By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — The deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—more commonly known as drones—largely by US and Russian military forces has highlighted a weapon that is being increasingly deployed in war zones in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and most recently Ukraine.
The US has launched drone strikes in Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan targeting mostly terrorist groups. But the negative fallout has included the deaths of scores of civilians and non-combatants.
More recently, the use of drones by both Russia and Ukraine has triggered a raging battle at the United Nations.
The US, France, UK and Germany have urged the UN to investigate whether the Russian drones originated in Iran. But Russia has denied the charge and insisted the drones were homemade.
Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy, urged Secretary-General António Guterres and his staff on October 25 not to engage in any “illegitimate investigation” of drones used in Ukraine.
After a drone attack by Ukraine on a Russian ship in the Black Sea port of Sevastapol in the occupied territory of Crimea, Russia retaliated by pulling out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative triggering a possible shortage of grain and wheat worldwide.
According to a report in the New York Times on October 20, the US’s $17 billion in arms supplies to Ukraine include about 400 tactical unmanned aerial systems called Switchblades, plus 120 Phoenix Ghost Drones.
But it has refused to supply the much larger Predator and Reaper drones which are deployed by US military forces worldwide.
P.W. Singer, described as a specialist on 21st-century warfare at the Washington-based New America think tank, was quoted by the Times as saying: Whatever their origins, the use of drones added a particular element of terror in the battlefield.
“There is something about drones—something about the unmanned aspect of it—that drives more controversy, drives more fear.”
Nate Evans, Spokesperson to the US Mission to the UN, told reporters on October 19 the US joined UK and France in calling for an expert briefing in the UN Security Council on recent evidence that Russia illegally procured Iranian UAVs that it is using in its war on Ukraine.
“These UAVs were transferred from Iran to Russia in open violation of provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2231,” he said.
“We anticipate this will be the first of many conversations at the UN on how to hold Iran and Russia accountable for failing to comply with UN Security Council-imposed obligations.”
As was outlined during the meeting, there was ample evidence that Russia is using Iranian-made UAVs in cruel and deliberate attacks against the people of Ukraine, including against civilians and critical civilian infrastructure, Evans noted.
By procuring these weapons in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, Russia continues to flout international law in its pursuit of a senseless and brutal war against Ukraine, he said. (A war which began on February 24, 2022).
Meanwhile, in an interview with IDN, Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher, Arms Transfers Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), said, “if we define a UAV as an aircraft without a human pilot on board, the main producers of military UAVs in the world can currently be assessed to be the US, China, Israel, Turkey, Italy and Iran, along with South Africa, Austria, Germany, Russia and France”.
He pointed out that most of these drones are unarmed and are used for reconnaissance. Armed UAVs are mainly produced by the US, China, Israel, Turkey and Iran. Undoubtedly more countries will follow, he predicted.
“But those are of questionable utility. An armed UAV which can attack a target and then return to its base is, in essence, a very small bomber aircraft, while so-called ‘kamikaze’ UAVs that fly into a target and explode are a type of missile.”
“And countries make different choices about the value of UAVs over ‘classic’ aircraft and missiles based on perceived needs, access to technology and military doctrines.”
The fact that Iran produces armed UAVs does not mean that Iran is at the forefront of military technology, he argued.
“Whereas Iran, and to a lesser extent Turkey, have for specific economic, technical, military and political reasons chosen to make drones an important part of their arsenals.”
For example, in the US, Europe, Israel, South Korea and Japan, the military considers crewed aircraft and fast-flying missiles as the core of their air power, and those weapons receive by far the bulk of their investments in such air power, said Wezeman.
For these countries, slow-flying UAVs are an additional tool of more secondary importance, on which they spend only a fraction of their spending as military procurement.
Wezeman also said that Turkish TB-2 armed UAVs or Iranian Shahed slow flying missiles receive a lot of attention right now.
But in comparison to the procurement of advanced F-35 combat aircraft armed with long-range, highly accurate cruise missiles with large explosive warheads by the US and European states, their military value is easily overrated.
“Just like the German WW-2 V-1 cruise missile, which was, in essence, an uncrewed jet powered large kamikaze-drone, UAVs are not wonder weapons. Still, they can be key tools in certain military scenarios, can be used as terror weapons.”
The Q&A follows:
Q: Will the drone be a new weapon in future battles (compared to fighter planes and combat helicopters)?
A: Armed drones have been used in combat since decades. As mentioned earlier, the German V-1 was in essence a kamikaze drone used to terrorize London in 1944 as much as the simple, cheap and not very accurate Iranian Shahed-136 is used to terrorise Ukraine.
The recent use of the light Turkish TB-2 drones with small guided bombs in Nagorno Karabakh and Ukraine has been preceded by decades by the US use of its much larger and heavier armed Predator UAVs as one element of their military operations in several parts of the world.
UAVs have been used in effective ways since about the 1970s for reconnaissance, with the US and Israel leading the way in UAV technology at the time.
The use of UAVs in combat will undoubtedly increase further, with major military powers currently looking at ways to link up UAVs with crewed combat aircraft they are developing for planned operational use in a decade or so.
At the same time the distinctive differences between missiles and loitering UAVs are fading away. All these systems will increasingly be combined in warfare, communicating and functioning as systems of systems.
Q: Is Iran a significant manufacturer of drones? And where did Iran get its expertise from?
A: Yes, but as explained above that does not say much about the technological level of the Iranian arms industry. The Iranian drones currently used by Russia against Ukraine show no signs of being truly advanced, accurate and resistance against counter measures.
The key components are rather basic, such as the engines which are sourced from abroad. The overall design and the production of these drones is well within the reach of Iranian technical and industrial capabilities.
For Iran, such drones serve a major military purpose, as in the absence of advanced offensive military capabilities, these relatively simple drones can be used to deter potential enemies by threatening with significant damage against centers of population and difficult to protect infrastructure. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 November 2022]
Image: A drone used by the US Air Force. Credit: USAF
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