This undated photo released by the Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate shows the wreckage of what Kyiv has described as an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk, Ukraine. (Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate via AP, File)
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 in the Middle East. Cities are defenseless.
Now, Iranian drones are being deployed in North Africa, 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 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, 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 re-engineered, incorporating the latest technology.
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 various 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, 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. After Iran, the largest manufacturer of drones in the region is Turkey — even small but wealthy countries like the United Arab Emirates are building drone manufacturing capabilities.
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.
“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 the executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS/InsideSources