The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

UAVs, which used to be supportive weapons systems, are rapidly maturing into decisive weapons. Israel now faces threats from the entire spectrum of unmanned aerospace vehicles, ranging from Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) to Kamikaze drones and precision ballistic missiles.

Introduction: UAVs in the Battle Labs of the Mediterranean Basin

The Middle East and North Africa are today the proving grounds of future wars. These two regions have been for generations the tradition battlegrounds of competing empires. Ever since the outbreak of what is called in black humor “The Arab Spring”, they are roiling with inter denominational, inter ethnical and international military confrontations. At the time of writing wars rage in Yemen, in Syria, in Libya and in the Caucasus region that involve religious communities, state actors and foreign powers either directly or via proxies and mercenaries. While the intensity of those ongoing conflicts have not reached that of full scale wars like Vietnam or the Iran Iraq war of the 1980’s, the current belligerents throw into battle the best and latest weapons that they own or that their sponsors supply them. This opens a window into the future of the battlefield. Generally speaking, the continuous warfare in the regions brought to the fore two categories of weapons systems that had hitherto played relatively minor and supportive roles in previous eras. The first is the steep trajectory type of standoff, unmanned class weapons namely rockets and ballistic missiles. The second is the Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV). While missiles usually bask in the limelight due in part to one of their roles, namely as nuclear delivery platforms, it is by now appropriate to turn the attention on the growing role of UAVs in the wars of the future. Armed and attack UAV’s, until now considered as secondary and supportive tools, are fast assuming the status close to that of decisive weapons. This paper will describe this metamorphosis and the way it became more apparent in the ongoing regional wars.

UAVs have already seen action during WWII, in Vietnam and in Israel’s wars starting from the War of Attrition of the late 1960’s along the Suez Canal. Today there exist an immense variety of UAV types in a large spectrum of roles. Small quad helicopters, usually called “drones”, are used as toys, as surveillance platforms, as commercial package delivery flying transports and even as bomb carrying platforms. Another class of military UAVs is the small self-piloted and self-guided aircraft, usually called “cruise missiles. The acronym “UAV” is usually applied only to propeller driven unmanned vehicles of varying sizes, from hand launched aircraft to huge, multi ton weight vehicles that require regular runways for takeoff and landing.

Overwhelmingly, jet propelled UAVs are called “cruise missiles” regardless of their size and function.  To complicate the issue even further, there are some jet powered systems that are classified as “UAVs” and not “cruise missiles”. Thus, “Kamikaze” UAVs that are jet propelled are called “cruise missiles” but “Kamikaze” UAVs that are propeller driven are called “UAVs”. At the same time, jet propelled UAV’s that are designed to return to base after completing their mission – which could be ground attack – are still called “UAVs”. Unfortunately, there is no agreed terminology for the various types of UAVs. The popular literature lumps them all together as “drones”.   

UAVs have been used in combat ever since the mid-20th century. The modern UAV that combines small dimensions with persistent visual reconnaissance was invented in Israel. It originated from radio controlled amateur aircraft models fitted with commercial grade still cameras first used to obtain near real time information on the deployment of the Egyptian army on the western bank of the Suez canal during the War of Attrition. The success of the first jury built systems paved the way  to the development of more sophisticated UAVs by the Israel’s defense industries (dubbed  at the time as “Small Pilotless Aircraft”). Israel’s first generation of purpose built UAV’s won international fame following operation “Mole Cricket 19” at the onset of the 1982 Lebanon War, during which they played the key role in the destruction of Syria’s air defenses with no losses to the Israel Air Force. This success generated considerable demand for UAVs and Israel’s defense industries who had  pioneered this new form of warfare won large export contracts. Remarkably, the first UAVs used by the US in combat were provided by Israel and were operated by the US Navy during the 1991 Gulf War to spot the fire of its naval guns.

Generally speaking, development of UAVs requires considerable less money and time than that of manned combat aircraft. Thus, the growing demand for military UAVs generated a plethora of indigenous programs in numerous industrialized and less industrialized countries. The US, after buying Israeli UAVs, developed its own systems and is currently dominant in the international UAV market. Close behind are the Chinese. In the Middle East too there are by now several other countries, apart from Israel, that engage in UAV development. The most important ones are Iran and Turkey whose UAV’s have by now reached world level of sophistication and were baptized in battle. This paper will trace the history of the Iranian and Turkish UAV development, review their operational record to date in the battlefields of the Mediterranean basin and summarize the implications for Israel. In brief, the main implication is that Israel should regard the UAVs and precision missile as two aspects of the same threat of standoff, unmanned air threats.

