A Revolution Once More: Unmanned Systems and the Middle East

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

October 29, 2009

Throughout history, from the wheels that powered the Pharaohs’ chariots to the early use of cannon to batter down the walls of Constantinople, the greater Middle East has long been a cauldron for military change. Today, the latest revolution in technology and war is the growing use of unmanned systems, better described as the “robotics revolution.” And, whether it be the ground robots like the Packbot that search out roadside bombs in Iraq or the Predator drones in the air that shoot missiles into Pakistan, the Middle East is once again the location for a new wave of technologic and military change.

Unmanned systems are machines that operate under a “sense,” “think,” “act” paradigm. That is, they are distinguished from regular machines not just by the fact that there is no human inside, but also by the fact that they carry sensors that gather information about the world around them, processors that use that information to make appropriate decisions, and effectors that act to create change in the world around the machine, such as by movement or firing a weapon. They do not merely remove the human from risk, changing our very concept of the role of a warrior, but in so doing reshape many of the foundational concepts of what war itself entails.

A Short Survey of the Region’s Robots

Over the last decade, the use of unmanned systems in war has literally exploded, with a significant role in the greater Middle East (here defined as the geographic space that extends from Morocco to the Indus River). A quick tour around the region illustrates:

  • The United States

    By far the biggest and most notable operator of unmanned systems in the region is the American military. The US military inventory now includes over 7,000 unmanned drones in the air and another roughly 12,000 on the ground. Illustrating the rapid growth of this field, at the start of the Iraq war in 2003, these numbers were near zero. These systems range in size from tiny drones the size of hummingbirds, designed for Special Operations surveillance, to those with wingspans the length of a football field, which can stay in the air for days. The extent of US interest in continuing its growing use of unmanned systems is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in 2009, the US Air Force will train more pilots for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) than manned fighter or bomber plane pilots combined.

  • Israel

    Israel’s use of unmanned systems hit its highpoint during the recent Gaza incursion, in which drones not only carried out scores of strikes on Hamas leadership targets, but also provided continuous real-time intelligence to units on the ground. The Israeli use is not all that surprising, given that the IDF was one of the early pioneers in the field, first deploying drones against Syrian air defenses in the 1982 Lebanon war. Since then, this sector in Israeli industry has boomed. The most recent industry survey found that 10 different Israeli firms were working on over 40 different types of UAS, while the IDFs military labs have built innovative ground robots, such as a recent model for use in raids on buildings that can spray tear gas to incapacitate targets. This wide range gives Israeli systems an influence well beyond their deployment by the IDF. For instance, the Elbit Hermes, a tactical medium altitude drone has also been used by NATO militaries in Afghanistan, while the IAI Harpy, an ingenious unmanned plane that can double as a cruise missile with a range of over 500km, actually has ended up in Chinese military hands. The sale illustrates how the spread of a new technology can promote tensions in alliances; it led to a diplomatic crisis in which an “outraged” Pentagon leadership demanded the resignation of the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, Amos Yaron, who had approved the sales of the sophisticated drones to a potential future foe of the US.

  • Turkey

    For the last year, the Turkish military has made great strides in its operations against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) along the Northern Iraq border. Much of the credit goes to detailed intelligence provided from US military Predator drones, tasked to assist the Turks as part of an agreement that bolstered the once-tense relations. Moving forward, the Turkish military hopes to decrease this dependency. It has both requested the sale of the latest model Predator system, the MQ-9 Reaper, from the US, as well as worked to bolster its own domestic production. TAI is at work on 6 different types of systems, ranging from the TIHI, a Predator-like surveillance drone, to a smaller aerial system designed to be carried by an individual soldier in their rucksack.

  • Iran

    As a significant military power in the region, Iran has also entered into the unmanned systems field. While public data is limited due to secrecy, the latest industry survey found 6 Iranian firms working on 10 different unmanned aerial systems. The most significant of these is thought to be the state-owned Qods Aeronautics Industries, which makes the Mohajer and Saeqeh drones. While not sophisticated by global standards (the Mohajer for example is thought to have a maximum ceiling of only 2,000 meters), they do give Iranian forces added reach and new tactical options in strikes. For instance, the systems can carry as much as 50kg of explosives, allowing the drones to be used akin to a guided cruise missile like Israel’s Harpy. Iran also has claimed to have built a machine gun armed ground robot, most likely a low–standard version of the American remote-controlled SWORDS system made by Foster Miller.

