Cheap air power chang­ing the face of con­flict in the Mid­dle East

The Peterborough Examiner - - >>OPINION - Gwynne Dyer

Big shifts in the mil­i­tary bal­ance hap­pen qui­etly over many years, and then leap sud­denly into fo­cus when the shoot­ing starts.

It hap­pened to clas­sic blitzkrieg tac­tics in the Arab-Is­raeli war of 1973, when both sides lost half their tanks, mostly to cheap, in­fantry­fired anti-tank mis­siles, in just three weeks. And it hap­pened to ‘air su­pe­ri­or­ity,’ in the sense that it has been un­der­stood for the past 75 years, in Saudi Ara­bia last month.

Tanks ruled the bat­tle­field from the Ger­man blitzkrieg of 1940 un­til 1973. Only more or bet­ter tanks could stop them. Tanks have got a lot more so­phis­ti­cated since 1973, but so have the anti-tank weapons, which are a lot cheaper and there­fore a lot more plen­ti­ful. There is no longer a sin­gle, sim­ple equa­tion for bat­tle­field suc­cess.

Air su­pe­ri­or­ity, the other main com­po­nent of blitzkrieg, had a much longer run of suc­cess. The pow­ers that could af­ford to de­sign and build the most ad­vanced com­bat air­craft con­trolled not only the sky but the land be­neath it, and could bat­ter weaker states into sub­mis­sion (NATO against Ser­bia, the US twice against Iraq, NATO again in Libya, etc.) with few ca­su­al­ties of their own.

Fast for­ward to Septem­ber 2019 in Saudi Ara­bia. The oil-rich king­dom should be among the priv­i­leged, in­vul­ner­a­ble few, for it has a very high-tech Air Force and the best air de­fences money can buy. It can also call on the im­mense power of the United States, which main­tains mil­i­tary bases in a num­ber of Gulf states and has promised to pro­tect it. What could pos­si­bly go wrong?

What went wrong was a swarm of cheap drones and cruise mis­siles that the Saudis didn’t even see com­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the Houthi rebels in Ye­me­nis, who claim to have launched them, there were at least 10 Samad 3 drones (the Saudis say 18 drones hit the Abqaiq oil pro­cess­ing site) and an undis­closed num­ber of Qasif K-2 cruise mis­siles (the Saudis say four cruise mis­siles struck the Khu­rais fa­cil­ity).

The Saudis didn’t see them be­cause they flew nap of the earth, so low they were hid­den from Saudi radars. They were launched from three dif­fer­ent sites, but timed to reach their tar­gets si­mul­ta­ne­ously from three dif­fer­ent an­gles. They took out half the oil-pro­cess­ing ca­pa­bil­ity of the world’s se­cond-big­gest pro­ducer for at least some weeks — and the whole swarm of them only cost one or two mil­lion dol­lars.

The Saudis made it ex­tra-easy for the Houthis (or the Ira­ni­ans, if you be­lieve the Saudi-Amer­i­can ver­sion of the story) by not hav­ing any short-range air de­fences for their most im­por­tant eco­nomic as­sets, or at least none fac­ing in the right di­rec­tion. But this is be­cause Saudi Ara­bia doesn’t plan to do its own fight­ing in any con­fronta­tion with Iran.

Saudi Ara­bia’s de­fence bud­get ($67.6 bil­lion last year) goes mostly on buy­ing very ex­pen­sive mil­i­tary equip­ment from the United States, but what it is re­ally buy­ing is Amer­i­can mil­i­tary sup­port. In re­turn for all that money, the King­dom ex­pects Amer­i­cans to do the ac­tual fight­ing for it, just as it hires Su­danese and Pak­ista­nis to do the ground com­bat in its war in Ye­men.

The Saudis shouldn’t count on that. Don­ald Trump knows noth­ing about for­eign af­fairs or mil­i­tary strat­egy, but this is the sort of deal he has spent a life­time im­pos­ing on oth­ers. He’ll make the sales, but he won’t de­liver the ser­vices.

The big ques­tion that is fi­nally go­ing to be asked, in coun­tries rich and poor, is why the air forces in­sist on buy­ing ul­tra­ex­pen­sive manned air­craft in­stead of flocks, swarms and fleets of small, cheap, dis­pos­able un­manned ve­hi­cles.

The truth is that air forces are run by pi­lots, and they like to fly planes, but what hap­pened in Saudi Ara­bia last week will fi­nally give the civil­ian au­thor­i­ties ar­gu­ments that the avi­a­tors can­not re­sist or ig­nore.

So the shift to pri­mary re­liance on un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles (UAVs) for of­fen­sive ac­tion will get un­der­way at last, and the re­sult will be the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of air power. Only rich coun­tries with a mas­tery of high tech­nol­ogy can own F-35s. Even the small­est, poor­est coun­try (and some non-state ac­tors too) can af­ford to build or buy a few thou­sand drones and a cou­ple of hun­dred ba­sic cruise mis­siles.

De­moc­ra­ti­za­tion is a dou­bleedged sword.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work).’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.