"Aviation of the poor" is how the specialists refer to the phenomenon of armed drones that are currently used on several theaters of operations especially in the Middle East & North Africa region. The year 2019 was particularly spectacular for the use of this new means of combat, the war of drones, especially with the invention of new approaches and techniques as the defense against drones begins to organize itself.
On the night of 1 to 2 December 2019, a massive drone attack against the airport of Hama in Syria was hardly repelled by the Syrian Arab Army. On September 14, 2019, a flock of cruise missiles and drones hit the Aramco oilfields at Khurais and Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia, affecting 5% of the world's oil production capacity.
This attack claimed by the Yemeni rebellion Houthi, in a war against Saudi Arabia for four years now, is far from being the first of its kind. Riyadh is also, little by little, becoming the international capital of drones, thanks to the massive purchases from Germany and China and to a local production plan of 300 drones. Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, the Arab coalition has lost 11 drones, shot down by the Houthi rebels.
At the same time, the various actors who undergo these attacks are starting to adapt and adopt innovative strategies and tactics to avoid them and get more involved in UAV technologies. In 2010 the Saudis launched the first UAV projects by the King Abdulaziz City University for Science and Technology, which is able to produce, from 2016 small tactical drones such as the Mishka 8, Al Nawras, and Ajdal. They also produce the Sakr series which is a strategic drone for observation and even capable of airstrikes, the drone has a range of 2500 km and can carry two Chinese FT-9 guided bombs. The Prince Sultan Advanced Technology Research Institute answered the urgent need of drones by the Saudi army by designing the Sky Guard, which is a tactical observation drone with a range of 150 km.
On April 25, 2016, the Saudi Ministry of Defense headed by Prince Mohamed Bin Salman Al Saud, launched the Vision 2030 plan, which is a modernization plan for the Saudi economy. One of the goals of Vision 2030 is to locally manufacture half the value of the usually imported defense equipment. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest military import budget. This would turn the Saudi defense economy into an exporter for other countries in the region rather than a pure importer as it stands today.
As part of the Vision 2030 program, Saudi Arabia plans to launch a strategic drone called El Eqab-2, manufactured by Science and Technology for Investment and Industrial Development. This MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) drone will have a long endurance in flight and the ability to carry eight Hellfire heavy anti-tank guided missiles.
War in Yemen, a real deal for the Saudis
To deal with the threat, Saudi Arabia has deployed Patriot Pac II and III anti-missile systems around major cities and sensitive sites. It has also acquired many US and European UAV scrambling systems that have not been very effective against multiple attacks by Houthi UAVs.
The success of the attack on Khurais and Abqaiq is mainly due to the remoteness of these sites from the Yemeni borders. Located in the North East of Saudi Arabia, the sites, though well protected by Patriot missiles, had their radars facing east towards Iran, and could do nothing against an attack from the West.
"The Saudi authorities must take responsibility and follow the precepts of the Qur'an. But they can also buy anti-aircraft systems from Russia in the same way that Iran has already done by buying the Russian S-300 missile systems, and in the same way that Turkey has already done by buying Russian missile systems S-400 "It is by this sentence, pronounced by President Vladimir Putin, at the Ankara summit on September 16, 2019, a few days after the attacks against Saudi Arabia, a suggestion of a definitive solution. to the problem. Finally, Saudi Arabia, today has one of the largest drone parks in the world and hopes to exceed 300 strike drones in two years.
In 2001, Abu Dhabi officially asked to purchase MQ-9 Predator drones from the United States but the American ally refused to export what they considered a strategic weapon to the Arab countries. At the end of that year, the Emirates launched a drone manufacturing tender for local companies that could have a partnership with foreign countries. This tender had ambitious and even revolutionary specifications for that time.
The drone, to be constructed locally, will have to be able to fly 48 hours at more than 6000 meters of altitude and to be able to carry at least eight guided missiles. In 2002 the company ADCOM Systems, which is a missiles manufacturer, embarked on the adventure. With the help of Ukrainian engineers, ADCOM made the Yabhon United 40, which has spectacular performances. It can fly 120 hours at 7000 m altitude and carry ten guided missiles. The drone is a success and is even exported to Algeria. The UCAV will be used in the fights in Yemen and Libya.