Iran’s UAVs: Strategic Force Multipliers[1]

Iran’s initial motivation to build indigenous UAVs was prompted by the 1980s war with Saddam’s Iraq. Like in Israel’s case during the War of Attrition, Iran too had the urgent need for real time visual intelligence from the other side of the frontline. The first Iranian home built UAVs first went into action in 1985 and immediately proved their usefulness. But the major drive for Iran’s adaption of the UAV as a primary weapon system came from the “war of the oil tankers” that was launched by Iran during the last two years of the conflict (1987-1988). With the land campaign being gradually turning unfavorable, Iran launched a naval and air campaign to block Kuwait’s oil export. Kuwait was not involved in the ongoing hostilities, yet it provided financial support to Saddam Hussein. With its oil tanker making their way along the Persian Gulf coming under attack, Kuwait re flagged its entire tanker fleet as US vessels, and the US Navy deployed in force in the Persian gulf to protect them against Iran’s missiles, mines, warships and naval commando units. This escalation and the ensuing large scale fighting (kept confidential for decades) resulted in the US Navy inflicted heavy losses to Iran’s navy and air force. Iran’s leadership soberly concluded that it had no chance to withstand US military power in a conventional, symmetric warfare. Hence, the developed their own version of asymmetric war doctrine which h calls for flooding the battlefield with swarms of cheap and easily replicable unmanned weapon systems. From this decision grew the missile and UAV industries of Iran.

Iran’s defense industries were in an embryonic shape at the time of the 1978 Islamic Revolution. They had no previous experience in aerospace development and production, and they lacked indigenous suppliers of aircraft engines and avionics. US and international sanctions applied against the new Islamic regime blocked the access to the armament and component markets in the industrialized world. Iran’s solved this problem by developing a prolific network of illegal acquisitions through third countries. One example out of many was Iran’ sophisticated way of smuggling in 61 German made aero engines for its UAVs through French intermediaries, who provided the German export authorities with bogus end use certificates. A more recent incident was the covert acquisition of small jet engines for cruise missiles from a Czech manufacturer. In a 2016 Tehran arms exhibition an exactly similar motor was touted as an “Iranian indigenous motor.” The Czech company denied that it has ever sold such motors of their technology to Iran. It stands to reason that the sophisticated illicit technology acquisition organizations of Iran manage to get hold of some examples (the motor is freely sold in the civilian aviation market) and Iran’s jet engine industry that has matured over the years produced its own “Chinese copies” of the item.

Apart from self-learning by trial and error, the Iranians managed to extract valuable information from any foreign UAV that fell in their hands. In 2011, an American RQ 170 UAV- the latest word in stealth technology – mysteriously landed intact inside  Iran. The circumstances that led to the safe landing of this large and sophisticated vehicle inside hostile territory remain vague to this day. Nevertheless, for the Iranians this was a treasure trove of UAV technologies. In 2014 the commander of the IRGC air and space force, General Amir Hadjizadeh, announced that his forces had downed an Israeli “Hermes 450” UAV near the nuclear facility in Natanz. From the images of the debris published together with this announcement it was hard to identify the vehicle’s type and origin. Some media sources claimed that the UAV came from some unidentified central Asian country. In any case, assuming that it was indeed a foreign vehicle (and no an Iranian one accidently shot down in a “blue on blue” accident), it stands to reason that Iran’s UAV gained some more priceless information. In 2019 the Iranians shot down a giant Global Hawk reconnaissance UAV belonging to the US Navy. Although the aircraft broke down to pieces, once more Iran’s engineers were provided with s bonanza of information on cutting edge technologies in global range UAVs. It stands to reason that they are still digesting this rich trove of data.

Iran’s UAV industry is currently one of the most prolific in the world, fielding a plethora of new types every year. Officially it is Iran’s Army (“Artesh”) ground forces that operate the UAVs, rather than the IRGC (“Sepah”) which is in charge of all strategic weapons in Iran. This perhaps indicates that Iran’s military planners originally saw their UAV’s as tactical, supportive battlefield weapons, rather than strategic ones. In practice, the IRGC makes use of Iran’s fleet of UAVs although it’s not clear whether it operates them independently or whether they are loaned to it by the Army. Be it as it may, Iran uses its UAV to export its revolution across the Middle East – a strategic use by any measure.

Generally speaking, Iran deploys two distinct families of UAVs: surveillance/ground attack reusable vehicles used for real time optical intelligence gathering and for ground attack, and single use “kamikaze” UAVs for precision ground attack, which are cruise missiles by any other name.

The first of the reusable surveillance UAVs was  the “Ababil” in its various configurations. This is a rather smallish machine, some of which have been supplied to the Lebanese Hizballah. Four such vehicles were launched from Southern Lebanon towards Israel’s hinterland during the last week of the  2016 Lebanon War. Two of the UAVs were shot down by Israeli F-16 fighters, one fell in Israel not far from the Lebanese border due to technical malfunction, and the fourth one disappeared with no trace.

Currently, Iran’s most sophisticated and significant system is the “Shahed 139” medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UCAV. This aircraft, resembling the US “Predator” in dimensions and configuration, is powered by a 100 horse power, Austrian made “Rotax” piston motor, the same as the one use by the US “Predator” as well as Israel’s Hermes 900. The Iranians used this UCAV in Syria for supporting the Assad forces and attacking ISIS targets. Two “Shahed 139s” were shot down on June 2019 by US fighter aircraft in North Syria, when they were conducting surveillance of ISIS targets (The Iranian UCAVs came too close for comfort to US units operating in the vicinity). During the same month, another “Shahed 139” was shot down by the Pakistani Air Force while flying above Baluchistan, where a low key confrontation between the Iranian government and local Baluchi militias is going on for years. Reportedly, “Shahed 139s” were deployed for a time in the T4 airbase in central Syria which was attacked several time by Israel, according to foreign sources. A runway long enough to accommodate “Shahed 139” UAVs was observed in Syria near the Lebanese border, perhaps to allow Hizballah teams, participating in the Syrian civil war, to operate such UCAVs against anti Assad forces.

