Iran, Yemen, and the Strikes on Saudi Arabia: The Changing Nature of Warfare

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The history of warfare has never been filled with good predictions of how warfare would evolve in the future. Aside from the odd science fiction writer, no one predicted the technical, tactical, and strategic nature of World War I. World War II began with gross exaggerations of the threat posed by poison gas and the air forces of the day. Navies that still emphasized battleships in a war that became dominated by submarines and carriers. The uncertain efforts to reshape land forces evolved into blitzkrieg, after armored offensives that initially involved German field commanders that disobeyed order from their high command.

After World War II, massive efforts to restructure land, air, and sea forces for nuclear warfighting ended in the fear of mutual assured destruction and the practice of small conventional wars and insurgencies outside the key areas of NATO and Warsaw Pact confrontation. The first Gulf War in 1990 saw major advances in precision strike air power, but it also saw armored exchanges that were far more favorable to the U.S.-led coalition than most military planners and analysts predicted before the actual battles.

The “Revolution” in Precision Strike Warfare

The recent series of unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) and cruise missile strikes on Saudi Arabia may well signal yet another “revolution” as a result of advances in military technology, tactics, and war fighting. At a minimum, the strikes show that the strategic threat from relatively inexpensive conventionally armed weapons can be as serious, or more serious, than massive uses of strategic airpower were in World War II and Vietnam.

The full level of progress they represent does remain unclear. For all the media reporting and official background briefings to date, it is still unclear exactly what weapons were used and who used them. More importantly, almost all of the focus has been on the launch country, who equipped and structured the attack, weapons range, and what was hit.

There has been no convincing reporting on accuracy and reliability of the UCAVs and cruise missiles involved, and any terrain avoidance systems they may have had to allow low altitude flight to minimize radar detection. There are no details on their flight guidance systems and their ability to fly complex attack profiles to avoid radars and land-based air defenses. There also are no reports on their terminal guidance in terms of given GPS levels of accuracy and the use of imagery to hit a given target in an exact place with high reliability. Potentially “smart” systems are being described in very “stupid” ways.

These gaps are all key issues in judging the lessons such strikes provide on the future of war. Only a small handful of air defense systems – like the Russian 9K331-Tor-M1-SA-15 Gauntlets supplied to Iran — have so far been deployed that are even intended to deal with advanced, low flying UCAV and cruise missiles that can fly complex, long-range profiles; the method of “hugging” the ground with terrain avoidance systems to evade radar and other forms of detection; and the ability to home in remotely with great precision on key point targets that can include the most expensive fixed industrial, infrastructure, and military targets and use comparatively small amounts of explosives to destroy key components.

The Uncertain Timing and Character of The New Threat

There are no convincing open-source reports as to how far Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, and other powers have gotten in developing and deploying such systems, and in adding some stealth features and other penetration aids. It is all too clear from the confusing babble of analyses of the Saudi strikes, however, that Iran has made major progress and there are strong hints that China and North Korea have or will soon acquire such capabilities. The broader deployment of truly advanced UCAVs and cruise missiles is simply a matter of time at best, and the timeframe for major deployments is unlikely to exceed 3-5 years at most – particularly given the success of the recent strikes on Saudi Arabia.

It is also unclear that such UCAV and cruise systems require much by way of outside infrastructure in terms of targeting and battle management. Every moderately developed country has a good idea of its major opponent’s critical infrastructure, industrial base, and military facilities. Some aspects of terrain mapping for low-altitude flight no longer require the same advanced data mapping systems in given areas. Getting GPS coordinates down to an actual GPS and imagery measurement on a key component in a complex system — and one with long replacement times – can be done by any passing worker. A single strike with a weapon with a relatively small conventional warhead can often be enough to be a functional “kill.”

Weapons for Low to High Level Hybrid and Gray Area Warfare

As the strikes on Saudi Arabia have shown, the target also does not have to be military. It can be a key energy facility where on civilians are normally present. It can be a key link in a national communications system in a power grid, a stock exchange, a water purification or critical urban sanitary facility, or a stress point on a bridge.

Every moderately advanced state in the world already knows how to do this kind of targeting. Some – like Iran and North Korea – have clearly examined such options for years. Moreover, many serious threat nations like Iran can find potential proxies like the Hezbollah, Iraqi Popular Militia Forces, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Houthi to execute a launch – or can covertly create a disperse new launch site that even the most thorough satellite coverage might have trouble detecting.

As the slow and uncertain U.S. and Saudi response to the current strikes show, this makes UCAVs and cruise missile systems natural weapons for hybrid and gray area warfare. Even truly serious attacks can be ambiguous or have some degree of deniability, and any response can lead to counterattacks and an open-ended escalation ladder. As China has shown by fortifying and arming reefs in the Pacific, just the deployment of such weapons can greatly complicate the risks in attack, response, and retaliation.

Such strikes also pose far less risk if retaliation does occur. Even the use of low-yield nuclear weapons opens up the risks of mutual assured destruction. A limited precision conventional strike poses far fewer risks even if the target is so critical that its destruction does take on the character of substituting a “weapon of mass destructiveness” for a “weapon of mass destruction.”

These risks also tend to be far smaller if – such as the case with the strikes on Saudi Arabia – the attacks were actually made by the Houthi. As the Houthi experience shows, if your primary target base consists of your own civilians – and the world already sees them being killed – how easily can your opponent claim that your attacks are not legitimate retaliation?

