Ever since 9/11, drones have been amongst the most visible, and often controversial, signs of American power in the Middle East and beyond. But as regional powers look to chart their own course, a new generation of cheaper unmanned aerial vehicles – Chinese or locally built, with far fewer restrictions on their use – are taking to the skies. The last five years have seen a dramatic rise in their use.
Forbidden to purchase weapons-carrying US drones due to export restrictions, several countries – particularly Iraq, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – have bought armed Chinese models and use them extensively in action. Turkey – increasingly isolated from other Middle East powers and with its own spats with Washington and Beijing – has invested heavily in building its own, its latest model carrying out its first combat strike in January. So has Iran, lifting technical secrets from captured US and Israeli drones and providing UAVs to non-state groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen. The latter have used them to target government bases, and claimed July and August 2018 attacks on major UAE airports in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Independent observers doubt the latter drone attacks really happened, an indication of just how opaque this unmanned warfare can become. In the skies over Yemen, Saudi and UAE drones may already be more plentiful than their US counterparts, as Washington pulls back its involvement in the conflict following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
According to the New America think-tank, February was the first month in which not a single US drone strike was reported in Yemen. The United States stopped refuelling Saudi and UAE warplanes targeting Yemen last year, and now seems to be scaling down its strikes there against al Qaeda and associated groups as well. Commercial satellite footage published last year by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone showed armed Chinese-built CH-4B and Wing Loong II drones operating from Jizan Air Base in southern Saudi Arabia. The unmanned aircraft – believed both Saudi and Emirati – appeared to be operating in tandem with unarmed US-built Predators also acquired by both nations. Because the United States deems Chinese technology a security risk, the Chinese systems cannot interface with the US-built platforms that many Middle Eastern states – including Iraq, UAE and Saudi – remain heavily reliant on. That makes it much harder to integrate the video footage and intelligence they gather into US and Western-linked command chains, such as those used to coordinate the fight against Islamic State.
For regional governments, this brings what may be a tacit advantage – the activities of Chinese-made drones are much less likely to be scrutinised closely by Western advisers. Beijing puts much fewer constraints on their use – and may well be keen to see how they fare in combat. While the People’s Liberation Army has used drones extensively for reconnaissance, the only time Chinese-built drones have fired munitions in anger appears to be in the Middle East. Some have done so heavily. A December report by the London-based Royal United Services Institute said Iraq’s estimated five Chinese-built CH-4Bs had chalked up some 260 strikes between them up to mid-2018, primarily against Islamic State.
The UAE’s Chinese-built drones are believed to have been used in politically controversial strikes in Libya, possibly flying from Egyptian bases. They are also believed responsible for an April strike on the Houthi-held city of Hodeidah that killed top political figure Saleh al-Samad and others. Clearly, Beijing sees drone exports as an increasingly significant part of its military-diplomatic toolkit, particularly when it comes to countries frustrated by US limits on how they can use American weapons. In October, China’s “Global Times” reported the sale of 48 Wing Loong II drones to Pakistan. This January, Chinese media reported the first test flights of a more advanced variant, the Wing Loong ID, also slated for export.
The Chinese-Saudi relationship appears to be deepening particularly quickly. Last month, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited China as part of a wider tour of Asia, meeting Premier Xi Xinping and signing a $10 billion investment deal. He also pointedly supported China in its crackdown on ethnic Muslim Uighurs in its northwest, where a UN panel said last year up to one million people have been interned in “reeducation” camps.
Not all regional powers appear open to buying Chinese, however. Turkey – increasingly at loggerheads with the United States, Saudi Arabia and lately China over the Uighur internments – has ploughed considerable resources into building its own armed drones. In January, its ANKA-S UAV carried out its first combat sortie, while earlier types have become a mainstay of Turkish military strikes against Kurdish militia and other targets. While Beijing only sells large military drones to fellow governments, much smaller Chinese commercial drones are also common on many battlefields, often adapted to carry grenades or other explosives. Islamic State used them extensively during the battle of Mosul and elsewhere. The origin of other UAVs is more opaque still – particularly a swarm of small drones that Russia says attacked one of its bases in Syria in January 2018. While the drones looked home-made and primitive, Russia says they contained unusually advanced technology. It accused the United States of coordinating the attack, which Washington denied.
Even when the United States was the only nation operating drones in the Middle East, getting to the bottom of their activities was hard enough. As UAVs get smaller, smarter, and otherwise more powerful, it will only get more difficult.