Ukraine, MidEast, Asia: Is the era of drone wars success or failure? - analysis

As drones proliferate and armed drones become the norm, we witness a new era of drone wars, and the question arises as to whether they are successes or failures

A drone is launched during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on August 25, 2022. (photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A drone is launched during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on August 25, 2022.
(photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The recent use of drones by Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia and North Korea reveal the different strategies of drone warfare used today as well as the difficulties air defenses have in confronting them.

As drones proliferate and armed drones become the norm, we witness a new era of drone wars, and the question arises as to whether they are successes or failures. Particularly in the Middle East, Iran is the lead proliferator of drones, and examining these examples may provide an inkling as to what Iran may try to do in the future.

Russia-Ukraine War and the use of drones

This week, Ukraine targeted an air base in southern Russia with drones. “Air defences shot down the drone near the Engels base, but falling debris fatally wounded three technical staff, the Russian defence ministry said,” the BBC reported. This is at least the second attack of this kind by Ukraine.

“The base lies about 650km (400 miles) north-east of Ukraine’s border,” the BBC noted. “The Ukrainian military did not officially admit to the latest attack, but air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said the explosions were the result of what Russia was doing on Ukrainian soil.”

Russia’s drones in its war on Ukraine have been largely a failure – Russia has had to import Iranian kamikaze drones, using these Shahed series drones to target Ukrainian infrastructure and civilians. Russia’s drones are not particularly useful on the battlefield, rather they are used to harass and terrorize. Only on the small scale are they perhaps helpful for use with artillery and surveillance.

 IDF drone (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) IDF drone (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

Ukraine has a varied arsenal of drones. When the war began, it had some Turkish Bayraktar drones, which are relatively slow and can be armed with missiles.

Though they were initially successful, they brought problems. They don’t appear to be used anymore, either because Russian air defenses can shoot them down, or because of attrition or something else. Turkey’s drones are being sold because countries like the US don’t usually sell armed drones.

North Korea drone incursion into South Korea

In another example of how drones are transforming the world, North Korea used drones to harass South Korea this week. South Korea’s military apologized for not shooting down five drones quickly after they flew over the border on Monday. Warning shots were fired while jets and attack helicopters were sent to shoot down the drones. The alert over the drone penetration went on for some five hours.

This is problematic: How did drones penetrate South Korean airspace despite the fact South Korea has a hi-tech economy that should have good radar and all the air defenses it needs to stop drones?

The threat to South Korea is a reminder of what drones can do.

Hezbollah and Iran using drones

Hezbollah and Iran have both used drones to harass Israel. In one case in 2018, a drone flew from Syria into Israeli airspace before being downed. Hezbollah has also used threatened gas field infrastructure off the coast, but Israel has a large number of air defense systems, such as Iron Dome, that can stop them.

Over the past two years, Iran used drones to target ships in the Gulf of Oman, in addition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Iranian-backed Houthis, Hamas and groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, have also stockpiled drones.

Iran has achieved success with its drones –enough to be able to provide them to Russia. This illustrates how drone technology proliferates and proliferates well.

Israel: A drone pioneer

Israel was a pioneer in drone technology, using them back in the 1980s to gain an advantage over Lebanon, and has used drones in a variety of roles ever since. It has also sold drones to countries abroad.

Israel continues to be one of the world’s leaders in drone technology, with drones like Elbit Systems’ Hermes and IAI Heron, while also pioneering counter-drone technology, including systems that can down smaller quadcopters, and larger systems that can shoot down large drones.

A new article at New Lines Magazine described the Ethiopian use of drones: “Images have surfaced of what OLA spokesman Odaa Tarbii claims are parts from a Turkish drone bomb used in the Oct. 22 Ch’obi strike,” it reads.

“New Lines could not independently verify the authenticity of the images, but showed them to Amelia Smith, a US defense analyst and military drones expert, who said they appeared to show the tailfins of a MAM-L — a Turkish-made, laser-guided bomb,” it continues. Ethiopia has reportedly acquired drones from Turkey, Iran and others.

As drones proliferate, they garner more attention from major media. Foreign Policy ran an article last week that discussed “drone diplomacy” and how the drone arms trade may be upending global power dynamics.

Examining the conflicts, from Ukraine and Ethiopia to tensions in the Middle East and between North and South Korea, one can note that while it is true that drones are proliferating and countries like Iran and Turkey have entered the market over the last decade, it is not clear if the drones are very successful at finalizing victors in war.

Using drones to harass an adversary and embarrass them doesn’t win a war. Drone strikes used against civilians also don’t win wars. Drones are still being used in the way they used to be used.

Turkey uses drones to carry out targeted assassinations in Syria; The US used drones in its war on terror; Turkey’s drones are not expanding beyond what the US-made Reaper has done.

Countries like North Korea rely on drones because they lack a strong air force, something Iran does as well. However, that doesn’t mean that Iran’s use of drones do not pose a major threat.

The drones can be used to strike wherever Iran wants, from Lebanon to Yemen and at sea with a range of some 1,000km. This is primarily a threat to infrastructure and strategic sites. Similarly, Ukraine’s increasing use of drones to target sites inside Russia will force Russia to increase its defenses has made it clear to Moscow that the war isn’t only going to be waged on Ukraine’s soil. This ups the price of war for Moscow.

From the Middle East, to Africa, Asia and eastern Europe, drones are becoming more important. However, their overall affect on the battlefield remains to be seen.

While some experts point to conflicts such as the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan as a kind of dawn of a new drone war, even that war was not conclusive. Azerbaijan used drones to rapidly defeat Armenian forces, but Armenia’s failure was largely in not preparing to face the Azerbaijan threat, not the drones.

It didn’t have the funds to fight back against the drones. However, reports that drones replaced tanks, and that armored vehicles could easily be dispatched by drones, was over-hyped.

The Ukraine war shows that no matter how many Iranian drones Russia has access too, it can’t defeat Ukraine. Big army formations like tanks, infantry and artillery, still decide wars.

Drones are useful for surveillance, targeted pinpoint strikes, harassment and strikes on vulnerable targets or infrastructure; the next era of the drone war awaits.

Countries like Israel need to pay attention to developments from these various frontlines to see how countries like Iran may try to use drones in a new way in the future.