War by Remote Control

War by Remote Control

The Sana’a Center Editorial

The Yemen conflict is quickly becoming a model for how a non-state actor can effectively employ unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, as a force equalizer in 21st-century wars. 

Particularly in 2019, Houthi forces’ deployment of explosive-laden drones on long-range kamikaze missions has allowed them to continually extract costs from their adversaries far beyond the frontlines. In January, a Houthi spokesperson declared this the “Year of the Drones” just after Houthi forces flew a UAV into a military parade at Al-Anad air base in Lahj governorate killing, among others, the Yemeni government’s military intelligence chief and the army’s deputy chief of staff. Houthi UAV attacks this year have also regularly targeted civilian airports and military bases in southern Saudi Arabia, with Saudi authorities confirming almost 50 injured and one killed in attacks on Abha airport alone in June. This is even with Saudi and Emirati air defenses taking out many drones before they reach their target. 

Guerilla tactics against a superior military force have long emphasized political impact over military effectiveness. The Houthi use of drones is a modern twist on asymmetric warfare, with the advantages of being able to reach deep into a rival’s territory and hit a specific target without incurring casualties and at relatively low cost. While various insurgent groups have sought to utilize drones similarly, the Houthis appear to be the first to have mass deployed them on the cheap as precision-guided weapons.   

Yemen is no stranger to drones; the United States carried out its first extra-judicial killing of a suspected Al-Qaeda member in the country using a drone-fired missile in 2002. In almost two decades since, American drones have increasingly prowled above Yemen to strike suspected terrorists below. The times when these drones also bombed civilians in their homes, at weddings and at funerals have almost mythologized them in many communities as death brought from the sky. Both the Houthis, in their attacks on Saudi civilians, and the Saudis, in their airstrikes on civilian targets in Yemen, are following the American legacy of impunity in this regard.

US drones, however, are no longer beyond reach. In early June a Houthi-fired missile took down an American MQ-9 Reaper drone over Hudaydah governorate. In an unrelated incident later in the month, the Houthis’ regional patron, Iran, shot down a US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. Amid already heightened US-Iran tensions, the incident almost sparked open conflict between the countries. Had it been a conventional manned aircraft and had a US serviceman been killed or captured, Washington would likely have responded aggressively. However, that the UAV was a piece of machinery – albeit worth US$130 million – allowed President Donald Trump to talk tough but back down from actually carrying out strikes on Iran. 

The United States pioneered UAVs and through the 2000s had a near monopoly on weaponized drone technology. In wanting to maintain operational flexibility in places like Yemen, however, it failed to push for international norms regarding drones in conflict zones before their use had already become widespread. This valuing of short-term gain over long-term strategic interest appears to be coming back to haunt the United States and its allies in the region. Now, armies around the world are deploying drone technology, including Iran; the Houthis’ own UAVs mimic Iranian models, according to the UN’s panel of experts on Yemen. 

The Yemen conflict, with its expanding use of drones and attempted measures to counter them, should be seen as a harbinger of the decreasing leverage of conventional military superiority in wars by remote control.

This editorial appeared in Drone Wars — The Yemen Review, June 2019

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