Drone technology has become so widespread that for a few hundred dollars, virtually anyone can build a drone capable of reconnaissance or even limited combat, and today more than a hundred countries and many non-state groups have them, experts warn.
Just a few years ago, the use of drones in combat, whether for reconnaissance or tracking, was the privilege of the major military powers. But now their use is becoming more widespread and their applications are expanding by the day, while some militaries are increasingly combining drones with conventional warfare assets, which are still in their infancy because their low altitude is barely detectable by conventional air defence technology,” says Jonathan Marcus, Professor at the Institute for Strategy and Security Policy, University of Exeter, and former BBC defence correspondent, in a detailed analysis published on the BBC.
Marcus says that the first era of the emergence of combat drones was when the use of so-called Reapers, capable of delivering munitions in addition to reconnaissance, began to make a comeback in US and Israeli military operations. For example, Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was reportedly killed by such a Reaper drone near Baghdad airport in January 2020, the author notes in his analysis.
It took only a very short time for this privilege to fade and for the former counter-terrorism (or even retaliation) tool to become an integral part of the conventional arsenal of warfare tools.
The availability of drones, which are relatively easy to ‘arm’, is now open to almost everyone, while the third generation of such tools is now being supported by artificial intelligence, and a range of models capable of sophisticated operations previously unimaginable.
The use of drones in warfare is now increasingly “taken for granted”, Marcus says in his analysis, citing the example of Ethiopian government forces’ use of drone strikes to overcome military pressure on the Ethiopian capital. The Ethiopian government has obtained the necessary drone technology from Turkey and Iran, but could have easily sourced it from China or the United Arab Emirates, he adds.
Drones have been used to consolidate the position of the western-recognised Tripoli government in Libya, and there is also evidence (from Turkish sources) of Azeri drone use in the renewed Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
All this also suggests that that, contrary to the limitations on nuclear proliferation, there is essentially nothing to stop the proliferation of drones – Jonathan Marcus quotes Paul Scharre, director of the Center for New American Security, in his analysis.
According to the latter, China has become a major exporter of combat drones, while Turkey and Iran also sell drone technology components. States and non-state combat groups, for which a professional fighter would be out of reach, can easily acquire combat drones,” says Scharre, who also points out that, although the actual combat value of a combat aircraft and a combat drone is light years apart, possession of the latter does provide some air attack or at least sophisticated reconnaissance capability, especially when combined with digital technology.
In his analysis, Marcus interviews another expert on the subject. Samule Bendett is a member of the Center for Naval Analyses’ Russia Studies Unit, and in this capacity he informs us that, as far as he knows, Russia’s military presence in the Syrian conflict has been, among other things, a means for the Russian leadership to to test in a live situation the increasingly effective combination of drone technology with conventional combat tools.
As Bendett puts it, Russian readiness may lag behind the Americans in terms of technological sophistication, but they are very much at the forefront of practical application, for example, using drone technology to detect and precisely identify potential targets, which can then be used to launch precise air or artillery strikes.
According to Bendett, some Russian drones are also highly capable of carrying out electronic attacks. In Ukraine, for example, drones are capable of tracking the electronic signals of enemy forces, jamming their communications and informing their own conventional strike forces of the target’s location.
At the same time, Bendett believes that the Ukrainian army has itself increasingly armed itself with drones, mainly through purchases from Turkey, and that they were used in the fighting in Donbas.
For the time being, it is difficult to fight drones because their flight altitude is below conventional detection radars. This may not remain the case for long, as the various parties are also rapidly developing the technology to detect drones, according to Marcus. However, he says the fact that a properly coordinated drone team can be made up of many components could create a difficult situation for the defenders for some time to come, and they can be scattered in several directions, meaning that destroying them on a large scale is far from easy. All of this could have a “dramatic impact” on warfare in the foreseeable future, the expert says.