Drone Wars: The Poor Man’s Air Force

A few years ago, I was intrigued to read that President Barack Obama ordered 10 times more drone strikes than his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Since their appearance, drones have become omnipresent on the battlefield and not a week goes by without a news article about their feats.

Incidentally, drones have played a role in the war of aggression launched against Ukraine by Russia in the last few weeks. They are also used in several theaters around the world. In a nutshell, “the drones developed by Israel and then revolutionized by America have now proliferated everywhere”, writes Seth J. Frantzman in Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier Books).

The author writes that everyone wants drones, notably because they are cheaper than airplanes and reduce the potential for human casualties. They have become the “poor man’s air force”. Hence, their use by Houthi rebels in Yemen in the cross-fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia.About this conflict, the Jerusalem Post correspondent and analyst reminds us of a chilling episode when Houthi drones attacked an Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia – “some 1,000 kilometers from Houthi frontlines in Yemen” – in August 2019. The kingdom which ranked in 6th place in terms of military expenditures in the world in 2020 was defenseless in front of this incursion. A real military representation of the biblical tale of David versus Goliath and a manifestation that superpowers are not immune from an attack performed by a “poor man’s air force”.

It is fascinating to read how the United States lost the advantage in the drone wars, notably because of a lack of strategy, billions of dollars indecently wasted and the conservative mindset of the military. After the Cold War, Washington emerged as a hegemon and used drones to conduct operations “[…] in the Gulf War, then the Balkans, and during the war on terror.” But controversies tied the hands of the Americans and rising foreign powers took advantage of it to occupy the military airspace.

In that regard, one of my favorite stories in the book is about Turkey. The “[…] drone revolution [in that country] had happened quickly and quietly, illustrating how a country can build up a drone air force relatively easily with a bit of pluck, copying what works elsewhere. […] A young Turkish innovator named Selcuk Bayraktar became the “dronefather” of Turkey’s arsenal.” In 2016, Bayraktar married Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s daughter. Whenever you read or watch something about the performance of the Bayraktar TB2 drones somewhere in Ukraine in the coming days or weeks, you will know where it comes from.

Needless to say, the United States and Israel are no longer the sole players in “droneland”. Apart from Turkey, China, Russia, and Iran – just to name these – are also very active in the field. But Israel is still ahead of the curve with the efforts invested to develop the technology to neutralize the drones. Just like they did to intercept missiles launched against its population with the invention of the Iron Dome in 2011, the employees of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems have invented the Drone Dome.

Reading Drone Wars reminded me of The Weapon Wizards by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, which I devoured and reviewed on this blog. “All of Israel’s most cutting-edge drone technology, and the technologies to counter them, are concentrated in this small country among people who usually worked together in the army or university”, writes the author. A small country on the map, but a land that looms large in developing the technology required to meet the challenges of the future.

I’m sorry for those who have already read it in previous posts but let me repeat how prescient the Duke of Wellington was when he expressed the importance of “guessing what was at the other side of the hill”. The drone was invented in the garage of “an Israeli named Abraham Karem” in the early 1980s and its first military exploit was to contribute to the destruction of the Syrian air defense during the 1982 war in Lebanon.

Let’s be honest about it, writing about drones – or any subject related to science and technology – could be a tedious subject for a profane. But Seth J. Frantzman not only offers a very accessible style, but he also has the knack of humanizing the subject. He also knows the ground because he walked it, like when he “went on a night mission with Israeli Skylark drone operators” who carried their coveted tool in a large backpack.

The drones may be “dull, dirty and dangerous”, but they are on the battlefields to stay. Hence, the significance of this excellent book which, without a doubt, should reside on the bookshelves of any military affairs enthusiast or whoever is fascinated with ingenuity.

_______

Seth J. Frantzman in Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future, New York, Bombardier Books, 2021, 288 pages.

I would like to express my utmost gratitude to Adria Iwasutiak of Simon & Schuster Canada for her continued collaboration with this blog and for providing me with a copy of this book.

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