Redefining Key Elements of “Dual Capability”

At the same time, if a country with UCAVs and cruise missiles does have nuclear weapons, larger UCAVs and cruise missiles are potentially dual capable. They add a new nuclear strike dimension to the threat. Their use then forces the target country to think of counter-escalation in both conventional and nuclear terms.

They also are slow fliers that are ideal ways of carrying out line-source or complex spiral delivery of biological weapons over a city or populated area. And, they could potentially deliver through a short-range system assembled or smuggled into a given country, flown over a city, and deliver a bioagent that might not lead to actual illness for days after the actual flight.

It seems likely that such payloads would be too small for effective chemical attacks, even with “5th generation” weapons. However, a bioattack with the most lethal existing or genetically engineered agents, however, could be a real world “weapon of mass destruction” and one where assigning responsibility and actually executing any form of counter-strike and mutual assured destruction in response to a bioattack could be far more problematic in both ethical and geostrategic terms.

Uncertain Current and Future Defense Options

Air defenses can cope with such methods of UCAV and cruise missile attack to some degree, but it is expensive and difficult to maintain any major air and missile defense of large areas – particularly one that is not based on clear warning signals that a nation is ready to attack, and that can cover the threat of air attack and ballistic missiles as well.

The capability of air combat systems like the AWACs airborne radar systems in the U.S. and Saudi Air Forces, and advanced air defense fighters like the F-15S and F-22, to detect and intercept such systems over wide areas and flying complex attack profiles at low altitudes are unclear. The same is true of the real-world proven operational capability of most major land-based surface-to-air missiles like the SA-3, IHawk, Patriot, S300, and S400.

The area coverage of all such systems clearly declines sharply in dealing with UCAVs and cruise missiles at low altitudes, even if they lack any aspect of “stealth,” and stealth is far less secret now than it was in the past.

Deploying large numbers of shorter-range air defense systems or SHORADs – such as the Russian 9K331, advanced versions of systems like the French Crotale, and radar guided guns may help, but this means deployment of massive numbers of special purpose systems tied to the defense of a given site. Even the best defenses will also be vulnerable to stealth and saturation, and where their effectiveness may require the weapon to fire almost instantly creating serious risks of reacting too slowly or having to take the human operator out of the loop.

Interactions with Precision Guided Ballistic Missiles and Other Military Systems

Such deployments will also occur at a time when many states can simultaneously launch ballistic missile attacks, when countries are beginning to deploy precision-guided ballistic missiles, and when precision hypersonic and glide weapons may soon be deployed. States like Iran, North Korea, Russia and China are developing and/or deploying such systems, and countries like India and Pakistan may soon follow. All of these additional new strike capabilities also present major challenges to existing forces, strike tactics, and strike technology.

So far, ballistic missile defense systems are far more expensive per round than the ballistic missile attack systems are or are likely to be. They require yet another layer of new and different defense systems. The deployment of such precision guided ballistic missile threats is already beginning and is certain to keep expanding and improving over time. It also is leaving a large pool of older and far less capable ballistic missiles that can be fired as decoys in an attack with precision missiles, or fired to complicate the defense against UAVs and cruise missiles.

More broadly, there are no rules to exploiting some form of synergy with other forms of new warfare. Cyberwarfare and sabotage can both be used to score “hits” with precision UCAVs and cruise missiles and can be used to deter post-strike retaliation against such strikes. UCAVs and cruise missiles can be used with conventional forms of airpower and land warfare, to deter their use, or while keeping escalation to conventional air and land warfare in reserve.

Naval warfare is already being reshaped by long-range anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile strike capabilities. The old joke that “a yacht is a hole in the water in which you pour money,” is taking on a different character when a multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier can become a real hole in the water. Small attack ships with anti-ship missiles and small submersibles can became the seaborne equivalent of cruise missiles and UCAVs, and “smart” naval mines can create as many uncertainties and ambiguities in decisively identifying the attackers.

The ability to carry out such strikes may also interact with one of the key challenges that has already emerged to past forms of warfare. The advances that the U.S. made in precision airstrikes in the first Gulf War in 1990 has since created steadily higher demands that every possible effort be made to minimize civilian casualties, and these demands have reached the point where they already can be highly unrealistic.

In some cases such demands potentially impose limits on the use of conventional military forces. They also would make it impossible to use such forces to achieve decisive results — while they also act as major incentives for the potential target force to use civilians as human shields, occupy key civilian facilities, and engage in political warfare to exaggerate civilian casualties from modern weapons while avowing any mention of their own far more scattered attacks on civilians. If extremists, terrorists, and insurgents can acquire even relatively short-range UCAVs, they have the potential ability to do critical damage and either simply disperse or make use of human shields, and such delivery systems can be very hard to detect and almost impossible to defend against.

As Iran may well have already demonstrated, cruise missiles and UCAVs can also be used to counter or supplement economic warfare and deal with sanctions. They reinforce the fact that the ability to escalate in some military ways is not producing some new form of mutually assured destruction, but is integrating political, economic, and military warfare.

Seen from a broader perspective, they are a warning that the only rules to future warfare are that there are no rules, and that the only fully predictable aspect of the future of warfare is that it will be at least as unpredictable as in the past.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy