Bilal Asghar is a second-year undergraduate student of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at King’s College London. His geopolitical interests include conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia, the political economy of energy, and military technology.
(Advances in drone technology are transforming armed conflict – and destabilising the global balance of power. This is the first in a two-part series exploring this issue and the risks it entails.)
Drones have rapidly evolved from expensive, high-tech tools for precision intelligence and counterinsurgency operations into affordable mass-produced weapons fit for large-scale conflict between near-peer adversaries, as seen in the 2020 Caucasus Conflict. Perhaps most troublingly from a geopolitical risk perspective, a reversal of the previous dynamic between insurgents and drones is also occurring – the technology is now accessible to non-state groups who can leverage its advantages to inflict proportionally greater damage against better-equipped forces. This introduces two major risk factors to the global landscape: a drone arms race between nations that increases the likelihood of conflict, and more effective attacks by insurgent groups against key resources and facilities. The latter has already materialised – the Houthis in Yemen rank foremost among non-state actors in their capability, having undertaken a combined drone and missile attack with substantial repercussions for global oil prices in March 2021. The crux of the issue is that the offensive capabilities of low-cost drones have now made them viable against most air defence systems, which will likely drive global instability until adequate defences and counters are developed.
Background: History and Terminology
In general, the term ‘drone’ simply describes a broad range of unmanned aerial vehicles, including both armed (UCAVs) and unarmed UAVs, as well as loitering munitions (‘suicide drones’). While operational usage and techniques may vary depending on the particular system involved, the wider impact on the battlefield from drones on the whole remains similar nonetheless – in any case, different munitions and systems are likely to be used in conjunction with one another. An important distinction may be drawn between military drones produced by states and their affiliated industries, and more rudimentary ones that can be prepared using equipment readily available to civilians. This latter category will be addressed in more detail in the second part of the series.
Precursors to modern drones were first developed during World War 1, and slowly evolved into useful decoys and scouts by the 1980s; by the mid-1990s, the US had already developed the quintessential modern drone, the MQ-1 Predator, which was later made into the MQ-9 Reaper and used extensively in US counterinsurgency operations as part of the Global War on Terror. Although their utility in such missions was clearly visible to all, until recently conventional wisdom tended to view drones as “unlikely to have a large impact on interstate warfare” due to their limited payloads and perceived vulnerability to air defence systems. Systems like the Reaper likely have a per-unit cost similar to manned aircraft and require extensive infrastructure to operate. As such, they were possessed mainly by larger powers like the US and China, in limited quantities, and were not seen as a significant threat. Air defence against manned aircraft and large, high-altitude ballistic missiles was therefore prioritised by most nations, including Saudi Arabia and Armenia which invested heavily into systems such as the Patriot and S-300 respectively.
The New Face of Battle
However, recent developments have signalled a clear shift – drones have been increasingly used even against conventional opponents with proper air defence systems. Several states, most prominently China, Israel, Iran, and Turkey, have begun building vast arsenals of these weapons and exporting them globally. Saudi air defences have encountered difficulty intercepting drone attacks by Iran-backed Houthi forces, and the 2020 Caucasus War saw Azerbaijan use drones to inflict serious damage on Armenian forces and even directly engage air defence systems.
This is down to two relatively new features of modern drone technology, which combine to upend conventional wisdom – cost-effectiveness and the ability to either circumvent or overwhelm air defence systems. Versatile combat drones no longer cost tens of millions; the Bayraktar TB-2 is estimated to cost between 2-5 million USD, while smaller drones that lack sophisticated sensors and targeting systems can be orders of magnitude cheaper (costing in the hundreds of dollars) and still inflict significant damage. They are now easier to operate and thus require less infrastructure and training. Their small radar cross-section makes them difficult to detect, even by fairly capable air defence systems, and their endurance allows them to lie in wait undetected for an ideal opportunity to strike. Footage from the recent Caucasus War included scenes of entire platoons of unsuspecting infantrymen being annihilated at staging points, along with command posts being destroyed.
The introduction of new, disruptive technology into the battlespace is not unprecedented, and is in fact quite a regular occurrence. History shows that military doctrine eventually evolves to take new advances into account and incorporate dedicated countermeasures into standard practice. Anti-drone electronic warfare systems and directed-energy weapons are already being developed and tested. However, there is likely to be a significant time gap between the widespread adoption of drones and the proportionate deployment of adequate countermeasures, and some countries will adapt slower than others – should a major conflict occur during this period, it would likely be unpredictable and deadlier than would otherwise be expected. This is not limited to small or poorly equipped militaries – most major powers currently need improvements in short-range air defences (SHORAD) to adequately counter newer drone technology, including the US itself. Even some present systems marketed to counter drones have proven to be vulnerable unless used very carefully, as demonstrated by the destruction of Russian Pantsir-S1 systems in Libya and Syria.
