The study for this paper adopted a qualitative research method, combining both secondary and primary sources. Secondary sources were examined to develop a comprehensive picture of the information available and consisted mainly of research papers, journal articles, academic publications and newspaper articles. Primary sources were comprised mainly of semi-structured individual interviews, conducted between April and September 2018, to fill the gaps identified in the secondary sources.
Key interviewees were met in person in Israel, the UAE, Turkey and China, and contacted by telephone for discussions on Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran. They were selected among UAV and air force experts on the specific countries, as well as policymakers and representatives of the companies identified in the secondary literature as responsible for producing or selling armed drones in the region. Most manufacturers, but also several decision-makers, refrained from discussing the research with the authors, given that military development is often a closely kept national security secret. This was broadly anticipated and the potential issue was mitigated by posing specific procurement or policy questions to the experts with whom discussions took place. As requested by those interviewed who highlighted the sensitivity of the topic, quotes and references have been anonymised.
The emerging conclusions were tested at a private roundtable discussion in London at RUSI in November 2018, which brought together the authors and a range of leading country and subject-matter experts. In particular, the roundtable gathered experts on defence and security in Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE, based both in the region and in the US, together with experts on lethal autonomy and remote warfare, based in London or the US.
The research questions for this study were:
What are the flows of UAV technology from and to the Middle East and their uses?
Which norms, practices and methodologies are exported to and/or used by Middle Eastern powers in the deployment of UAV technology?
In order to bound these research questions and to distinguish the use of UAVs from the widespread adaptation of small ‘tactical’ drones based on civilian quadcopters and model aircraft by state and non-state groups, this study focuses on UAVs which fit the ‘Category 1’ and ‘Category 2’ definitions of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), where Category 1 is defined as those capable of a range of at least 300km with a payload of at least 500kg, and Category 2 are those capable of a range of at least 300km, regardless of payload.
The research focused on the seven countries in the Middle East that operate or simply possess drones that fall under these categories – Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, and Turkey.
Given the nature of the findings, the paper divides these countries into two groups, based on the discernible impact of armed UAVs on the employment and understanding of airpower within each country after introduction into service.
The criteria determining which category countries fall into followed three major lines of enquiry:
Has the introduction of armed UAVs into service conferred new capabilities that lead to the ability to exhibit new operational norms and behaviours?
Are armed UAVs seen as useful for dealing with targets in higher-threat operating environments which might preclude the use of more traditional manned fighters due to an unacceptable risk of loss or the lack of available combat search-and-rescue capabilities in the event of a downed airman?
Are armed UAVs seen as a useful tool for avoiding the political and/or potentially escalatory ramifications of extra-territorial operations? Is the perception that the use of armed drones will not have the same reaction as a manned aircraft? Have operations been conducted that are politically unlikely to have been approved without armed UAVs?
The first group includes countries for which the acquisition of armed drones has not resulted in a visible change in the way they view their own airpower and the projection of power through strikes. These are Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia, for whom the answer to the questions above is negative.
The second group includes countries which have exhibited changes in the way they employ airpower following their acquisition of armed drones. These are Iran, the UAE and Turkey, for whom the answer to the questions above is mainly positive.