Less prominent type of surveillance/attack UCAV is the “Saegheh-2” delta wing aircraft resembling the captured US RQ 170 but smaller in dimensions and powered by a piston rather than a jet engine. A UCAV of this type was shot down by an Israeli helicopter gunship above the Jordan valley in February 2018.

Among the second category of “kamikaze” attack UAV, one of the typical types is the short range “Raad 85”, but the “Ababil” too is used for crashing into ground targets. According to IDF disclosures, the Hizballah launched “Ababils” during eh 2016 Lebanon War carried and explosive charge of 30 Kgs and were programmed to crash into cities deep within Israel.

Iran makes extensive use of its UAVs for expanding its influence in the Middle East. Apart from providing complete UAV systems to its regional proxies, it designs “tailored” UAV systems that can be smuggled to them or even manufactured by them in local workshops. There are indications of the existence of a dedicated design center in Iran’s aerospace industry to develop “tailored” UAVs for the Islamic Republic allies and proxies. Beyond the rationale of matching the weapons to local conditions, the main motivation of “tailored” UAVs is to maintain deniability allowing Iran to claim its non-involvement and its supposedly adherence to UN imposed embargoes of weapon deliveries to war zones. One such example is the Hamas fleet of UAVs produced in its workshops in Gaza. During the Gaza war of 2014 (Operation Protective Edge), Hamas launched several UAVs towards Tel Aviv. These aircraft were apparently designed especially for the Gaza military organization and outwardly does not resemble any known Iranian type. Two of them were shot down by Patriot air defense systems, but Hamas claimed that one managed to reach Tel Aviv and transmit images back to its control center in Gaza.

Yet the most prominent case of “tailoring” purpose built UAVs for Iran’s allies is the war in Yemen. The Houthi regime is backed to the hilt by Iran in its war against the internationally recognized Government of Yemen, which still controls the southern part of the country thanks to its Saudi sponsors. The Houthis deploy a variety of UAVs both for reconnaissance and “Kamikaze” attacks against ground targets. Iran’s “Tailor shop” is working full blast in the Yemeni war. The Houthis cover story is that they have managed to establish a UAV industry of their own, replete with its own engineering capability to design and manufacture complex UAVs – a miraculous and hardly credible achievement for one of the least industrialized nations in the world.  In general, Houthi UAVs look different from Iranian vehicles, except of few cases where Iranian types of UAVs have been openly deployed in Yemen as for example the large “Shahed 139” UCAV. The Iranian Ababil in Houthi service was re christened “Kasif” and its more evolved variant look less and less like the original aircraft. The Houthi’s employ their UAVs mainly for “Kamikaze” missions, i.e. as low cost cruise missiles. In time, they have achieved several impressive successes, including at least 3 showcase terror attacks against public ceremonies and military parades in the   Government of Yemen controlled areas. For example, on January 10th 2019 a Houthi “Kamikaze” UAV crashed into the VIP stand during a parade of the Government’s armed forces, Killing among others its chief of intelligence. On May 10th 2020 anther “Kamikaze” UAV struck military parade in a Government of Yemen military base, killing 6 soldiers and wounding four senior officers. The Houthi’s gains in the in the cognitive battlefield were thereby quit substantial.   

Yet the majority of Houthi “Kamikaze” UAV attacks were against civilian installations in Saudi territory, mostly airports.  in other words, they are employed as low cost cruise missiles. They also struck Patriot air defense batteries deployed by the Saudi led coalition within Yemen as well as in Saudi Arabia itself, deployed there to defend the Kingdom’s southern cities against Houthi rockets and ballistic missiles. To what extent those attacks on air defenses were successful remains unclear.

In a June 2019 missile and UAV exposition in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city (currently under Houthi control) several new and relatively large UAVs “developed in Yemen” were unveiled to the world.  The show included three new types of long range UAVs, two of them were propeller driven but the third sported a small dorsally mounted jet engine, which immediately won it the appellation of a “cruise missile” and turned it into the star of the show. Such sophisticated machines were clearly beyond any local capability, and were obviously “tailored” by the Iranian skunk works for use by the Islamic Republic’s allies and proxies. Already before being unveiled the new UAVs were busy attacking oil targets deep within Saudi Arabia, including two  pumping stations on the oil pipeline to Red Sea port of Jeddah in May 2019 and a mass attack of  a swarm of propeller driven UAVs on the Shaiba oil field in eastern Saudi Arabia in August 2019. No serious damage was caused in any of those attack, but they indicated how far the Iranians were willing to go in supplying strategic range UAVs to the Houthi allies.