The existence of this gap between offensive and defensive capabilities is also what makes conflict more likely to occur. It encourages an arms race and makes offensive options more viable. As a result, it is more likely for states to launch attacks to achieve strategic objectives. This is especially relevant in the case of contested borders and disputed territories similar to Nagorno-Karabakh, as drones can help soften up defences and allow for territory to be captured with fewer casualties than would otherwise be expected, even in terrain favourable to defenders such as Shusha.
Lines and Ladders – The Geopolitical Consequences of Drone Warfare
The drone arms race has already begun – in the aftermath of the Karabakh War, several states indicated they were accelerating their drone programmes, and purchasing larger quantities of foreign-made UAVs, in many cases explicitly targeted at regional rivals. This has already manifested itself in volatile regions such as the Middle East. It may even spill over into relatively ‘conventional’ fronts such as the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, as both nations have begun building sizeable drone arsenals, and accusing each other of planning to use them for hostile purposes.
This development is especially troubling given the existing level of tensions in the South Asian region and vulnerability of both Indian and Pakistani forces to armed drones. Both mainly operate versions of Russian and Chinese Air Defence Systems that are at present not well suited to countering drones. Risks of low-intensity ground combat and occasional aerial skirmishes along the line of control remain high, as seen most recently in 2019. The fact that both countries possessed capable air defence systems and comparable interceptor aircraft then meant the clash was limited to hit-and-run attacks of questionable accuracy, and caused relatively few casualties by ending with de-escalation following the return of a captured Indian pilot by Pakistan. It is not difficult to imagine a similar scenario in the near future, with both sides using unmanned, disposable drones rather than precious aircraft and flesh-and-blood pilots. Paradoxically, by providing a lower-risk method for a strike into hostile territory, these weapons significantly raise the lethality and risk of a conflict as they add an additional rung on the ladder of escalation. Governments would be more likely to authorize use of drones in situations where the use of manned aircraft or ground troops would be difficult to justify and risk an all-out conflict.
Furthermore, while the 2019 clash left open an avenue towards de-escalation as both sides could claim victory and casualties were difficult to determine, drones alter the equation through their ability to loiter above a target area and provide high-definition footage of specific engagements in real time. This was used as a propaganda tool to great effect by the Azerbaijani government. India and Pakistan already make use of footage from ground clashes for such purposes – it is likely that drone footage would be used similarly, and result in increased domestic pressure for retaliation.
This is not the only major relevant flashpoint – the DPRK has also been building up its stockpile of armed UAVs, apparently with assistance from the Chinese government. Similar concerns about the ladder of escalation apply in this case, although to a much lesser extent given the presence of US forces in the region. Combined with the ever-increasing prevalence of drones in proxy conflicts such as Libya and Syria, a clear trend of drone-fuelled instability is emerging.
It is becoming increasingly clear that policymakers can no longer rely on conventional wisdom with regards to the utility of drones in state-level conflict, and the traditional dynamic of ‘air superiority’, as needed for effective air strikes, no longer applies. It would be prudent to keep track of drone production and imports, as a surge in these could indicate plans for conflict, as was the case in the Caucasus. As technology advances, the development of even more disruptive weapon systems such as AI-controlled autonomous drones and drone swarms is becoming more and more likely. There is also a significant threat posed by drones that are now easy to manufacture and available to insurgent groups, which were ahead of the curve in adopting the technology. The next part of this series will cover these issues in more detail.
Risk-o-Meter for Drones in Interstate Conflict
What is the probability that the risk will materialize? – 3/3
Events in the Caucasus and Middle East show that the risk has essentially already materialised.
What is the predicted size of the impact? – 2/3
It is likely to exacerbate existing tensions and make low-level conflicts deadlier – but unlikely to cause new tensions or full-scale conflict.
What is the expected speed of onset? – 3/3
Drone production and trade are accelerating at unprecedented scales.
Will regional or non-regional actors be involved? – 2/3
The balance of power between major powers like the US, China, and Russia is unlikely to be affected as yet; the main concern is smaller regional powers.
What is the probability of spill-over? – 3/3
As their use becomes more frequent and capabilities clearer, it is probable that every major military will attempt to develop or procure armed drones.
Risk-O-Meter Score: 13/15 (Considerable Risk)
Featured Image consists of two pictures,
Picture 1: Bayraktar TB-2 Drone, https://www.anews.com.tr/gallery/economy/turkeys-locally-made-bayraktar-tb2-armed-uav-surpasses-300000-hour-flight
Picture 2: Azerbaijani UCAV engages Armenian 9K33 Osa Air Defence Vehicle, Screenshot from video released by Azerbaijan Ministry of Defence