During the fighting in recent months, international media and military analysts have focused their attention on Libya increasingly becoming a theatre for drone warfare. This lead UN special envoy to Libya claim that Libya is “possibly the largest drone war theatre in the world”, suggesting that as many as 600 drones were fighting for “one side” and “300 for the other”, although he did not state which side had which.
As the fighting continues and foreign powers seem to be taking on greater roles, introducing new technologies, this raises an interesting question: has Libya simply become another Middle Eastern proxy war or is it more than that? Are we seeing a redux of the Spanish Civil War, in which world powers tested out new technologies and tactics that later changed the face of warfare?
Despite the international arms embargo placed on Libya, the two sides’ foreign backers – namely Turkey and Qatar on the Tripoli government GNA side, and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt on the Tobruk government LNA side – have openly ignored this and supplied arms, including, increasingly, drones. Originally filling in reconnaissance and intelligence gathering roles, the two sides have begun employing drones as the main source of offensive air power, as the outdated air forces left from the Qaddafi period stay grounded due to lack of maintenance. Some have also suggested that Libyan pilots have been hesitant to target their own.
Turkey has become in recent years a manufacturer and operator of advanced drones, and since May, has begun employing its Bayraktar TB2 attack drone, which it has also begun to export to places like the Ukraine and Qatar.
Haftar’s LNA forces are backed by Chinese made Wing Loong II drones supplied and operated by the UAE. China too has become a major drone power in recent years. The UAE and Egypt also employ fighter jets periodically in support of the LNA.
Essentially, we are witnessing what has become a direct drone war between the UAE and Turkey, taking place over the skies of Libya. Although technically a proxy war, as both sides work to back one of the warring Libyan parties, they are essentially fighting each other. Since June, both sides have intensified their attacks against the other’s drone bases and command and control centers, as well as logistics bases and supply lines. And, since the Libyans have not gained proficiency on operating and maintaining the drones themselves, it is reported that the Turks and UAE operate the drones on the ground.
The LNA’s air-power allowed it to advance on Tripoli starting in April, while Turkey’s entrance a short while later allowed the GNA to halt the offensive. The two sides are now at a standstill, in large part due to this newly acquired air-power. According to defense analyst Arnaud Delalande, the GNA received a shipment of 12 Turkish drones between May and July, half of which were destroyed in UAE drone strikes, with a third delivery coming in August. He estimated that both sides are employing around 6-8 of the attack drones at any given time, mostly over the skies of Tripoli and its surroundings, but also further away as they target each other’s bases. It is here the drone and other air strike are reportedly killing and wounding civilians, as they occasionally miss their targets or have bad intelligence. A combined 3928 airstrikes, including by drones, were conducted by Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, the US, France and even Israel, from 2012 until August of 2019, according to the New America Foundation who tracks such developments. During this 7 year period, between 500-800 civilians were killed, most by Haftar’s LNA forces which is backed by the UAE.
Although late-comers to drone manufacturing, China and Turkey are now taking up increasingly dominant portions of the growing global demand for drones. This is, especially since the US will not provide this platform to many countries. The Chinese Wing Loong, like the American Predator Drone, is especially popular with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Saudi Arabia alone is reported to have purchased 330 drones at a cost of $10 billion. The UAV made its operational debut in 2015, with Nigeria employing it against Boko Haram militants. The Saudis reportedly are also using it in their involvement against the Houthis in Yemen, including to assassinate the Houthi leader last year.
Beyond Libya, drone usage has proliferated in conflicts around the region, from Syria and Yemen to Libya, and throughout Africa. Until recently a platform only advanced entities possessed, the rise of China and Turkey (and Iran) as producers of cheaper and more affordable (yet effective) drones has significantly lowered the entrance barrier. Even non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and ISIS have some kind of drone technology. This proliferation will only increase as the technology cycle speeds up and cost comes down. American Reaper drones (the newer model) cost about as much as an F16 – around $15 million each. The Bayraktar is about one-third of the price (around $6 million apiece) while the Wing Loongs cost even less, at around $1-2 million per unit. Smaller reconnaissance drones are even cheaper.
This evens the playing field – as can be seen in the sophisticated drone attack conducted by the Houthis (with Iranian drones and Iranian backing likely) against Saudi oil facilities recently.
Beyond the lowered financial and technological barrier to operate drones today, they offer foreign powers backing proxies a level of deniability. However, in Libya’s case, it is reported that both Turkey and the UAE are operating the drones themselves, and not only supplying their proxies. The ability for each country to employ this air-power for their proxy without the fear of having a pilot downed and causing a domestic backlash is certainly a draw. And yet, as the two sides increasingly target the other’s drone bases and operating facilities, this too might soon change. So far, the relationship between the two regional rivals – Turkey and the UAE - only seems to be escalating.
While the Chinese and Turkish churn out cheaper drones, the US seems to be going in the opposite direction, creating fewer and more expensive drones that are larger, more powerful and more advanced. There are some who attribute this to the US’ intention to avoid such conflicts as Syria, Iraq and Libya, and gear the military toward possible future conflicts with more advanced adversaries like Russia and China.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which many claim was a precursor to WWII, can be seen as the prototype for the modern proxy war, as the various European powers and beyond backed either the fascist-leaning nationalists or the left-leaning republicans through “volunteers” and “advisors”. The war also allowed the various parties, especially the Soviets and Nazi Germany, to try out a host of new weapons and tactics, especially air-power that had just come into play. And as they were technically not fighting themselves, they had little to worry from the repercussions. Germany’s involvement especially helped give it a head-start as it unleashed its destructive power and conquered most of Europe in the first years of that horrendous war.
Libya has definitely become a proxy battleground between the various powers trying to extend their influence in the region – the Turks and Qataris on one side and the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians on the other. However, it might also be the latest testing ground for a new type of war in which both sides have cheap and easily deployed air-power, in which a downed aircraft is far less important than a downed fighter jet along with its pilot. In this kind of war, in which the warring sides care little for civilians on the ground or for the lives of their own combat personnel (who are not in harm’s way), only innocent civilians will bear the brunt.