The new age of drones and missiles

Are these weapons changing the character of war?

Drones have had and will continue to have a game-changing effect on the battlefield.
Deena So'Oteh
Drones have had and will continue to have a game-changing effect on the battlefield.

The new age of drones and missiles

By examining the war between Russia and Ukraine, many have postulated that drones have had and will continue to have a game-changing effect on the battlefield.

At the same time, many also have suggested, after looking at the recent exchange of blows between Iran and Israel, that drones, in addition to a new class of advanced missiles, are not the groundbreaking weapons they are presumed to be, given Israel’s near-perfect rate of interception of Iranian weapons.

Neither conclusion is warranted, however, since both are stated in a strategic and operational vacuum. The reality, which is as old as the history of war itself, is that no matter how powerful or creative any new weapon is (except for the atomic bomb, whose inherent value, even with its non-use, is absolute), what counts the most when it comes to its performance and ultimate impact – tactical, operational, and possibly strategic – is how it is being used and for what purpose.

Indeed, the political-military objectives of the state during crisis or war—the threat(s) it is facing, the strategy it is employing, and the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) it is pursuing—are far more important than the characteristics of the weapon itself.

Despite their limitations, drones are here to stay

Remember the first few months of the war in Ukraine? It was as if no Russian soldier was safe on Ukrainian soil. Small Ukrainian drones filled the skies, hunting for Russian targets and effectively eliminating them.

Some opined that a new “revolution in military affairs,” or RMA, was underway. Gone are major manoeuvres of massed formations, the argument went. The future of warfare will be dominated by precision, speed, and autonomy.

Much of this is true, except that the war in Ukraine has turned into a 20th-century-style attrition where manpower and industrial production will heavily influence the course of events.

The Russians also learned how to respond to Ukraine’s tactics. Not only did they produce their own drones in large quantities and use them in combat, but they also invested in electronic warfare to jam those of their opponents (though while sometimes jamming their own). It is not as if the Russians were able to nullify the Ukrainians’ drone capabilities, but they did find a way to reduce their impact and level the playing field.

As incredibly useful as drones have been for the mission of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), and that of strike, they simply cannot substitute for a range of military capabilities and human resources that are necessary to repel a large, invading force such as Russia’s.

A Ukrainian soldier loads dummy grenades onto a drone for target practice as members of the Ukrainian National Guard prepare for an expected spring counter-offensive against Russian invasion forces in the region of Dnipro, Ukraine.

Precision, lethality, and autonomy are vital in the modern battlefield, and those are things that drones can provide, but old-fashioned artillery and tanks—in other words, heavy firepower, and capacity—are still indispensable to defend and hold territory.

In an existential fight against a determined and formidable aggressor, which is what Ukraine is facing, technology cannot trump mass. Quantity, and not necessarily that of drones, still matters a great deal. As always, those who can cleverly combine the two—quantity and quality—are able to achieve higher levels of military effectiveness.

Take artillery, for example. Thanks to US military assistance, some of Ukraine’s artillery is more effective than Russia’s because it is precision-guided. GPS signals—enabled by US satellite imagery—have allowed Ukrainian artillery to be much more precise and, therefore, lethal. And with precision comes efficiency. You use fewer shells if you can hit your targets more accurately.

Drones have been a fantastic companion to artillery, too. By spotting a Russian target (soldiers or hardware), Ukrainian drones have rapidly shared its position with nearby artillery batteries, thus facilitating engagement.

Russia has pursued network-enabled warfare against Ukraine, too, with its constellation of satellites and spies, but it has struggled more than its adversary to find and kill moving targets.

Think of drones as flying computers with cameras able to collect and process information at high speeds and then send that information to weapons systems on the ground (and perhaps soon, in the air).

As computer software evolves, coupled with advancements in artificial intelligence, so will drones. That said, ancient tactics of camouflage, hiding, dispersion and rapid movement on the ground are back in vogue to challenge the power of the drones.

With drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), nowadays being the face of technology in the modern battlefield, one must recognise that there is no monopoly over these weapons. Quite the opposite. The liberalisation of UAS is now a staple of military relations, with producers eager to export to generate profit and buyers eager to use and learn to possibly manufacture their own.

Those arms are cheap and easily accessible, and if both aggressor and defender have them, which is the case with Russia and Ukraine, and Israel and Iran, there is no obvious advantage.

No matter how powerful or creative any new weapon is, what counts the most when it comes to its performance and ultimate impact is how it is being used and for what purpose.

The new breed of missiles

Much of what I discussed above about drones—in terms of their promise and limitations—applies to missiles, too. There are three important differences, though: First, missiles (especially ballistic missiles) are substantially faster than drones; second, they can be more destructive (because they can have bigger payloads); and third, they can have more range. Much like drones, however, they can benefit from the newest technologies that enable better precision and higher speed.

Few countries in the world have invested in their offensive missile arsenals more than Iran. Over the years, Iran has improved the speed, accuracy, and range of several of its missiles. And given its old and inferior fighter planes compared to those of its adversaries, there is no question that Iran will continue to enhance its offensive missile capabilities.

More specifically, Iran will accelerate the integration of satellite-provided imagery and positioning, timing, and navigation information in many of its weapons, including its missiles. Hypersonic is next for Iran, although its leaders claim that they already have developed that operational capability with the Fattah missile.

Iran also has not neglected its UAS capabilities, pouring considerable resources into that domain to gain an edge over its adversaries. Its Shahed-129, capable of reconnaissance work and attack, is a technological breakthrough, according to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran is also likely to leverage artificial intelligence, incorporating it into its drone fleet in the foreseeable future.

These improved Iranian capabilities notwithstanding, their vastly unimpressive performance during the 14 April strike against Israel, in which roughly 110 ballistic missiles, 185 drones, and 36 land-attack cruise missiles were used, has raised questions about the perceived superiority and growing effectiveness of drones and missiles against capable air and missile defences.

