June 30, 2021

Summer days in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, are unbearably hot. But this year, for the city’s residents the 44-degree heat is the least of their concerns. In recent weeks, this usually safe municipality has become a chaotic front in the Middle East’s increasingly deadly drone wars, as new technologies are exploited by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias.

The latest attack came on Saturday morning, as four explosive-laden drones flew into the east of the city, buzzing menacingly before slamming into a hilly area northeast of Erbil. They were designed to explode on impact, like a kamikaze plane. This time, the residents of Erbil were fortunate; despite three hitting a house, there were no fatalities.

It was, however, enough to concern American forces in the area. The US Consulate in Erbil issued a forthright statement, claiming it was a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. And on Monday, American F-15s retaliated by carrying out “defensive” airstrikes against pro-Iranian militias in Syria near the Iraqi border. A White House spokesman explained: “The targets were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.”

The use of drones in the Middle East is, of course, nothing new. Last January, for example, the US used a Reaper to kill the Iranian Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani. Yet this most recent attack at the weekend points to a disturbing shift in how these killing machines are being deployed: the US is no longer just a military power capable of taking out terrorists with sophisticated drones; it is now a target for them, too.

As I explain in my new book, Drone Wars, the answer to that question requires us to return to the 1980s, to the start of the global arms race for drone technology. At that time the West was gripped by movies such as Terminator and Robocop which provided a glimpse into a futuristic world of menacing machines, from computers that take over spacecraft to those that enslave humanity. Meanwhile, in military bases across the world, a very real revolution was taking place.

During the Reagan years, the US emerged from the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower — a supremacy that was ultimately borne out in 1991, when America’s hi-tech military destroyed the Soviet-equipped Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. That war, more than any other, showcased how modern military technology, particularly stealth fighters and cruise missiles, could decimate a powerful enemy.

The use of drones, though, dates back to 1982, when Israeli defence experts were trying to find a way to protect their air force from Syrian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that were based in Lebanon. Their innovative solution? A drone, albeit in a rudimentary form: Israel’s remotely piloted aircraft, called Scout, was initially a giant model airplane that could provide intelligence on the location of dangerous SAM batteries.

Almost four decades later, the use of drones remains enticing for several reasons — the most obvious being that they can fly in dangerous airspace and be shot down, or crash due to bad weather, without risking a pilot’s life. They can also fly for hours, sometimes even days, monitoring a target.

Indeed, drone operators often say that their vehicles are good for “dull, dirty and dangerous” missions. However, the reality is that while drone technology was developed by Israel and the US in the 1990s, drones didn’t actually go on dangerous missions until recently. In fact, the US only started to use drones to carry out airstrikes in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen under President Obama. By then, the drones deployed by America bore little resemblance to Scout. The US Predator — an archetype of the military drones used today in Iran, China and other countries — was 27 feet long with a wingspan of 48 feet. It would grow into the Reaper, a drone that can carry hundreds of pounds of missiles and fly 200mph for more than 1,000 miles, staying aloft for 14 hours.

But as the West is now discovering, it was far from alone in carrying out drone research. Indeed, in recent years, Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS have all acquired Iranian drone technology — and are using it to devastating effect.

In March 2017, I was in Iraq covering the final push by the Iraqi army to drive ISIS out of Mosul, the country’s second largest city. When the Iraqi army entered Mosul using American-made Humvees they encountered a deadly surprise: ISIS had developed drones that could drop grenades on to unsuspecting Iraqi troops. Worryingly, they appeared to be modified quadcopters, the kind that can be acquired by anyone on Amazon. The Iraqis were understandably spooked by the drone threat. We stayed in alleyways, and crawled through homes, trying to avoid sniper fire and listening for the buzzing of this new aerial menace.

By that time the drone threat had been reduced as ISIS’s troops were surrounded and were largely cut off from their supplies. However, the fact that a terrorist group had still managed to acquire a mini air force was striking; after all, it confirmed that drones have become a battlefield threat, as well as a military resource. And as a result, the West needs to start thinking not just about how to deploy them, but how to defend against them.

The truth, however, is that today’s defences are often woefully inadequate. Earlier this month, US Marines trained with giant “drone defender” guns that look more like a ray gun from some bizarre futuristic movie than what an efficient modern military would use. Other “counter-UAS” solutions are being developed, ranging from missiles and microwave weapons to lasers and machine guns that fire thousands of rounds at drones. But the fact that Iranian drones have been able to get around US defences and target everything from fields near a planned consulate to a secret CIA hangar in Iraq illustrates how much more needs to be done.

Indeed, the question now is whether countries like Iran and China — the world’s leading exporter — will pioneer the next stage of this evolution or whether the US and Western countries will learn from their experience in Iraq and start deploying new drone technology. China, India and Russia are all now experimenting with AI-powered drone swarms that attack as a unit to overwhelm an enemy. To put it simply, this is not an arms race we can afford to lose.