The success of Iran’s Abqaiq attack highlighted how drones can equalize the playing field for a conventionally inferior actor, even in the face of the best intelligence and top-of-the-line air defense systems. The attack, which featured simultaneous drone swarms and missile barrages, demonstrated that Iran’s investment in combat UAV capabilities over the past decade for itself and its proxies have paid off. In U.S. House testimony delivered in April 2021, CENTCOM head Gen. Kenneth McKenzie warned, “These small- and medium-sized UAVs proliferating across the [area of operations] present a new and complex threat to our forces and those of our partners and allies. For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.”
U.S. policymakers seeking to constrain Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions must contend with the advancing combat UAV capabilities of Iran and its proxies. Iran and/or its proxies have the capability to utilize drones against U.S. personnel, interests, and allies throughout the region, as well as against civilian populations. Virtually all sensitive sites, including military, nuclear, oil, and petrochemical facilities, are potentially vulnerable to Iranian UAV attacks.
In 2021, Iran and its proxies have drastically stepped up their drone attacks as part of Tehran’s efforts to increase its leverage in nuclear negotiations with the P5+1. Additionally, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has spurred Iran to step up its attacks on U.S. service personnel and interests in service of Iran’s primary foreign policy objective of expelling the U.S. from the region. These developments indicate that the Iranian drone threat is on the brink of metastasizing, and the U.S. and its allies are addressing the threat with renewed urgency.
The U.S. should:
In the absence of hermetic air defenses, which are not yet attainable, even for a geographically small country such as Israel, Iran can strike, or at least threaten, any target it wishes within range of its or its proxies UCAVs. The best defense against this eventuality is a strategy predicated on deterrence. Despite its regional adventurism, Iran is a fairly risk-averse actor that rarely engages in direct confrontation with superior powers, preferring to farm out such duties to proxies. It frequently also makes use of methods that provide plausible deniability, such as cyber or UAV attacks. That is why when it took the rare step of directly attacking Saudi Arabia in September 2019, it took pains to obfuscate the origin of the attack, denied culpability, and sought to shift blame to the Houthis.
In taking on such daring operations, Iran shows it is willing to countenance some degree of kinetic reprisal if it is found out. Iran frequently pushes the envelope to see what it can get away with, and likely concluded from the Abqaiq attack that it can continue to target energy infrastructure without incurring significant blowback. The thing Iran fears most and assiduously seeks to avoid is a regime destabilizing reprisal. Without clearly enumerated redlines, Iran is liable to continue testing the waters in provocative ways. The U.S. should stress that Iran will face severe reprisals for significant UAV attacks, and will be held accountable even for the actions of its proxies if it is found to have a hand in their operations.
The U.S. must ensure that it can defend its assets and personnel in the region, as well as those of its allies, against the multi-layered threat posed by Iran and its proxies’ rockets, increasingly precise cruise and ballistic missiles, and UCAVs. The multi-layered Iranian threat necessitates that all U.S. bases and units in the region, Israel, and the Gulf states deploy permanent, day and night, all-weather, 360-degree multi-layered air and missile defenses to defend against short and long-range threats.
Low-flying drones are among the most vexing threat faced by U.S. air defenses in the region. Following the Cold War, Pentagon military planners downsized the U.S.’s short-range anti-air defenses and prioritized medium and long-range aerial threats instead, focusing on air defense systems like the Patriot to combat ballistic missiles. Armed drones were not a prevalent threat at that point, but they have become one in the past decade. Drones tend to have small radar signatures, can fly close to the ground, and are highly maneuverable, rendering them hard to detect by radar.
The difficulty in consistently detecting drones from afar reduces the efficacy of Patriot batteries against UCAVs. Further, medium and long-range air-defense systems are armed with exorbitantly expensive missiles, making them a less than ideal solution for countering cheap drones. The U.S. should still encourage the Gulf states to invest in theater air defense systems, such as THAAD, to contend with Iran’s ballistic missiles and as an added layer of defense against UCAVs. But the U.S. must also urgently prioritize boosting short-range air defense capabilities capable of striking down drones within visual range. The Abqaiq attack demonstrated that all sensitive sites in the region are in need of such defenses. The U.S. should seek to collaborate with Israel on new counter-drone innovations and ensure that as new technologies emerge, they are shared with other regional partners as well. To that end, it was an encouraging development that the U.S. and Israeli National Security Councils agreed in April 2021 “to establish an interagency working group to focus particular attention on the growing threat of unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] and precision-guided missiles produced by Iran and provided to its proxies in the Middle East region.”
The Iranian arms embargo contained in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which kept barriers in place against Iran legally purchasing military-grade drones and components from eager sellers such as China, expired in October 2021. Although Iran has systematically flouted the provisions of the arms embargo proscribing exports of combat UAVs to its partners and proxies, the embargo’s existence was more than symbolic. It ensured that U.S. interdictions of illicit Iranian arms transfers were justified under international law. The collapse of the arms embargo risked increasingly sophisticated drone technologies falling into the hands of Iran and its proxies, enabling them to further destabilize the region.
It was therefore encouraging that the Biden administration announced in October 2021 that it was levying sanctions against several companies and individuals, including the commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force UAV command, for their role in facilitating the advancement of Iran’s drone program and provision of drones to Iranian proxies around the region. The designations were an encouraging signal that the Biden administration is willing to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its malign drone usage, even at the risk of angering Tehran ahead of nuclear talks.