For years, and especially after Iran's successful attack against Saudi oil infrastructure in September 2019, the concern, and perhaps even the conviction, was that air and missile defences could be significantly challenged if not overwhelmed by swarms of drones and missiles.

Judging by what happened on 14 April, however, that seems overstated. Israel and its friends were able to intercept most of the Iranian weapons, and all Iranian drones were downed outside Israeli airspace. In the annals of missile warfare, this was a spectacular win for defence in its contest with offence (the latter traditionally viewed as having a considerable advantage).

This historic achievement, however, comes with important caveats. Just like the dominance of drones and missiles in modern warfare was exaggerated, so was the performance of the anti-Iran coalition's air and missile defences.

Motorists drive their vehicles past a billboard depicting named Iranian ballistic missiles in service, with text in Persian reading "Israel is weaker than a spider's web" in central Tehran on April 15, 2024.

After all, Iran violated a critical element of military operations—the element of surprise. But it did so deliberately to avoid escalation and possibly a large-scale confrontation with a more powerful foe (or set of foes). Tehran telegraphed its strike, giving Israel and the United States a weeklong advance notice to prepare for and coordinate their response.

Read more: Iran's direct attack on Israel resets regional power balance

In the less-than-useful debate about whether Iran's strike was symbolic or instrumental—it was both, meant to restore the Iranian deterrent, send a cease-and-desist message to Israel, and inflict some pain on Israel—the fact is that with different TTPs, Iran could have caused much more harm.

Not only would it have reversed the chronology of its attack and adjusted its force mix—a heavier dose of ballistic missiles followed by drones and cruises to maximise death and destruction—but it also would have incorporated the formidable warfighting abilities of Hezbollah, Iran's most capable proxy which sits at Israel's northern border.

Unlike Iran, Hezbollah does not have to worry about the constraints of geography. One launch of a drone, rocket, or missile, and within seconds, it is already in Israeli airspace.

The Israeli and coalition response to the Iranian attack on 14 April reinforced the reality that modern interceptor fighter aircraft can be very useful to counter drones. That some countries like Iran do not have such aerial capabilities (for now) will not go unnoticed by adversaries who might be considering a coordinated drone and missile strike.

Iran's only real medium to counter such an attack is air and missile defence. That is asking a lot of those systems, no matter how effective they are—and the jury is still out on whether those systems in Iran are integrated, especially after Israel's successful retaliation on 19 April, which reportedly hit a military air base near the city of Isfahan, in central Iran.

Recall also that even Israel's layered system believed to be the best in the world (at least for a smaller country), failed to intercept some Iranian ballistic missiles, one of which hit an Israeli air base in the Negev desert.

Finally, the economics of offence and defence in this context still heavily favour the former. Iran paid roughly one-tenth of what Israel and its friends had to spend— more than $1.5bn—to mount a successful defence. In a war of attrition, which Iran would seek with Israel given its size advantage and greater strategic depth, that is simply unsustainable and possibly fatal for Israel.

Even Israel's layered missile defence system, which is believed to be the best in the world failed to intercept some Iranian ballistic missiles

Implications for Washington's Gulf partners

Many states are rushing to learn lessons from the Russia-Ukraine and Iran-Israel conflicts, including the Gulf Arab states. Questions of military investments are on the minds of leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha. While each war is unique, and context always matters, the following general advice is worth heeding:

First: how countries can utilise the latest technologies and, importantly, integrate them into their operations matters more than the features of the weapon itself.

Azerbaijan is not known to be a military juggernaut, and yet how it employed UASs as part of a combined approach including a suite of weapons systems to fight Armenia was particularly effective.

Second: as countries invest in greater connectivity, their drones and missiles (and other weapons systems) will become deadlier.

As the US intelligence community's Global Trends 2040 report suggests, "the future of warfare will focus less on firepower and more on the power of information and the way it connects a military's forces through the concepts of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR)."

So, those who have or will develop enhanced capabilities in collection, analysis, and dissemination will have an advantage.

Eduardo Ramon/Getty Images

Read more: Are global tech giants facilitating Israel's war on Gaza?

Third: a diversified force mix, while potentially expensive, is key. This means that nations must have a balanced set of defensive and offensive capabilities to meet their national security objectives.

I believe it is only a matter of time before the Gulf Arab states invest in offensive missile capabilities to complement their missile defences. Like Israel, some Gulf Arab countries are heading toward a stronger deterrent posture because missile defence on its own is not the answer to the Iranian missile problem.

Furthermore, as mentioned previously, missile defence is costly and comes with its own set of technical challenges. While the best missile defence system would be one that is regionally integrated, establishing such a system in the Gulf has been challenging due to political mistrust.

The Gulf Arab states may not be able to buy offensive missiles from the United States and other countries that are members of the Missile Technology Control Regime, but they will find China and Pakistan—who are not part of the regime—to be ready sellers.

Saudi Arabia would not have to start from scratch, given that it recently resumed the development of its ballistic missile arsenal—which started in 1987—with the help of Beijing.

The basics are still unavoidable

Even in an age of unmanned systems and artificial intelligence, there are no shortcuts to military effectiveness. It is important to have the tools, including precision-guided munitions, but it is critical to capably perform the six basic functions of any military: organise, train, equip, deploy, employ, and sustain.

Israel would not have been able to effectively counter Iran's attack had it not for decades task-organised and trained for a mission like this, invested in and produced the right equipment (with US help and money), deployed it in the right places, and employed it to achieve maximum effect (all nations struggle with sustainment, which is why prioritisation, itself an element of organisation, is key).

I cannot think of a more important set of lessons for the Gulf Arab states.

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