Houthi attacks signal new chapter in drone warfare

The main difference in the UAV attacks in Syria by terrorist groups and the latest Houthis attack is that, in the latter case, the remote pilot was not required to be close to the target.
Sunday 26/05/2019
New level of sophistication. Remains of a UAV-X drone flown by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on display in Hodeidah. (AP)
New level of sophistication. Remains of a UAV-X drone flown by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on display in Hodeidah. (AP)

SHANGHAI - For the first time since the Yemeni conflict began in 2015, weaponised unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, have been deployed by the Houthi forces.

The Iran-backed Houthis are using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in an unconventional manner to offset the Saudi-UAE coalition’s overwhelming military advantage. Re-engineered Chinese commercial drones and military UAVs, militarised Qasef-1 model, have been deployed as scouting platforms and to harass the coalition’s anti-missile systems. A 2018 UN report stated that the Houthis drones share near-identical design and construction characteristics with the Ababil-T model, manufactured in Iran.

In addition, UAVs have been used in targeted killings, as happened in January during a Saudi-led military parade in Aden.

In mid-May, the Houthis’ drone warfare reached a new level of sophistication.

Oil tankers and pipelines were targeted by remote-controlled bombs that forced Aramco to suspend pipeline operations. Two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati tankers in international waters near the Strait of Hormuz were hit during a coordinated drone strike.

The Houthis claimed responsibility for a drone attack that hit two Aramco oil drilling pumping stations west of Riyadh. Despite the Saudis claiming there was no disruption in East-West pipeline oil production, the Brent crude index indicated that the cost of a barrel increased slightly more than $1 in one day.

Those attacks showed the purpose of the armed drone attacks has taken a different trajectory: economic warfare, writing a new chapter in the history of drone warfare.

The threat to deploy UAVs to block strategic waterways, through which much of the world’s seaborne oil passes, is a concrete possibility.

In addition to the Strait of Hormuz, other naval choke points such as the Strait of Malacca could be targets of attacks by UAVs or unmanned submarine drones. International insurance groups have begun to factor in these types of risks.

The cost of disruptions caused by drones, whether real or imagined, adds to the list of issues, including risk assessment, prevention and mitigation, that the energy sector needs to urgently address.

Re-engineered Chinese-made commercial drones are in widespread use by militant groups in Syria. In Yemen, the UAV race between low-tech drones and military-grade UAVs created a financial dilemma in the search to find a cost-efficient solution to deal with low-cost remote-controlled threats.

Almost three decades ago, the US programme to use drones in assassinations in Iraq and Afghanistan wrote the first chapter in the

book of aerial drone warfare doctrine.

Recent attacks on economic targets have started a new chapter in drone war history. The main difference in the UAV attacks in Syria by terrorist groups and the

latest Houthis attack is that, in the latter case, the remote pilot was not required to be close to the target.

The level of sophistication reached in the Yemeni conflict is related to the capability to control the drone’s flight pattern to a target several hundred kilometres into Saudi territory. The need for the drone’s remote operator to be close to the target has been superseded by commercial satellite links.

Since the last decade, drones have become increasingly recognised as a game changer on the conventional battlefield as well as in the struggle against terrorism. The upper hand once held by national armies has been reversed in favour of insurgents in terms of economic efficiency.

Widening the conflict to economic targets, which in arms control theory is called a

“countervalue” strategy — as opposed to “counter-force,” which focuses on military targets — is going to exponentially increase the cost to defend them.

Take, for example, the economic consequences generated by nothing more than the rumour that drones had been spotted in Britain’s Gatwick Airport. The ensuing panic resulted in more than 140,000 passengers stranded for days and the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights.

In this respect, the effectiveness of a countervalue drone strategy will be multiplied by the psychological effect that this type of attack induces. In Afghanistan, the targeted killing programme led by the United States has already generated a new kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that is related to the distinctive hum of the propeller on the Predator UAV.

When the sound of an approaching UAV is heard, the local population is aware that some kind of guided bomb is going to hit shortly. This was precisely the terror effect during the blitz of London that was generated by the interval between silence that followed after the V-1 “buzz’’ bomb’s ram jet stopped and the inevitable explosion, the location of which was unpredictable.

The Syrian conflict and the Yemeni civil war have ignited the race to integrate commercial components available on the open market with military-grade parts, which when coupled with commercial satellite communications has resulted in a new level of design and operational sophistication.

The predicted new wave of a swarm of drones launched in a coordinated attack against counter-value targets has not happened — yet. This chapter, unfortunately, is going to be written in the not-too-distant future.

The time remaining to regulate, mitigate or control autonomous weapon systems, especially with regards to UAVs guided by artificial intelligence, is running out.