  • United Arab Emirates

    Rapidly emerging as one of the biggest defense markets in the world, the UAE has also entered with vigor into the unmanned systems field. As a senior UAE military officer commented, “UAVs are an integral part of any efficient combat force. It is not a choice anymore.” In 2007, it formed the Abu Dhabi UAV Investment Company (Audic), which aimed to build out the UAE’s design and manufacturing capabilities of unmanned systems, ultimately expanding to an export roles. Among the programs taking flight is the Yabhon RX-18, a drone similar to the American Predator in size and scale, and the “Al Sber,” which is a version of the S-100 robotic helicopter, built in cooperation with the Austrian company Schiebel.

  • India

    By contrast with the UAE, India has a rapidly growing population on pace to become the largest in the world, which would seem to limit its interest in robotics. However, in 2007, its government set up a 15 year, 250 billion rupee (roughly $6 billion) plan to advance its indigenous design and production of unmanned drones. Stated goals of the plan are to build at least 400 small UAVs and over 100 fighter plane-sized UCAVs. The primary manufacturer at this time is DRDO, building the Rustom, Lakshya, and Nishant, which are all mid-sized surveillance platforms.

  • Pakistan

    If you mention India in defense circles, you also have to then compare it to its rival Pakistan. Its western, Muslim neighbor is well behind the Indians in unmanned technologies, but is also working on unmanned drones, including the Eagle Eye, which is the size of a small plane, and the Huma, which is launched from a truck. Overall, there are 8 Pakistani companies building some 30 different types of mostly small, short range drones. The most notable of these firms is Integrated Dynamics.


As with past technologic revolutions in war, unmanned systems offer up new possibilities, but also new challenges in terms of their implications for politics and conflict in the region.

One of the most notable aspects of unmanned systems in the region is who is absent from the list of key builders and users: larger state powers in the region like Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. This technologic revolution is part and parcel of the changing power dynamics in the region. Robotics offer smaller, but richer population poor states yet another way to expand their strength beyond traditional expectations. Nations like Israel and the UAE may be small in population and geography, but they are utilizing unmanned systems to police borders in a more efficient manner, as well as to gain reconnaissance and strike capabilities well beyond their much larger neighbors.

Secondly, the use of unmanned systems is by no means limited merely to state powers. As we enter the era of “open source” warfare, non-state actors can also build, buy, and use the most sophisticated systems weapons systems. So, while some regional states are falling behind in this new technology, others are not. For instance, groups like Hezbollah have already used them multiple times, including flying at least 4 drones (thought to be Iranian Mohajer systems) past Israeli air defenses. The al Qaida group is also reputed to have explored the use of drones as a means of attack from a distance on an international leadership conference in 2001. Unmanned systems not only give non state groups the strike power and lethal distance once limited to states, but they also expand the roles that potential terrorist recruits can play. That is, one no longer has to be suicidal to carry out a mission with the lethality of a suicide bomber.

This aspect of removing the human costs from a mission worries many, in that it seems to lower the barriers to carrying out such attacks. As the systems proliferate, they will be easier for groups to access and use (the commercial equivalent of the US military’s Raven drone, for instance, can be built for just $1000 USD) and thus likely to be used more often. This dynamic also may prove to be the same with states, with the lowered risk of sending soldiers into harm’s way making leaders more cavalier about when and where they use force. Indeed, the US military has already carried out more drone strikes into Pakistan (over 50 in the last year) than it did with manned bombers during the opening round of the Kosovo War, but unlike that conflict, its legislature had no debates and its media barely covers the operation. The reason is that the strikes are viewed as riskless.

Yet, the use of such technologies may lower risks, but not the costs, which creates another dynamic to pay attention to in the region. Drones’ ability to hover over a target for many hours, without putting a pilot at risk, has improved the accuracy of many attacks and limited civilian casualties, especially compared to manned bomber or artillery strikes in the past. This trend, however, has created greater expectations that war can be carried out without any mistakes or civilian casualties, expectations that are far yet from being fulfilled. For instance, as many as twenty-nine civilians, including eight children, were killed in what appeared to be six missile strikes by Israeli drones in Gaza in December and January, according to a Human Rights Watch report, while media reports claim the same of US strikes in Pakistan. This sets a new challenge for both military doctrine as well as the information operations in the “war of ideas” that surround conflict today. As Marc Garlasco Human Rights Watch commented, “the weapon itself isn’t the problem, it’s the way it’s used.”


The Middle East is such a dynamic region that many lament that there is little that can be predicted with accuracy. But when it comes to weapons and technology, there is one certainty: In the coming years, unmanned systems of greater and greater sophistication will be used in the region in greater and greater numbers. The robotics revolution is at hand and the Middle East won’t fail to be a player in it.