At the same time, the most significant and devastating strategic UAV attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry did not originate from Yemen but from Iran itself. In the pre-dawn hours of September 14, 2019 two swarms of “Kamikaze” UAVs struck the giant oil processing plant in Abqaiq and the oil field of Khurais, both to the north east of Riyadh. The attacks heavily damaged both installations, requiring months to repair. The Houthi regime in Sana’a immediately took credit for this audacious operation, dubbing it “the second balance of deterrence operation.” In their official statement the Houthis claimed that just 10 of their UAVs were involved, thereby revealing their ignorance of the true facts. It seems that the Iranian’s did not share their detailed planning with their allies. In fact, the two oil facilities were struck by at least 25 UAVs.

This was a very sophisticated operation that required the synchronizing of two swarms of different speed UAVs, one slow and propeller driven and the other fast and jet propelled  to strike almost simultaneously. This and the spectacular precision of he hits indicated meticulous planning and execution that was on par with world level standards. An Iranian opposition group in Washington DC later identified the Omidieh Iranian Air Force base in southwestern Iran as the origin of the attack and revealed that it was conceived and executed by the IRGC Air and Space Force. An indirect corroboration of that opposition group claims came from the recent UN group of experts on the war in Yemen, concluding that the likelihood of the attack originating in Yemen was nonexistent.

Iran currently deploys precision ballistic missiles with sufficient range to hit Saudi oil installation with the same success yet with much less complication that doing so with UAVs. Why did Iran choose the more complex and risky method of delivering a strategic strike with relatively slow flying UAVs? It stands to reason that this choice was made to maintain deniability and the avoidance of leaving a “smoking gun” evidence of its complicity that would, in turn, compel Saudi Arabia and perhaps also the US to retaliate. Ballistic missiles have “return addresses” since they can be observed by satellites and tracked back to their launch point. Small, ground hugging UAVs cannot be detected from space and if astutely routed through the breaches of ground radar coverage there is no way to see them coming or discover where they come from. 

Thus, Iran is using its UAVs in its own unique way, hitherto unparalleled anywhere else. First by supplying “tailored” designs and local production means to its allies and proxies, and second, by delivering anonymous strategic strikes with no “return address.” This poses a dilemma to all its antagonists whose military doctrine is based on symmetric warfare. Saudi Arabia deploys a large and sophisticated air force equipped with the best latest of Western combat aircraft. It has large and well equipped ground force and navy. With all this, the Kingdom is unable to effectively end the threat from Iran’s UAVs. Using just 25 or so cheap UAVs for a delivering a painful strategic blow, Iran compelled Saudi Arabia to weigh the option of winding down its intervention in Yemen and consequently to open negotiations with the Houthis (so far with no result). It seems that Iran’s policy of prioritizing asymmetric weapons systems including UAVs and missiles justified itself and provided it with powerful tools in its quest for regional hegemony.

Turkey’s UAVs: Air Superiority in Limited Wars[2]

Turkey differs from Iran in its geopolitical environment. Unlike the Islamic Republic which has been put under various international sanctions almost from the time if its establishment in 1978, Turkey is a member of good standing in the international community. It joined NATO at the onset of the Cold War and has played a key role in containing the Soviet Union. Its thriving economy is based on extensive international trade and a strong export industry. Turkey’s defense industries have full access to the world defense markets. As a result, Turkey’s road to modern UAVs was shorter and smoother than that of Iran.  

During the Cold War, Turkey obtained all its main armaments from the West, mainly from the US. Its nascent indigenous defense industries, already established in the Ataturk era, remained insignificant due to the competition from modern Western armaments flowing copiously into the Turkish armed forces. The first doubts about the assuredness of Western arms supplies were first raised when Turkey, following its 1974 invasion of Cyprus, was put under arms embargo by the US, its main arms supplier. Although the embargo was lifted three years later, it shock did no dissipate. For Turkey this a wakeup call as acute as the French arms embargo on the eve of the 1987 six days war was for Israel. And again like Israel, Turkey  adapted a policy of “Munitions independence” in critical weapon systems for land, air and naval warfare, including National Warship and National Tank programs. This policy was pursued even more forcefully by Turkey’s powerful leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Existing defense industries were expanded and new ones established to cover the full spectrum of modern military technologies. Today, Turkey is engaged in a wide range of indigenous weapon programs, including the National Fighter Aircraft and the National Satellite Launcher projects.

