The drone attacks against state-owned oil producer Saudi Aramco that took place in September 2019 made the headlines the world over, drawing attention to the increasing use of this type of capability in the Middle East. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used by insurgents—as was the case with the Saudi Aramco attacks that Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for—and governments alike, as parties in the region seek to complement their combat air capabilities with unmanned counterparts.
While nations in the Gulf are focusing on the acquisition of modern and capable fighter fleets—the Gulf Cooperation Council nations all operate or have ordered contemporary manned combat jets—there is also a parallel drive to extend the capabilities of these with the use of UAVs, which can be operated at ever-increasing stand-off ranges for effective mission execution. As is the case with fighter fleets, there is a strong focus on imports for UAVs in the region, and Middle Eastern nations are looking towards a mix of U.S., Russian and Chinese suppliers of this type of system.
Chinese UAVs are increasingly advancing to be more than the reverse-engineered versions of U.S. and Israeli UAVs that they were once deemed to be, and while they may not be of quite the same sophistication as these other systems, the selling point is that China will readily export this technology with few qualms over the way they will ultimately be operated.
The only UAV of significance that the U.S. has exported to the region, meanwhile, is the Predator XP version of the family of medium-range, long-endurance (MALE) UAVs, for which the United Arab Emirates became the launch customer when it placed an order for one system comprising four aircraft in 2013.
Manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI, Stand 1350) has previously claimed that Saudi, Kuwait, and Qatar are all target markets for the XP model, although export restrictions governing these potential sales have seemingly deterred interest from other regional nations such as these, which have instead sought more readily available Chinese systems.
This is largely because the XP is an export-focused variant that does not have the payload capacity for armament, and while it is more easily sold by the U.S. government in lines with the criteria of the Missile Technology and Control Regime to which Washington adheres, it is not necessarily of interest to countries that want an offensive capability.
China, on the other hand, generally speaking, is able and willing to sell its armed systems wherever it pleases and is consequently exploiting the restrictions of U.S. export policy to deliver systems capable of carrying out offensive sorties to countries, including the UAE, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. AVIC’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group has delivered the Wing Loong I to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while the former was also reportedly the launch customer for the upgraded Wing Loong II version.
Both are MALE systems that resemble the GA-ASI Predator series of UAVs, and the Wing Loong II is believed to have provisions for some 12 air-to-surface missiles. The Wing Loong is a staple at international air shows nowadays, often surrounded by the weapons set available for use onboard, a message from AVIC that it is willing to offer armed variants of a MALE UAV that nations may not be able to buy from the U.S.
At Dubai air show in 2017, meanwhile, AVIC’s jet-powered Cloud Shadow made its debut outside of China, displayed at the show to appeal as a reconnaissance and strike capability. This has a 400kg external payload capacity, according to the company, but an endurance of only six hours, making it less capable than GA-ASI’s comparable system; its 18 hour-endurance Avenger jet-powered UAV that has a 1,600-kg internal weapons bay capacity.
So far as operations using the UAVs in the UAE are concerned, most recently Emirati Wing Loong UAVs were reportedly used for dogfighting against Turkish Bayraktar UAVs, as the two nations fought over their positions regarding ongoing civil unrest in Libya. The two UAV types were reportedly turned to as the nations’ respective fighter fleets struggled with availability issues as a result of their constant use, showcasing that, while UAVs are not yet necessarily the first port of call for these operations, they are increasingly being relied on to deliver mission effectiveness.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is acquiring some 300 UAVs from China, and in an effort to build its own military engineering capacity in line with its Saudi Vision 2030 economic diversification initiative, an agreement has been signed for an assembly line for the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation CH-4 UAV to be established in-country.
This demonstrates the commitment that Saudi is making to its fleet of Chinese-made UAVs, while also highlighting China’s commitment to expanding its industrial presence overseas to ensure further sales of its UAVs and guaranteeing a stronghold in these markets over the U.S.
Jordan is also an operator of the CH-4B, although earlier in 2019 it was announced by the air force that it was selling six of the UAVs—alongside other systems—in an attempt to downsize the fleet, and Iraq made the headlines in 2015 when it released a video and photos of its new CH-4B UAV. Amman and Riyadh are also both operators of Leonardo’s Falco family of tactical UAVs, the former of which is believed to have contracted the company to develop a tailored variant for the requirements of its special forces.
While nations in the region generally rely on imported systems, Iran is focusing on the development of indigenous unmanned capabilities, albeit some of its most prolific ones being a reverse-engineered version of the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel stealth UAV. In 2011 Iranian forces brought down a Sentinel flying in its airspace, since when it has made concerted efforts to reverse-engineer the aircraft, namely in the form of the Shahed 171 and Saegheh-2 flying wings that have since been showcased by Tehran. Iran has also developed the Shahed 129 MALE UAV that is based on a design similar to the Predator series, a system that has reportedly been used during operations in Syria.
The other most notable trend in UAV operations in the Middle East is the deployment of American systems in the region. One significant event that demonstrated such a deployment was the June 2019 shooting down of a US Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator UAV, which is the predecessor to the more prolific MQ-4C Triton system used by the navy. Iran claims that it was flying within its airspace—something that the U.S. government refutes—which it said justified it taking offensive action by employing a surface-to-air missile against it.