Missiles and drone aircraft on display at an unidentified location in Yemen in a photo released by the Houthi Media Office on Sept. 17.CreditCreditHouthi Media Office, via Reuters
By P. W. Singer
Dr. Singer is a scholar specializing in technology and politics.
Saturday’s strike on Saudi Arabia is surrounded by uncertainties. But one thing is clear: The United States needs to be better prepared than the Saudis were.
It seems like the opening of a techno-thriller novel or (spoiler alert!) a scene from the latest Gerard Butler movie: In the dead of night, a swarm of robotic planes sneaks past a billion-dollar defense system and then takes out one of the world’s most valuable targets in a fiery blast.
But it is no fiction. It is now a technological and political reality.
Much remains uncertain about the raid on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia on Saturday that shut down half the country’s oil output. Saudi officials initially credited the attack to “drones,” with Houthi rebels in Yemen then claiming responsibility. But soon there were disputes about the origin of the attack (some in the Trump administration have fingered Iran instead of Yemen) as well as the weapons used (experts are debating whether it was only armed drones — or a mix of drones and cruise missiles).
What we know for certain is that the attack points to crucial changes in the technology of war and its consequences that the United States should prepare for better than the Saudis did.
The most advanced weapons used to be found only in the hands of the most powerful state actors, because of how much it cost to obtain them and the expertise required to use them. Now there is a much lower barrier to entry. More than 75 nations have cruise missiles and more than two dozen nations have armed drones. Those numbers will continue to grow as more sellers like China introduce the technology into the world arms market. (As fate would have it, the Saudis recently bought Predator-drone knockoffs from Beijing.)
Yet it is not just states that have these weapons. Nonstate groups can gain them from state sponsors (Iran has supplied a number of its allies), modify technologies bought on the open market or even build their own. Hezbollah in Lebanon flew drones into Israel as early as 2004. The Islamic State operated hundreds of drones in Iraq and Syria, carrying out its first armed drone strike on United States forces and their allies in 2016. And the Houthi have used drones to attack Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates multiple times since those countries intervened in Yemen in 2015.
Given this long history in its own neighborhood, one of the unanswered questions about Saturday’s raid is how Saudi Arabia, a nation with the third-largest military budget in the world, was so ill prepared.
Part of the reason is that governments (especially those as focused on big showy tech purchases as Saudi Arabia) often overlook something about technology’s future: In both business and war, we’re seeing not just more intelligent machines taking over more human jobs but also swarms of tiny bots breaking complex jobs down into smaller, simpler tasks. Yes, corporations are planning for robotic trucks to move thousands of cans of beer from a mostly automated factory, but they are also planning for a small drone to deliver a bag of pretzels to your house. So too the biggest threat to an oil field, airport or aircraft carrier may come not from huge, expensive missile systems but from small, even disposable drones.
This means that national defenses have to reassess and prepare for these new threats. Future wars will be “multi-domain.” In the past, if you fought a rebel group or invaded a medium power like Iraq, the fight was on the ground. Now, not just the superpowers but all sides in any conflict can reach into the air and out to sea — and also strike in new domains like cyberspace.
This also should change the calculus of military intervention. Four years ago, the Saudis began “Operation Decisive Storm,” the multination intervention in Yemen, expecting an easy win. It has been anything but. Now that small nations and nonstate actors can more easily strike back — with drones, missiles and cyberspace hacks — the promise of easy wars fought from afar without consequences is even more false than it was in the past. To put it another way, the lower barrier to entry for the new technology of war demands a higher barrier to entry for joining one.
The Trump administration should keep this in mind as it weighs its own possible intervention in the Gulf. The story there may have started out like an episode of fiction, but how it ends will determine whether it becomes truly dystopian.
P. W. Singer is a scholar at New America and the co-author, with August Cole, of the forthcoming book “Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution.”