One of the weapons categories selected for special attention was unmanned aircraft. The operational requirement for such a weapon came from the continued military clashes between Turkey’s armed forces and Kurdish rebel organization in eastern Turkey. The mountainous terrain of the arena gave the advantage to the Kurdish irregular forces, and the Turkish Army, equipped and trained for symmetric war against the Warsaw Pact armies. Experienced difficulties in countering the guerilla tactics of the Kurds. The need for “an eye in the sky” that could provide visual intelligence on Kurdish deployments became urgent. In the late 1980s Turkey acquired some early generation reconnaissance UAV’s from Canada and Germany. These primitive systems – in today’s terms – provided non real time reconnaissance but lacked the capability of persistent surveillance. Early Turkish attempts to develop indigenous UAVs were unsuccessful,. Consequently, In 2006 Turkey purchased from Israel 10 modern Heron UAVs with the proviso that their Israeli designed electro optical payloads would be of replaced by Turkish designed and made systems.  The integration of the Turkish optronic systems in the Israeli aircraft proved more difficult than envisaged causing a five year delay in their delivery. Shortly after commencing operations, the Turkish Air Force complained about quality issues in the Herons and returned them to Israel for repair. The deteriorating diplomatic relations between Israel and Erdogan’s Turkey contributed to the demise of the project. The Turkish media accused the Israeli Heron operators of sabotaging the systems and of surreptitiously transmitting the visual intelligence obtained by the Herons to the Israeli Intelligence. As far as is known, the Herons are still counted in the active order of battle of the Turkish Air Force, but there is no information about their use, if any.

Nevertheless, even their short service in field operation demonstrated to the Turkish army the invaluable advantage of persistent, real time surveillance over the battlefield. At the same time, the Turks also discovered the limitation of the system. While the Herons located targets in real time, destroying them (“closing the fire cycle’) took a long time, being dependent on scrambling fighter aircraft or calling for artillery support. Obviously, what was needed was a UAV that could do more than just target location. What was needed was for the UAV to engage the target promptly by its own means – In other words, what was need was an armed UAV (UCAV in professional parlance). However, both the US and Israel refused to sell armed UAVs to Turkey.  The US deploys a large fleet of armed UAVs (like the one that killed Qassem Soleimani in January 2020) but is reluctant to market them worldwide due to arms control and ethical considerations. The US does sell armed UAVs but only to the closest allies including the UK and Australia. Israel, by agreements with the US is committed to “harmonizing” its defense exports with the US and is thus barred from exporting armed UAVs. There might have been another reason for Israel’s reluctance to sell armed UAVs to Turkey: concern over leakage of crucial performance information to hostile entities. It should be noted that the very existence of armed UAVs in Israel Air Force service is known from the international media. The Government of Israel never has acknowledged their existence in its armory.  

The leading person in the emergence of the modern Turkish UAV is Selcuk Bayraktar, a gifted engineer and a graduate of two leading US universities, including the most prestigious engineering school of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)[3]. In 1987, the Bayraktar family opened a factory for manufacturing automobile components. Selcuk, who had been fascinated with flight in general and unmanned flight in particular, convinced his family to switch to UAV development and production. In 2007 Selcuk left the MIT before completing his PhD studies, and joined the family company as its chief engineer. Selcuk, who hails from an Islamist family, caused a stir in Turkey when he loudly objected in the Turkish media to the acquisition of Israeli UAVs. The first Selcuk design purchased by the Turkish armed forces was a small reconnaissance UAV.  His next design, a medium sized armed UAV dubbed “Bayraktar TB2” first flew in 2009. This aircraft can carry four MAME-L gliding bombs made by Rocketsan, Turkey’s leading missile manufacturer. In 2015 the Bayraktar armed UAV performed flawlessly in a live fire demonstration to the top echelon of Turkey’s armed forces. In the following year Selcuk married Sumeyye, Erdogan’s youngest daughter. Ever since this double whammy Selcuk became “the father of Turkey’s UAVs” and a national hero. While the Turkish Aircraft Industries also produced a “Heron replacement” UAV dubbed “Anka” that is deployed by the Turkish Air Force, it is Selcuk’s products that dominate the Turkish UAV fleet, that gather glory in the battlefield, and that are exported in growing numbers.

Following the successful 2015 fire demonstration, the Turkish Air Force purchased the “Bayraktars” in large numbers. Its baptism of fire was in the war against the Kurds inside Turkey and in the Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq. The Bayraktar carries a laser pointer that can designate targets either for its own bombs or for heavier guided munitions carried by Turkeys’ F 16s. Since its debut in 2016, the Bayraktars demonstrated outstanding performance, particularly in targeted killings of Kurdish senior leaders. Over time, the Bayraktars eliminated 450 Kurdish combatants. Including senior er commanders who had been sought after by Turkey for years. The Bayraktar armed UAV and its designer Celcuk won fame in Turkey’s media, Mayors, civic leaders and the general population made pilgrimages to the bases where the Bayraktars were deployed to express their gratitude to the operators (reminiscent of the  popular adulation of Iron Dome  in Israel when it first proved its mettle). Erdogan himself honored the Bayraktars  by signing his autograph on the noses of several of them.

The next and much more complex battlefield where the Bayraktars saw combat was in northwestern Syria. While ostensibly neutral Turkey actually intervened in the Syrian civil war. Under the pretext of combating terrorism the Turkish army overran and occupied a security zone inside Syria along the common border, to prevent local Kurds from cross border operations. The last enclave of anti-Assad rebels in Northwestern Syria is centered on the city of Idlib. The Turks effectively took control of this enclave and included it in their security zone, stationing there Turkish troops in the guise of “Observers” in what it calls “Observation points”. The Assad regime, whose policy – in concert with Russia – is to re assert itself in the entire territory of Syria, launched “Operation Dawn of Idlib 2” in December 2019 to conquer the Idlib enclave. In February 2020, with almost one half of the enclave already in Assad’s hands, a Syrian air force struck an “Observation Point”  killing 34 Turkish troops.  In response, Turkey launched a powerful retaliatory operation against Assad’s armed forces, dubbed “Operation Spring Shield.” Its objective was to punish the Assad regime and to stop its assault on the Irbil enclave.

