casualties was well suited to drone warfare. At the same time, the controversies that grew out of targeted drone strikes and assassinations caused the United States to be wary of exporting its new deadly technology. It had become proficient at killing but didn’t want others doing the same.
The result, thirty years after the end of the Cold War, was a group of rising powers that were using drones. Turkey used its drones to carve out a sphere of influence in Syria, Iraq, Qatar, and Libya. China was also filling the U.S. power vacuum, selling its CH-4B and Wing Loong drones to countries where the Untied States had influence, such as Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Pakistan. Chinese drones were now spreading their wings around Asia and the Middle East. In the meantime, the United States continued to be a drone partner for traditional allies, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and European NATO countries. Israel, by contrast, was selling platforms throughout South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Turkey and Iran were using their drones as a way to project power.
Iranian drone technology has been exported to the Houthis in Yemen, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, as well as to Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas used Iranian-style drones during its recent clashes with Israel in May. Houthi drones are used weekly against Saudi Arabia. Iran-linked drones have attacked U.S. facilities in Iraq.
The export of drones created new drone alliances, mapping out the influence of various countries. As countries and groups clashed, the various drone systems got their first test on battlefields. The results can be seen in at least eleven real “drone wars.” They have shaped both the trajectory of drones and also what the future holds. In the drone wars that have already taken place, the outcomes illustrate a mixed bag of success.
Israel successfully used drones against terrorists from the 1980s through the 2020s. They have become the backbone of Israel’s surveillance and precision strike capability. Israel’s borders are swarming with multiple layers of drones, and Israeli soldiers have at their fingertips a vast array of weapons. Israel also pioneered air defense like Iron Dome to confront drone threats today. Israeli companies like Rafael are also creating networks that enable drones to operate autonomously alongside unmanned ground robots, with soldiers using point-and-click on a tablet-style computer to guide the machines. Think of a drone and a robot dog entering a building occupied by terrorists and mapping it for special forces prior to a raid.
The drone wars have shown that drones can be both a game-changer and also a false hope. While they give countries a variety of options, they don’t necessarily win wars by themselves because they are often deployed piecemeal. A country has rarely built a whole campaign around drones, instead of using them to increase intelligence during a war, or harass enemies, or perform targeted attacks. Drones can’t carry many weapons, so they can’t decimate enemies. Initially, enemies find them confounding and are fearful of unseen buzzing robots in the air. But with time, they come to accept that drones will monitor them, and they find ways around them, much as the Islamic States tunneled underground to avoid drone surveillance.
The most important question for soldiers is whether drones are merely a platform with add-ons, such as cameras that can fly or a kind of cruise missile, or whether campaigns will be structured around using drones and the disruption they can cause on the battlefield, a force multiplier like the first tanks or airplanes were. Drones can give poor countries or insurgents and militants an instant air force. They can enable powerful countries to not put boots on the ground and avoid casualties. Between those two extremes is a way of integrating drones into an armed force so that they are used at multiple levels. As armies acquire more tactical, man-packable, loitering munitions, and large drones that act like aircraft, the full power of the drones will be felt. Concepts such as swarms and loyal wingmen, or using drones to transport items are still in the future, even after more than a decade of countries tinkering with them. As stealth drones appear, they will be decisive in wars between powerful countries, but as we have seen with the current drone wars, equal countries rarely wage wars against each other with drones.
This leads to questions about what the vision is for the future of drone warfare.
“The fighter jet era has passed,” Elon Musk said during an Air Warfare Symposium in 2020. The SpaceX founder who also pioneered Tesla predicted that unmanned flight would be the future. He was speaking at the Air Force Association with Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson. Musk asserted that if an F-35 fighter jet were put up against a drone fighter augmented by autonomy, then the F-35 jet would not stand a chance. The key issue here was autonomy. An F-35 jet against a drone piloted by a person is still a person versus a person. Currently, there isn’t a drone fighter that can confront an F-35 jet nor is it “autonomous” in making its own decisions. But Musk was right to prophecy about the future.
While many have prophesied the end of manned airpower, the drone commanders in the United States and elsewhere more often predict a world where manned and unmanned planes fly together. That’s what major powers are actually doing, instead of creating whole masses of drone units, the way tanks were massed during World War II. There is no theory of “drone blitzkrieg,” as it were, where drones overwhelm the enemy and totally dominate the air. Insofar as anyone has seen any examples of that, it was in Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia and in Libya. U.S. commanders believe drones fundamentally transform the battlefield and provide precision abilities, long-endurance, and detailed surveillance, and they can be sacrificed, whereas pilots cannot.
Drones are a kind of Rashomon, where everyone who sees them sees something different. Some people see killer robots while others see a unique platform that can save lives in war by not endangering pilots and ensuring precision strikes can be monitored and guided. Pilots may fear being replaced while soldiers on the ground may want more live feeds to tablets so they can see what drones are seeing in front of them.
While Musk has said that drone warfare is the future, US airpower experts are more cautious.600 Writing in Tomorrow’s Air Force in 2013, Jeffrey Smith, then commandant and dean of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base, noted that while in the past aircraft were segmented into types, such as fighters and bombers, the new type of mission will not be grounded in these segmentations. “This transition will be difficult in that the very nature of the Air Force has always been to focus on flying aircraft,” he wrote.
As the battles in Idlib, the Persian Gulf, Syria, and Libya showed, that time was approaching. Now, the race was on to make drones more autonomous and to add artificial intelligence into them and their targeting systems. The race is also on to provide better air defense to units on the ground, such as facilities in Iraq and the Gulf, to contend with drone threats emerging from Iran and other proxies and militants in the region.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier Books). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.