On 18 September 2019, four days after the attack on Saudi oil sites, the Houthis threatened the United Arab Emirates with an attack on their soil if they did not leave the coalition. "We announce that we have dozens of designated targets in the Emirates, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which we can strike at any time," said General Yahya Saree, Houthi military spokesman.
Qatar bought drones during the Gulf Diplomatic crisis
Qatar came later than the other Gulf countries to drones. After the diplomatic crisis of June 2017 between Doha and Riyadh, the Qatari approached Turkey for the supply of military equipment. They were the first clients of Bayraktar TB2 UCAV, which will be very successful in another theater of operations: Libya.
In Libya welcome to the forever drone war
After almost eight years of civil war and the total destruction of its army, Libya has become an exceptional case study for UAV use to ensure air dominance in wartime.
In early 2019, 76-year-old Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), who controlled north-eastern Libya and the strategic city of Benghazi, launched a general offensive. Heading first to the southern territories then to the West with the ultimate goal of capturing the capital Tripoli, which is today between the hands of the Government of National Accord (GNA).
This offensive was halted in early summer 2019 by the fierce resistance of the GNA troops and especially by the timely arrival of drones sent by Turkey. Turkey has made three deliveries in 2019 of Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs to the forces of the GNA which ordered 20 units this summer.
On their side, the LNA forces have the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and operate Wingloong 2 and CH-4B Chinese drones belonging to these two armies with some success.
Jalal Harchaoui, who is a specialist in Libya at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, told us that "In recent months, because of the failure of his conventional attack on Tripoli, Haftar has changed his strategy and now favors the use of cheap Chinese drones to keep the pressure on his enemy and affect his morale".
The drone war was so intense that the two players had to adopt tactics to protect themselves, the main objective being the neutralization of UAVs on the ground. LNA forces repeatedly bombed military airports and hangars housing the Bayraktars, destroying several of them. This Bayraktar hunt has pushed the GNA forces to adopt an original tactic of dispersing the aircraft and launching them from deserted roads rather than from airfields. To increase the range of the drone which is 180 km, several antennas and radio relay stations were scattered in the desert rendering their use unpredictable.
For its part, the LNA which also suffered attacks on its airbases and destruction of aircraft on the ground opted for a radical defense with the help of the Emiratis. From June 2019, several Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems belonging to the UAE army were deployed at the Al Juffra Air Base in central Libya. This deployment was effective and the anti-aircraft system repelled many attacks and shot down several aircraft.
Adding to the complexity of the conflict, several actors intervene in Libya, using fighter aircraft, bombers, and even more drones, especially the Western powers. On November 20, 2019, the forces of Khalifa Haftar announced having shot down an enemy drone, this UAV, a Predator, will prove to belong to the Italian Air Force, a Haftar's ally. The next day, a second drone of the same type, but belonging to the US Airforce, is downed near Tripoli by the forces of the LNA.
In September 2019, four US drone bombings occurred in southern Libya, killing 43 members of armed groups, according to Africom's statements. On November 29, 2018, near Al Uweynat in southern Libya, an American UCAV killed 11 people. Al Qaeda terrorists according to Africom, an assertion contradicted by the Tuaregs who claimed that the victims were civilians.
The United Arab Emirates is the second-largest coalition member in Yemen, they are on the ground and in the air, they have lost at least four aircraft since 2016 following the Houthi shots.
Like the Saudis, the Emirati air forces also use Chinese drones CH 4B and Wing Loong 2 but have a history more from the region who swear that it was actually civilians who were killed.
What future for the drone war in the MENA region?
Returning to the Russian airbase at Hmeimim on January 6, 2018, 13 fast drones appear on the radar screens of Russian air defense systems. All armed, they are quickly neutralized by the means of electronic warfare. This was the first Swarm attack used during a war. The attack on Saudi Aramco's facilities is the perfect example of what could be the future of drone wars.
The other possible future for drones is the combination of new technologies such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence that will be able to pinpoint attacks on an individual level. And above all, will reduce the possibilities of electronic jamming that disrupt the navigation of drones.
At the Milipol 2019 show in Paris, new applications for drones were presented such as the transport of lighting or even loudspeakers for information or propaganda purposes. At the same time spaces for companies offering anti-drone solutions are growing at each military exhibition.
Between GPS jamming, predictive targeting solutions, or even laser shooting, more and more solutions are proposed but all seem to be behind the use of more intelligent and deadly drones.