Blogs > Walid Phares > The Game of Drones

Jun 22, 2019

The Game of Drones

With the downing of a US drone flying in international air space over the Gulf by Iranian antimissiles rockets, the region has entered into, what I coin as, the Game of Drones. Both sides and their allies have been flying unmanned military planes for a while now, from Yemen to the waterways across the Gulf to Iraq and Syria. But with the first official robotic clash between Iran and America over the skies of the Middle East, we may witness a new era of drone wars.

Naturally, experts would project a win for US higher technology over Iran's less advanced weaponry system, mostly acquired from North Korea, China and Russia. However, in what I call the "Game of Drones" the equation is not only about technological superiority, but about geopolitical conditions. Here is why.

Iran's regime has been developing and acquiring missiles, anti-missiles missiles, and long-range rockets for a few years, particularly since the Obama Administration released billions of dollars in frozen assets based on the Iran Nuclear Deal. Tehran has been boasting about its new "strategic capabilities," claiming it has reached a strategic parity with Israel, the Arab Coalition and the United States. It has asserted that it has a combo of unmanned flying weapons which can inflict high level of destructions on its enemies, particularly American forces in the region.

Last year, Iranian drones pierced Israeli airspace. For many months, the IRGC was flying weaponized drones in Syria and Iraq's airspaces. But more importantly, the Khomeinist regime equipped their allies in Yemen, the Houthi militias with all sorts of missiles, from ballistic ones to drones, which were fired on targets in Saudi Arabia, including airports and oil installations. According to reports, one Houthi missile targeted a US Navy ship in the Red Sea more than year ago but was downed in time. The Iran controlled Yemen "missile force" seemed to be the platform threatening Arab Coalition and US assets in the region. Hezbollah's missile force in Lebanon has been the oldest deployed robotic army also commanded by the Pasdaran.

The US military presence in the Middle East has always been equipped with missiles and drones, as well as the Navy equivalent deployed in the region. But with Iran's escalation since the designation of the IRGC as a terror entity and the biting economic sanctions on Iran's regime, Washington deployed additional assets, including battleships, an aircraft carrier, B-52s and Patriot missiles batteries. The US deterrence force, though impressive, has one mission so far, that is to deter Iran from attacking US forces in the region. It does not have a task to destroy Iran's military might, because of domestic political opposition. The Ayatollahs' strategists understood this equation and thus have apparently adopted the "Game of Drones," strategy.

From Yemen, they coordinate Houthis drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and potentially ships in the Red Sea. In Syria and Iraq, Pasdaran's drone force would eventually target US military bases. In Lebanon, Hezbollah's drone force is on reserve to act. But the main body of the Iranian unmanned fleet would operate in the Gulf area against US and Arab Coalition targets. Tehran's drone game is to harass US deployment and show deterrence against Washington. But aren't the Ayatollahs concerned about a massive US retaliation 'a la Reagan' in the 1980s? It doesn't seem that Iran's strategists believe that the Trump Administration would respond strategically to limited drone gaming. They may have been advised that the White House isn't in a position to wage a large size operation, hence pushing Iranians to pursue a brinkmanship strategy: attacking US assets, absorbing possible US retaliation, but winning the last round, as they think.

Let's see.

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