The battle for drone supremacy in the Middle East

Drones have undoubtedly become an integral part of warfare in the Middle East, sparking a race among Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and others to dominate the region's skies

The battle for drone supremacy in the Middle East

In the early days of the war in Ukraine, no place seemed safe for Russian soldiers. Kyiv's drones played a crucial role in neutralising Moscow's strikes, with the perception that these inexpensive weapons were decisive in battle.

Two years later, in mid-April, the air defences of Israel and its allies—America, Britain, and France—successfully neutralised approximately 330 drones and missiles launched by Tehran in retaliation to Israel’s strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus two weeks earlier.

On 19 April, Israel conducted enigmatic strikes in Isfahan, deep within Iran, targeting air bases and nuclear sites that Iran considers symbols of regional deterrence and superiority. Throughout and beyond these incidents, drones continue to patrol the skies of the Middle East and other regions worldwide.

This includes strikes by the Houthis and Iranian agents in the Red Sea, threatening global trade and energy supply lines, and the ongoing "shadow war" between Tehran and Tel Aviv.

Drone ascendancy

There is extensive debate among experts and military personnel regarding the effectiveness, cost, and countermeasures associated with drones. Nevertheless, drones have undoubtedly become an integral part of warfare in the Middle East. As a result, they have become a key focus for army commanders and chiefs of staff, sparking a race among Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other nations to dominate the region's skies.

Who will prevail in the battle for drone supremacy in the Middle East? Al Majalla addresses the question in its June cover story, seeking the views of experts and military leaders who share their wealth of knowledge on the subject. They weigh in on just how significant drones have become in modern warfare—whether on land, where battles take place; at sea, where supply lines are crucial to the global economy; or in the air, where spy drones breach borders to gather information and conduct espionage.

Some might argue that drones underscore the continued relevance of primitive and traditional means of warfare: cannons, missiles, and bombs. Blind munitions that terrorise and destroy, or smart munitions that hit their targets in their bedrooms, taking out enemies without demolishing structures. This issue explores these questions in depth.

The lethal combination of drones, artificial intelligence (AI), and terrorism poses the greatest danger.

Lethal combination

The greatest danger lies not in these aspects alone but in a lethal combination: the integration of drones, artificial intelligence (AI), and terrorism. While experts debate the relative importance of missiles versus drones, offensive strikes versus defensive systems like the Iron Dome, individuals, organisations, and terrorists are clandestinely developing a terrifying equation: a drone operated by a "lone wolf" controlled by AI.

This alarming scenario is highlighted by US General Joseph Votel in his interview with Al Majalla. Votel, the general who led the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria and dismantled the organisation's territorial control in March 2019, warns that terrorists both in the region and globally could exploit the "smart, solitary drone."

This concern is echoed by IS researcher Charles Lister. The warning gains additional weight as it coincides with the tenth anniversary of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's announcement of the organisation's formation at the end of June 2014. While the world succeeded in combating IS and dismantling its territorial claims in Iraq and Syria, the organisation adapted its tactics, shifting focus to local arenas in Afghanistan and Africa and began crossing borders and continents. Its recent attack on the outskirts of Moscow added a terrifying element to its arsenal: artificial intelligence, marking a new phase in its terrorist activities.

Currently, terrorists use AI primarily for information purposes. The real concern lies in what comes next: when IS employs new technology for recruitment and execution of attacks. Let us not forget that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, evolved from the idea of using a glider to target a consulate to hijacking civilian aircraft and attacking major complexes and towers in New York.

The rise of the far right

In addition to this topic, there is another special feature this month: the rise of the far right in Europe, the Middle East,  and worldwide. The most recent tests are seen in the European Parliament and Indian elections, but they may not be the last, considering that key elections are set to take place this year, including Britain, South Africa, India, and the United States.

Another far-right government can be found in Israel. This country is bound by the fate of Benjamin Netanyahu, who clings to the premiership to avoid facing accountability. Israel is gripped by the extremism of the far right, which has taken the region hostage. As Israel continues its war on Gaza, its crimes persist. However, sustained efforts are underway to keep the hope of a political solution alive and put the "new Middle East" option on the table. These efforts include pressure for a ceasefire in Gaza, the delivery of humanitarian aid, protests, and European countries recognising the State of Palestine.

Additionally, the June issue features an analysis of Iran's regional and domestic options following President Ebrahim Raisi's death in a helicopter crash. It also includes a review of the economic trajectories in the Middle East and cultural highlights, such as the arrival of the film Noura by Saudi director Tawfiq al-Zaidi at the Cannes Film Festival.

And indeed, there are two paths in the Middle East: war or promise, monopoly or investment, past or future.

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