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Loitering munitions

In September 2019, the ragtag Houthi militia in Yemen attacked Saudi Arabia’s state-owned facility at Abqaiq, ‘the largest crude oil stabilization plant in the world’ ~ their weapon was the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone.


In September 2019, the ragtag Houthi militia in Yemen attacked Saudi Arabia’s state-owned facility at Abqaiq, ‘the largest crude oil stabilization plant in the world’ ~ their weapon was the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone. The presence of the multi-billion dollar and state-of-the-art Patriot missile defence system had failed against the ‘loitering munitions’ that could have cost less than $15,000 to assemble and deploy.

It was the deadliest attack in the region since Saddam Hussein had provocatively torched Kuwaiti facilities in the 1990-91 Gulf crisis. Earlier this year, the Houthi drones exposed yet another ostensibly well-guarded nation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ~ again it was the crude drones that had slipped through. Most recently, the Russians stepped up the bloody onslaught in Ukraine and drones were extensively used. Across the deadly attacks in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Ukraine, there was one commonality, i.e. extensive use of Iranian drones, be it by the Houthi rebels or by the Russian Army.

Counterintuitively, it is the antiquated 1980s-designed contraptions made of cheap commercial materials (including basic wooden elements) that have earned a notorious reputation as ‘Kamikaze Drones’ owing to their inconsistent flight path, small size and slow speed that literally affords the undetectable ‘flying under the radar’ capability. With technology sourced from various dodgy ‘front’ companies with supposedly commercial antecedents, these reverse-engineered marvels have an extremely low radar signature that cocks a snook at modern air defence systems which are designed to intercept missiles following arc-high trajectories.

Even though recent improvements in technology like Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ defence systems (enabled with Artificial Intelligence and 360-degree tracing configuration) are meant to cater to these ‘loitering munitions’ ~ reality is that even these systems can get overwhelmed when multiple drones are launched simultaneously. Many of these Iranian-made crude contraptions had breached even this latest Israeli ‘Iron Dome’ system, as fired by the Palestinian Hamas or Lebanese Hezbollah group. Oddly, it is the rather cost-effective and basic technology of the Iranians that is imposing an asymmetric and unsustainable cost on the defender. Most recently, these Iranian ‘loitering munitions’ were in action again, wreaking havoc in the Ukrainian war. Optics of a much-sanctioned and almost ‘pariahised’ nation like Iran supplying weapons to a still-superpower like Russia in 2022, befuddled many.

From ballistic missiles like Fateh and Zolfaghar (with 300 km and 700 km range respectively) to these infamous drones, all are on the Russian menu. Tehran makes mealy-mouthed justification by insisting that the restrictions on its arms exports as part of the Iran Nuclear Deal expired with the unilateral reneging of the deal by the United States (which is true), yet it maintains that it is not supplying weapons to Moscow for its war on Ukraine. Ukrainian intelligence estimates that up to 1,750 of these relatively inexpensive but effective Iranian drones have already by been delivered and supplies of an additional 2,400 Iranian drones have been agreed upon.

The Iranians understandably do not want to concede the point of supplying drones to Russia as that could jeopardize ongoing talks with the West to reinstate the nuclear deal. These Iranian Kamikazestyle drones (Mohajer-6 and Shahed-136) are following the age-old swarm pattern of 10 to 15 drones in one go (as they did in Saudi Arabia), thereby overloading the Ukrainian defence systems and ensuring that up to a third could hit the intended target.

With the inventory on both sides relatively depleted, these Iranian drones have a supposedly pernicious objective of shoring up the Russian drone arsenal to attack Ukraine’s vulnerable civilian infrastructure, especially its power supply to enforce a hard winter. Ukraine’s Prime Minister confirmed, “They want to take away our population’s electricity, water and heating in the winter”. The fact that almost 40 per cent of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure has been ‘hit’ by these munitions says something about their efficacy. As always, the small size, slow speed and swarm patterns are piercing through the Ukrainian air defences that are inherently programmed for larger and more sophisticated elements that generate traceable radar signatures.

Already pushed to a corner with sanctions, isolation and social unrest, the Iranian regime is making a calculated gambit by literally joining the war in Ukraine, even if officially denied. Many members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are believed to have been killed on the battleground in occupied Ukrainian territory, whilst helping launch these deadly drones on Ukraine. It is an audacious move with severe geopolitical consequences ~ not only does the arms trade with Moscow bring in the much-needed finances for the desperately depleted Iranian economy, but it significantly advances its own role and significance in the region.

The success of Iranian weaponry and its battle tactics help Tehran posture more aggressively and impactfully against its traditional enemies i.e., Arab Sheikdoms, Israel and even against the US forces in the region. It willy-nilly affords more ‘bargaining power to the Iranians in any official talks to thaw the situation and resuscitate the nuclear deal, as Tehran feels that it had been coerced into unadvantageous bargaining positions earlier. It is a win-win equation for both Tehran and Moscow to exploit the situation, albeit for their own reasons.

The Iranian-Russian relationship (with China in the admixture) is theoretically a potent counterpoise to the ‘West’, even if historically unsubstantiated. This tactical relationship belies the wounded past of extreme mistrust during the Tsarist times and the accompanying RussoPersian wars. Later, while the Shah of Iran was on the side of the ‘West’ in the cold war era, after the 1979 revolution, the Iranian ayatollahs had dubbed Moscow as ‘Satan’ and punted in favour of the Afghan Mujahedins in the 1980s.

Much later, Russia was to even support sanctioning Iran over its ostensible nuclear programme ~ however, all that is conveniently forgotten history as topical necessities and rationalities help Tehran forge an unnatural alliance with Russia on Ukraine. The most visible and impactful personification of this equation is the menacing Iranian drones that are raining down on Ukraine and redefining the universal military logic of technological advancement and combat tactics.