War of the drones

Technology is fast changing the military-political landscape, writes Ted Crawford.

A recent headline in the Financial Times reads: “Saudi Arabia attack signals growing threat of drone warfare in Mideast. Region’s states are struggling to counter cheap and rapidly evolving weapons that can evade detection” (September 18). This is a very interesting piece, which shows the faint technical-economic parallels of the present with World War II.

Both the long U-boat anti-shipping war and in particular the earliest drone or ‘doodle bugs’ period of four-five months in 1944 were economically asymmetric, in that the resources needed for the offensive were vastly less than for the defence against them. The doodle bugs were of steel, could be detected by radar and downed by existing weapon systems. Present-day drone attacks seem far cheaper, as far as contemporary weapons are concerned, than the doodle bugs, are far more accurate and are also improving rapidly - largely by using new software - and do not need large resources of forced labour to build massive launching platforms, as did VI machines during World War II. Indeed the FT says that the Yemeni Houthis may be using 3D printing machines for many manufactured drone parts.

In World War II, of course, attacks were successfully countered because the massive economic resources of the USA were so much greater than any other combatant - far more indeed than all the Axis states combined. At one period in 1943-44 the American Liberty ships were being launched at a faster rate than Nazi submarines could even theoretically sink merchant vessels. Japanese Kamikaze machines were also cheap, but needed, unlike a drone, a human pilot, who was often untrained and so less skilled than a present-day chip or two with clever software. The pilots did not, after all, improve with experience.

There are various ways of detecting drones, but the FT article points out that you need all of these methods to be sure of stopping them. The detection methods are acoustic, infra-red, electro-optical, radio-frequency and radar, but “the cost of these methods are inflated by their relative scarcity”. In addition the numerous possible targets in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States - such as the huge oil refineries, pipelines and special oil loading ports - are impossible to conceal and need huge numbers of very expensive weapons on their perimeters to defend them. For example, the methods of destroying these little drones may involve missiles costing $3-4 million, compared to a drone worth maybe $1,000 - and that is before we consider the cost of detection mentioned above. The Pentagon advisor, Bilal Y Saab, quoted by the FT thinks that the offensive has the advantage. I sense that there is no technical solution available or even in prospect at the moment - though I must qualify this, for clearly attempts are being made to find a technical answer and very great resources are being mobilised.

On this theme, the FT featured another interesting (and worrying) article on October 23, headlined “‘Hard kill’ drones mark new front for Silicon Valley”. They are described as “hard kill” because they are designed to smash into drones and thus bring them down, but their cost is still quite unclear - possibly even to the firms developing them. The company mentioned is a defence start-up called Anduril, which “is willing to pursue controversial government and military contracts that the rest of Silicon Valley is too squeamish to handle”. The company - founded in 2017 by Palmer Luckey, who donated to a Donald Trump campaign group - was working for the secretive firm, Palantir Technologies, which “has been criticised for working for the US government on projects that … threaten people’s privacy”. Both companies are financially backed by the multi-billionaire, Peter Thiel, considered by many to be a somewhat sinister figure. Anduril also provides software for the Lattice Surveillance system, controlling the frontier along the Mexican border.

The Israeli method of countering such drone attacks in the Gaza strip - which are much less sophisticated than those used against the Saudis - seems simple, but quite effective: the use of terror. The number of Palestinian civilian casualties are totally disproportionate to those of the Israelis, and the Palestinian wounded often suffer greatly (the Geneva Convention does not cover ‘terrorists’, after all). However brave, bitter and fanatic the Gazans may be, eventually they will want to call it a day long before the Israeli government gets tired of killing them and their families. There seems to be precious little pressure within Israel to temper vengeance and internationally such pressure depends on the political context within and between the western powers.

Here the mass media play down settler methods and exaggerate the atrocities of the resistance, and no western power does any more than blame both sides equally. Of course, if such drone-type methods did succeed in killing a few thousand US servicemen in one blow, the American response might be terror on a super-industrial scale (though hopefully short of the nuclear option) and would include determined attempts to kill the leaders of whoever was believed to be responsible. Martyrdom, including that of women and children, might cease to be so attractive, whatever the delights of paradise.


However, the international context is, of course, very different today in one important respect: it is now very clear Trump has no wish to get militarily involved in the Middle East and few North American patriots among the voters seem to want to pay the ‘blood tax’. Any considerable losses for the benefit of the Saudis and Israelis would be exceedingly unpopular with the American electorate. That also seems true of any possible alternative president after 2020.

There is a further point. During World War II the Allied powers could muffle new ‘super weapons’ by the sheer number of more conventional munitions, but, while this is still possible in theory, in practical terms the cost might be so enormous that it would probably not be a serious option. Even cheap hard-kill missiles might still need a massively expensive detection system and be far more costly than the drones they were targeting. Of course, if the missiles were reusable, each destroyed drone would be more cheaply dealt with, but this I doubt, given the profit-maximising Californian firms.

However, the resources needed to do this today may be less susceptible to assessment in simple numerical terms: eg, the quality of software experts among opponents - Iranian universities apparently turn out many of them. It took at least two years of intensive effort from a joint US-UK investigation to discover that Turla, a Moscow spy unit, had hacked Iran’s OilRig, another spy unit, to launch cyber attacks, apparently from Iran, into at least 35 countries. This seems quite a compliment to Iranian abilities by the Russians. All this information came from a US source - one Paul Chichester of the US National Security Agency, who added that this sort of thing was very difficult to do, but the Russians had managed it. This might all be fake American news, but ...

From this information it is apparent that the Iranians might often have been blamed for attacks which were in fact Russian and, just as important, that Moscow may have understood a great deal of what the ayatollahs were up to. What this may augur for the future is very difficult to ascertain, as there appear to be far too many unknowns - not merely for readers of the Weekly Worker, but for all the great powers. In the short run there will be huge uncertainty, both technical and political, which must inhibit vigorous imperialist efforts, and for this reason I believe there will be an element of restraint from all sides - assuming they will display a degree of rationality.

In the longer run, the future role, wealth and technological capacity of China will surely start to shift the balance of technology and world affairs far faster than occurred in the last great military-technical revolution in the 60-year period from about 1860 to 1920. At the end of those 60 years things would have been quite unrecognisable to the military men of the mid-19th century.