Take the Rorschach drone test

Drones are increasingly transforming warfare, and their emerging use as a tactical and strategic weapon has long-term ramifications for politics. For example, the use of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones helped define the United States’ role in Afghanistan, a role that now appears to be coming to an end. At the same time, countries like Iran are now exporting suicide and surveillance drones to their proxies and allies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Pro-Iranian militias have carried out drone attacks against US forces in Iraq in recent months. This illustrates how unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming a dominant factor in many conflicts, from clashes in the Gaza Strip to Azerbaijan.

The rapid deployment of drones in wartime and the expansion of the military drone market has led to a system of drone alliances. In many ways, this resembles how American and Soviet military technology was exported to the Allies during the Cold War. The difference today is that the growth of drone superpowers largely occurred in the shadow of the United States’ victory in the Cold War. This means that the United States emerged from the 1990s as a world hegemony, advocating a new world order. This world order was shaped by the American drone wars. The United States used drones during the Gulf War, then in the Balkans and during the War on Terror. However, relying on this weapon transformed the American way of warfare. The reluctance of the United States to put the boots on the ground and the fear of casualties were well suited to drone warfare. At the same time, controversies over the targeted drone strikes and assassinations have made the United States suspicious of the export of its deadly new technology. He had become proficient at killing but didn’t want others to do the same.

The result, thirty years after the end of the Cold War, was a group of rising powers that used drones. Turkey has used its drones to carve out a sphere of influence in Syria, Iraq, Qatar and Libya. China was also filling the US power vacuum, selling its CH-4B and Wing Loong drones to countries where the US had influence, such as Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates. United and Pakistan. Chinese drones were now spreading their wings in Asia and the Middle East. Meanwhile, the United States continued to be a drone partner for its traditional allies, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and European NATO countries. Israel, on the other hand, sold platforms all over South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Turkey and Iran used their drones as a means to project their power.

Iranian drone technology has been exported to the Houthis in Yemen, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas used Iranian-style drones in its recent clashes with Israel in May. Houthi drones are used weekly against Saudi Arabia. Iran-linked drones attacked US facilities in Iraq.

The export of drones has created new alliances of drones, mapping the influence of various countries. As countries and groups clashed, the various drone systems took their first test on the battlefield. The results can be seen in at least eleven true “drone wars”. They have shaped both the trajectory of drones and what the future holds. In the drone wars that have already taken place, the results illustrate mixed success.

Israel successfully used drones against terrorists from the 1980s to the 2020s. They became the backbone of Israel’s precision surveillance and strike capability. Israel’s borders are teeming with multiple layers of drones, and Israeli soldiers have a vast array of weapons at their fingertips. Israel has also pioneered air defense like Iron Dome to deal with drone threats today. Israeli companies like Rafael are also creating networks that allow drones to operate autonomously alongside unmanned ground robots, with soldiers using point-and-click on a tablet-like computer to guide the machines. Think of a drone and a robot dog walking into a building occupied by terrorists and mapping it for special forces before a raid.

The drone war has shown that drones can be both a game changer and a false hope. While they provide countries with a variety of options, they don’t necessarily win wars on their own as they are often deployed on a piecemeal basis. Rarely has a country built an entire campaign around drones, instead of using them to augment intelligence during war, or harass enemies, or carry out targeted attacks. Drones can’t carry a lot of weapons, so they can’t decimate enemies. Initially, enemies find them confusing and fear the buzzing robots invisible in the air. But over time, they come to accept that drones are watching them, and they find ways around them, much like Islamic states have dug underground tunnels to avoid drone surveillance.

The most important question for soldiers is whether drones are just a platform with add-ons, such as cameras capable of flying or some sort of cruise missile, or whether campaigns will be structured around the use of drones and the disruption they can cause on the battlefield, a force multiplier like the first tanks or planes were. Drones can give poor countries or insurgents and militants instant air power. They can allow powerful countries to keep their boots on the ground and avoid losses. Between these two extremes lies a way of integrating drones into an armed force so that they can be used on multiple levels. As armies acquire more tactical, human-packable ammunition and large drones that act like airplanes, the full power of drones will be felt. Concepts like swarms and loyal wingers, or the use of drones to transport items are still in the future, even after more than a decade of countries tinkering with them. As stealth drones emerge, they will be decisive in wars between powerful countries, but as we have seen with current drone wars, equal countries rarely go to war with drones.

This leads to questions about the vision for the future of drone warfare.

“The era of fighter jets is over,” Elon Musk said at a 2020 Air Warfare Symposium. The founder of SpaceX, who also pioneered Tesla, predicted that unmanned flight would be the future. He was speaking to the Air Force Association with Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson. Musk claimed that if an F-35 fighter jet was faced with a range-augmented combat drone, the F-35 jet wouldn’t stand a chance. The key issue here was autonomy. An F-35 jet against a drone flown by a person is always a person against a person. At present, there is no combat drone capable of confronting an F-35 jet, nor is it “autonomous” to make its own decisions. But Musk was right to prophesy about the future.

While many have prophesied the end of manned air power, drone commanders in the United States and elsewhere more often predict a world where manned and unmanned planes fly together. This is what the great powers actually do, instead of creating entire masses of drone units, like tanks were grouped together in WWII. There is no “blitzkrieg drone” theory, so to speak, where drones overwhelm the enemy and totally dominate the air. As far as anyone has seen examples of this, it was in Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia and Libya. U.S. commanders believe drones fundamentally transform the battlefield and provide precision capabilities, long endurance, and detailed surveillance, and they can be sacrificed, unlike pilots.

Drones are a kind of Rashomon, where everyone who sees them sees something different. Some people see killer robots while others see a unique platform that can save lives in wartime by not putting pilots at risk and ensuring that precision strikes can be monitored and guided. Pilots may fear being replaced while soldiers on the ground may desire more live feeds on tablets so they can see what drones are seeing in front of them.

While Musk has said drone warfare is the future, US air power experts are more cautious. The air force of tomorrow in 2013, Jeffrey Smith, then commander and dean of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base, noted that while in the past planes were segmented into types, such as fighters and bombers, the new type of mission does not anchor itself in these segmentations. “This transition will be difficult as the very nature of the Air Force has always been to focus on flying planes,” he wrote.

As the battles of Idlib, the Persian Gulf, Syria and Libya have shown, that time was drawing near. Now the race was on to make drones more autonomous and add artificial intelligence to them and their targeting systems. The race is also on to provide better air defense to ground units, such as installations in Iraq and the Gulf, to deal with drone threats from Iran and other proxies and militants in the region.

Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a doctorate. of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and Editor at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of After Daesh: America, Iran and the fight for the Middle East (forthcoming Gefen Publishing). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.

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