During the seven days long “Operation Spring Shield” Celcuk’s armed drones raided the rear areas behind the front lines and wreaked havoc in the Assad army installations and weapons. In the first forty eight hours, Turkey claimed to have killed 330 Syrian troops and destroying 23 tanks, 10 armored personal carriers 23 artillery pieces as well as numerous ammunition trucks. Unofficial sources in the Assad army conceded that it suffered grievous losses, but gave no details. Yet the most significant claim of the Turkish armed forces was the destruction of two Syrian air defense systems: An SA 17 “Buk” and an SA 22 “Panzir.” The latter is well known in Israel from Israel’s air force operations in Syria during recent years. The video footage released by Turkey’s ministry of defense show the “Panzir” being destroyed while it is in its active mode, with its radar antenna rotating in search of targets. The footage indicates that the destruction of the “Panzir” was achieved by a bomb released from a UAV. In theory this is an impossible scenario, since the range of the small glide bomb of the Bayraktar is just 8 Km while the effective range of the “Panzir” ground to air missiles is 32 Km. The Bayraktar itself is a fairly large aircraft that cruises at medium altitudes; theoretically, fair game for any “Panzir” long before it can get close enough to release its MAME-L glide bomb. It follows than that the Turkish air force has developed a sophisticated and integrated methodology to first locate the “Panzirs” – perhaps by visual intelligence – and then to penetrate their defensive perimeter, perhaps by electronic warfare. Either way, the “Panzir’s” destruction became a minor sensation in the professional media (much to the dismay of Russia).

Yet the Turkish UAV fleet suffered its own casualties too. Syrian Air Force combat aircraft succeeded in downing one Turkish “Anka” UAV. At least one and perhaps two Bayraktars were lost to ground fire. The Bayraktar, with all its capabilities, is not immune to hostile fire, as was later reiterated in later operations. Nevertheless, the reverses suffered by the Assad forces in “Operation Spring Shield” and Russia’s concern of further escalation compelled both sides to agree to a ceasefire that stopped the Syrian operation overrun the Idlib pocket and left about one half of its territory in Turkish control. Undoubtedly, its UAVs provided Turkey with a tangible military and diplomatic achievement.

While the Turkish armed forces were busy fighting the Assad army in Syria, another Turkish expeditionary force commenced military operations in distant Libya[4]. The Libyan civil war has been smoldering on and off ever since the deposition Moammar Ghaddafi in 2011. Currently Libya is politically and territorially divided between two warring parties, the internationally recognized “Government of National Unity” based in Tripoli, and the “Libyan House of Representatives” under the leadership of General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the “Libyan National Army” (LNA), based in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. General Haftar and his LNA are supported by Russia, Egypt and the UAE. Towards the end of 2019 the LNA overran al mot the entire territory of Libya and poised to occupy Tripoli and thereby to re unite the country and end the war. It was at that point that Turkey’s Erdogan decided to intervene on behalf of the Tripoli government, affiliated as it was with Islamist organizations. Early in January 2020 the Turkish parliament approved a military intervention in Libya, and a few days later the Turkish expeditionary force commenced deployment to Tripoli. The Turkish force included instructors and perhaps some mercenaries from Turkish controlled Syria, but Turkey’s main contribution was a squadron of Bayraktar armed UAVs that was formally gifted to the Tripoli government. To stress the point, the Tripoli flag was painted in the tail of every Bayrakter. In reality, they continued to be commanded and operated by Turkish teams.

The appearance of the Bayraktars in the battlefields of Libya profoundly changed the situation. As they did in Syria, here too Celcuk’s armed UAVs raided deep into the LNA controlled areas and hit hard General Haftar’s forces. Since the Tripoli government lacked an air force of its own, the Bayraktars provided it with essential air superiority across the entire war zone. It seems that the Turks adapted the classic doctrine of air warfare, prioritizing the neutralization of the opponent’s air defenses. Genera Haftar forces main air defenses consisted of Russian made Panzir systems The Turkish UAVs hunted them down methodically, destroying 9 or 10 fire units. Videos uploaded to the web indicated a somewhat different approach than in Syria. The “Panzirs” were hunted and destroyed when they were in dormant mode during travel or in storage. One video clip shows a Turkish UAV attack on a shed in which a Panzir was being hidden. The military base where the shed had been located was later overrun by the Tripoli forces, and the severely damaged Panzir was retrieved and subsequently paraded in Tripoli. The Turkish success indicates the availability of real time intelligence that allowed the UAVs to be in the right place in the right time. It can be assumed that the incompetent handling of the Panzirs by their operators also contributed to their demise.

