Drones are the new weapons of war, causing military tactics and force structure to be reimagined. They bring a particularly deadly reality to guerrilla warfare, posing an existential threat in many theaters, especially the Middle East. Cities are defenseless.
Now Iranian drones are being deployed in North Africa and are posing a direct threat to Morocco.
Moroccan diplomats are actively raising the issue with Western governments. Iran, they say, in collusion with Algeria, is supplying the Polisario Front rebels who are engaged in guerrilla attacks against Morocco over the kingdom’s position in the Western Sahara.
While the world was mesmerized by its nuclear program, Iran built itself into a powerful supplier of military drones to the insurgents of the world. Notably, of course, to Russia for use in Ukraine, but also to its proxies across the Middle East.
Iran’s experience with drones goes back to the war Iran and Iraq fought between 1980 and 1988. In those days the drones were line-of-sight, simplistic and only good for surveillance.
Since then Iran has built generations of drones, large and small, but increasingly sophisticated. They were helped by captured U.S. drones which they reengineered, incorporating the latest technology.
Engines and parts have often been smuggled into Iran from the West. For example engines capable of powering drones were smuggled into Iran by declaring them for jet skis or snowmobiles. This was the case with the Austrian-built Rotax engine until the subterfuge was detected.
Now the Iranian military claims that its defense industrial complex can make the engines and all the parts of its drones domestically. One way or another, Iran now supplies an impressive array of drones with great loitering times and long delivery distances.
Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, told me that Iran has come to the conclusion that its strength is not in force-on-force competition, but in aiding asymmetric conflicts “which is why they spent so much money and time on terrorism, and so much money and time on ballistic missiles. Then they hit upon drones as the evolution of precisely this strategy.”
Morocco is right to be worried about its new vulnerability. Drones, while they might not win a war, can inflict severe damage on a variety of targets, from tourist centers to military installations to vital power grids and power stations.
Drones are light, cheap, and easily transported and hidden. Today’s generation of Iranian drones can carry substantial ballistic loads, as well as loitering for as long as 24 hours and sending back vital material on critical infrastructure.
There is a drone arms race taking place in the Middle East region. After Iran, the largest manufacturer of drones in the region is Turkey — even small but wealthy countries like the United Arab Emirates are building up drone manufacturing capability. Turkish drones were critical in Azerbaijan’s recent conflict with Armenia, and they were used by both sides in the Libyan conflict.
What is lacking is adequate defenses against drone attacks, whether these are single mischief-making assaults or swarms designed for substantial damage. Berman said the only effective defensive system against drones is the Israeli “Iron Dome,” built with Israeli technology and assisted and financed by the United States.
Israel has so far been reluctant to sell Iron Dome, which catches low-flying projectiles fired from as close as 2.5 miles from the place of intercept. It is a complex, radar-based, portable defense arrangement, designed to destroy incoming rockets and drones from Gaza and its neighbors Syria and Lebanon, both of which host non-state Iranian proxies.
Berman believes that as Morocco is a signatory to the Abraham Accords, Israel might sell the Iron Dome system to Morocco, but that would take years of negotiation and sales are subject to a U.S. veto.
At present, Morocco’s strategy is to alert the world to the changing dynamics in the region and to the vulnerability of almost any country to drone attack — a new addition to guerrilla warfare and a deadly vulnerability of countries like Morocco, where state and non-players can cause mayhem without winning on the ground.
“What the Iranians bring to the table is that it is known that they are the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, now moving into Africa, enhancing the capability of their proxy groups,” Berman said.
Morocco is right to be worried, but so is the world. Drones are a lethal infection, spreading fast.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS.