September 20, 2019

Drone Proliferation and the Attack on Saudi Arabia

  • Analysis

By: Logan McRoberts

The attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities last weekend has sparked speculation on whom the perpetrator and what their actual method of attack was.

John Bolton, former National Security Advisor, on the day his successor, Robert C. O’Brien, was named, said such an attack was “an act of war;” some U.S. and Saudi officials have blamed Iran. Iranian involvement has not yet been officially confirmed.

Drone proliferation’s danger to national and international security should be a main takeaway from the attack on Saudi Arabia, but there are two other takeaways to note first.

The first is a mild gesture of encroachment by Russia. The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin “responded to Saturday’s attack with mockery,” referring to an event in Turkey where Putin recommended Saudi Arabia buy the infamous Russian S-300 or S-400 missile defense systems. While funny from the vantage point of a podium, for U.S. defense experts, the situation likely seems more concerning.

The second takeaway is that U.S. enemies, or at least enemies of our allies (Saudi Arabia being an ally), are becoming increasingly sophisticated and better equipped. The attack was “flawless,” according to Michael Knights, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in that it’s possible only one missile launched out of twenty missed the target. Such a combination of accuracy and precision would be difficult for perhaps the most well-trained and equipped personnel.

Whether due to the fault of personnel or the expertise of the attackers, the fact remains that the defense systems deployed to prevent such attacks were Patriot missile defense systems. Whether deserved or not, some blame will fall to those systems, and may, in fact, put into question future U.S.-arms sales prospects in favor of Russian-made systems. 

These two takeaways dovetail with a concern regarding drone proliferation’s impact on national and international security.

Perhaps one reason such a “flawless” attack was possible was the use of armed drones. BBC’s Jonathan Marcus, a defense and diplomatic correspondent, reported that both U.S. and Saudi officials suggested that armed drones were likely used. The Center for a New American Security (CNAS), as well as the Stimson Research Center, produced reports in 2017 and 2018, respectively, looking at how the Trump administration would continue the Obama administration’s drone policies and programs. Both essentially concur that the current administration largely continued with similar policies and methods as the previous administration.

In October 2016, prior to election results, the Obama administration was involved in the concluding of the Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. It was an agreement that fifty-three countries signed onto with the recognition of the proliferation of drone production and use as well as the need to start creating norms and standards to prevent inappropriate and destabilizing usage of the technology.

Skepticism of the U.S., even under the Obama administration, towards making good on the non-binding agreement was certainly not scarce. Both reports conclude that the Trump administration’s drone policy really only differs from its predecessor in frequency and transparency.

The current administration conducts an estimated 5.4 drone strikes per day compared to the previous administration’s rate of roughly one strike per day. The drone program and its policies have also been the subject of criticism for being overly secretive and for not being transparent – issues that both reports indicate have been exacerbated under, albeit not originating with, the current administration.

Proponents of the drone program rightfully point out that a certain level of transparency may compromise the ability for drone operations to carry out their missions. Additionally, proponents have a reasonable cost-benefit calculation to consider: increased uptick in drone use or boots-on-the-ground-style of military involvement. Nevertheless, both reports indicate that drones in and of themselves, or even their proliferation itself, are not at issue. Rather, the lack of establishment of norms, in particular by the U.S., makes it more difficult to start delineating between appropriate and inappropriate use of drones. Subsequently, there is significant confusion and very little clarity as to what the appropriate and measured response would be to certain offensive drone operations.

There have also been concerns about what extent the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) applies to drones, because the MTCR was created, as the CNAS report identifies, “to limit the proliferation of unmanned ballistic missile technology and delivery vehicles that could be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD) for chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks.”

Resulting problems have included the sale of Predator and Reaper-style offensive drones to countries the U.S. would prefer not to see having access to such weaponry. Likewise, there’s a case for not wanting allies to have too much latitude in drone acquisition – again because the guidelines for proper use are murky, and misuse of U.S. built and sold drones can create further hurdles for the U.S. towards making a drone-saturated world conducive to U.S. international interests.

The very real ability for countries such as Russia and China to start to fill export gaps or meet unregulated demands by other countries for drones is why comments like Putin’s (even though it was regarding missile defense systems) are not particularly comical. It’s theoretically much easier to control drone usage by countries when the hardware being supplied to them is of U.S., rather than foreign, origin.

While officials in Saudi Arabi and the U.S. are quick to point to Iran for blame, the prospect of independent terrorist organizations being able to access drone equipment is not unfounded. That’s the reality to deal with in a drone-saturated world that doesn’t yet have a clear, let alone strict, grip on transfer, sale, or use of the technology. The fact that something like an offensive drone, capable of carrying out such a “flawless” attack, despite U.S. missile defense systems having been deployed, is a manifestation of a larger international trend.

The availability of advanced drone technology by non-U.S. allies and actors combined with a lack of capability for the U.S. to establish norms in the usage, transfer, and sales of drone technology helped produce an environment conducive to the type of aggression aimed at Saudi Arabia last week.

International drone proliferation demands increased attention and leadership as part of preventing such acts of aggression from being possible and normalized. The U.S. may not need, nor should it necessarily want, to be the sole controller of everyone’s drones, but there should be a recognition that absent any U.S. attempt to take some leadership over the proliferation of drones, countries such as China and Russia will be more than happy to do so – likely at the expense of U.S. interests.

Logan McRoberts is a policy analyst and freelance writer in Washington, DC. Contact him at [email protected]com. 

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