Once the threat from ground based air defense was degraded, the Turkish UAVs freely operated behind General Haftar’s front lines, destroying weapons systems, military stores and command centers. Under the umbrella of Turkish unmanned air superiority, Tripoli’s armed forces launched a strong counter offensive that  pushed back Haftar’s forces hundreds of kilometers regaining control of numerous coastal towns and  large inland tracts of Libyan territory.  Like in Syria, here too the Turkish UAVs were not immune against ground fire, and suffered losses in spite of the destruction of the Panzir array. Video clips released by Haftar’s forces showed “Bayraktar” debris at several locations. One video clip shows an largely undamaged “Bayraktar” displayed in some unidentified town. The impression is that this aircraft was shot down by an old-style twin barrel 35 mm anti-aircraft gun. General Haftar’s forces claimed the shooting down of no less than 20 Bayraktars. This seems a bit exaggerated. Nevertheless, there are indirect indications that the Turkish UAV fleet suffered significant losses. One possible clue was the widely published statement by the head of Turkey’s chief of acquisition at the height of the fighting that he has just delivered six new Bayraktars to the Turkish air force. The timing of the announcement hint that it was perhaps meant to allay concerns over the battlefield losses.

However, the situation was not entirely one sided. General Haftar’s LNA had at its disposal a fleet of unarmed and armed UAV’s of its own. One type of unarmed UAV was the Russian made “Orlan 10”. More significantly, General Haftar has been supplied with Chinese “Wing Lung” armed UAV  carrying air to ground missiles of the “Blue Arrow 7” type. According to a BBC investigative report[5], these capable vehicles were put at General Haftar’s disposal by the UAE. The Chinese armed UAV is almost twice as big and about five time heavier that the Bayraktar, It can also fly further, stay in the air longer and carry heavier payloads than its Turkish rival. Why than did General Haftar’s much more capable Chinese aircraft fail to leave their mark on the battlefield as the smaller Turkish rivals did? Perhaps this is due to the different operational doctrines of the two opposing forces. It seems the General Haftar used his armed UAVs mainly for terror attacks against population centers rather than controlling the airspace above the battlefield. The Turkish UAV fleet, in contrast, was employed as a true tactical air force and acted aggressively against military targets, willing to sustain the inevitable losses. It stands to reason that the smaller dimensions and more modest performance of the Turkish aircraft makes it also cheaper than the larger and heavier Chinese design. The cost difference could generate a reluctance to sustain losses of bigger and more expensive UAVs by their UAE owners.

(Postscript: Since this paper was originally published in Hebrew, the war in Libya took a turn when, in response to the Turkish intervention, Russia ratcheted up its support to the LNA, allegedly deploying fighter aircraft to counter the Turkish UAVs. A “permanent” ceasefire between the Tripoli and Benghazi governments was signed on October 23. This keeps the key coastal city of Sirte under General Haftar’s control, to the dissatisfaction of Turkey.)

But the fighting in Libya was not the last of Turkey’s UAVs adventures in the region. Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, an ongoing conflict between two former Soviet republics – now independent nations – the largely Christian Armenia and Shia Moslem Azerbaijan has been smoldering on and off for decades. In the Soviet era the border between the two republics left the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karrabagh within Western Azerbaijan. When independence was proclaimed, the Armenians of Nagorno Karabah refused to live under Azeri rule. This led to a bloody civil war during which the entire Western district of Azerbaijan with Nagorno Karabagh at is center was left outside of Baku’s control. .The Nagorno Karabach Armenians declared an independent state of their own in Western Azerbaijan called “Republic of Artshakh” which had remained ever since unrecognized by the international community, not even by Armenia itself. Nevertheless, the affiliation between Armenia and its unofficial sibling in Nagorno Karabach is tangible, and the latter’s defense and very existence is entirely dependent on the mother country. Armenia remains within the Russian sphere of influence and has granted Russia two bases in its territory in return for Russian armaments, although its present government has lately displayed some pro-Western sentiments, apparently to the annoyance of Moscow. The relations between Russia and Azerbaijan are also tepid. Russian supplied some arms to Azerbaijan, but in recent years Baku has preferred to buy weapon systems from Israel and Turkey. Somewhat counter intuitively, Shia Iran is more supportive of Christian Armenia than of its Shia Azeri neighbors. The reason for this is beyond the scope of this paper. Turkey, on the other hand, is a strong supporter of Azerbaijan on grounds of common ethnicity. 

On September 27th 2020 Azerbaijan launched a full scale assault on the “Republic of Artshakh” in a bid to regain Azeri control of its western districts. The Azeris threw into the battle the best and latest weapons systems acquired over the years from abroad. According media reports, Azerbaijan tried to buy armed UAVs but was turned down by the West, hence shortly before the war, in July 2020, it bought   a squadron of Turkish “Bayraktars.” This squadron – probably operated by Turkish teams – immediately joined the battle. In the first two days of the campaign, Azerbaijan’s aircraft and helicopters suffered serious losses from the Armenian late model SA-8 ground based air defenses. As before, Celcuk’s armed UAVs methodically hunted and destroyed them, resulting in diminishing losses and the regaining of air superiority by the Azeri air force. As in Syria and Libya, the “Bayraktars” suffered their share of losses. At the time of writing the Armenians claim to have shot down no less than 12 of them during the first week of fighting. This could be an exaggeration, but photographs of Bayraktar debris in Armenia prove that some losses were indeed incurred. Perhaps the SA-8 systems did manage to shoot down some of them before being destroyed.

The fighting in the Caucasus, although still ongoing at the time of writing, is offering a glimpse of future battlefields, where unmanned systems, mostly precision missiles and armed UAVs predominate. It should be noted that according the reports Israeli systems too are used by the Azeris, the most noteworthy one being the “Harop” Kamikaze ” loitering” UAV made by Israel Aircraft Industries that marked some noticeable success in destroying radars of Armenian SA 300 systems as well as numerous Armenian tanks. Once this war is over (as it seems at the time of writing, with an Azeri victory), it will be the turn of military analysts worldwide to study it in detail and learn its lessons.

Implications for Israel

The modern UAV, conceived in the crucible of Middle East wars, is part and parcel of the trend towards the automation of the future war and the removal of human operators to the relative safety of the rear areas. From a simple, low cost and even jury rigged surveillance system it graduated into an ersatz combat air power whether by delivery precision PGM or be acting as a PGM by itself through “Kamikaze” style attack. The relatively moderate cost of developing capable UAV systems encouraged the appearance of literally hundreds of various types and a growing number of UAV industries, mainly in the US and China and generated a lively international trade in them. The Mediterranean basin wars demonstrated their advantages but also some of their shortcomings.

UAV advantage and disadvantage lie roughly midway between those of manned combat aircraft on one hand and those of precision ballistic missile on the other hand. Unlike manned aircraft, ballistic missiles are one time, expendable weapons that are consumed in action, hence their cost per mission is the cost of the  entire missile. Most armed UAVs – save the Kamikaze types – are reusable, multi mission systems that like manned aircraft return to base for refueling and re arming for further action. Hence, the cost per mission is ostensibly just the cost of spent munitions. Both missiles and UAVs stand out in that they are unmanned – more accurately, they are manned by personnel safely ensconced in rear areas. The separation of the operators from the weapons gives missiles and UAVs added flexibility due the lack of concern over human losses in action. However, missiles and UAV differ in their vulnerability to counter measures. Missiles are hard to hit due to their steep trajectory and great speed. Countering them requires specialized hence costly defense systems. UAVs on the other hand are unable to defend themselves from fighter aircraft (as for example in Syria) or against ground based air defenses (as for example the downing of the US Global hawk by Iranian ground based air defense in June 2019). While the armed UAV is a multiple use weapon, experience show that it is not too much “multiple”, its operational lifetime in combat is limited by inevitable attrition. Hence, the larger, more elaborate, more capable and hence more costly armed UAV is, the more significant would be its loss to its operator, and the larger the void its loss will cause in its operator’s operational capability. It seems that the Bayraktar armed UAV – a vehicle of modest size, modest capability but also of modest price – is the optimum between performance and cost in this type of weapon. Perhaps the UAV designers in Israel could draw their own lessons from the recent UAV actions in our neighborhood.

The limited wars in Yemen, Syria, Libya and the Caucasus highlight the armed UAV – whether of the “Kamikaze” type of the mini bomber type as one of the two classes of weapons destined to predominate in the future battlefields (the other is the precision missile). It stands to reason that this will hold true in high intensity wars too. In the winter of 1991 it took the US led coalition forces about one month to degrade Sadaams air force, air defenses, early warning systems, ground forces and command centers to the point of near impotence.  A replay of this campaign but with modern UAVs and precision missiles might achieve the same result in less time, less costs and fewer losses.  Hence, the main military threat to Israel is not just from precision missies but from the whole gamut of unmanned precision weapons, whether plunging like missiles or cruising like UAVs. Both Israel’s airborne ground-based defenses must be prepared for this combined threat, which should be regarded as one and the same.


[1] The brief history of Iran’s UAVs in this paper is partly based on Michael Rubin’s excellent study: “A Short History of the Iranian Drone Program,” American Enterprise Institute, August 2020. https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/a-short-history-of-the-iranian-drone-program/

[2] The review of the origins of Turkey’s UAVs is based on the detailed study by Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, “Turkey’s Giant Leap: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” in Turkeyscope, August 2020.  https://dayan.org/content/turkeys-giant-leap-unmanned-aerial-vehicles

[3]  The biographical details of Selcuk Bayraktar are taken from Farook, U., “The Second Drone Age. How Turkey Defied the US and Became a Killer Drone Power,” The Intercept, May 14, 2019. https://theintercept.com/2019/05/14/turkey-second-drone-age

[3] My thanks to Mr. Yair Ramati for his help in charting the Turkish USV operations in Libya and for permitting me to use the slides from his lecture “High Noon: Turkish UAVs Demolish the Russian Panzir,” August 2020.

[5] BBC Africa Eye, Libya’s Game of Drones, August 28, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DVE0tkGSaM&t=636s  

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