Drones have been called “the ultimate military growth industry”. Air, naval and land forces everywhere are striving to acquire these platforms. Herein lies the danger; thanks to advanced armed drones, aggression is becoming pain-free. Practically every military that has inducted UCAVs has sought to purchase even more of them and employ them with increasing frequency.
Just over one year ago, Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to seize Tripoli, the capital of Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). While Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is a powerful actor in the Libyan civil war against Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli, a large part of their success is the result of abundant support from foreign powers.
Since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 and especially since 2014, Libya has been a battlefield in a war of competing powers. In order to uphold their interests in a strategic country like Libya, foreign powers have given political, military, and financial support to either of the rival governments.
Recently, foreign countries have turned to military drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), as an appealing means of intervention.
In the Haftar camp, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is deploying Chinese Wing Loong drones. In the Sarraj camp, Turkey is deploying its Bayraktar TB2 drones and supplying some to Qatar to fulfill the same mission.
With the unleashing of a drone race, power relations became irrelevant on the Libyan, and rationality acquired a distinct meaning. The use of military drones is a game-changer in the Libyan civil war.
In order to secure various geopolitical and economic interests in Libya, Ankara deploys military drones to counterbalance Haftar’s maneuver. Qatar is also a major participant in the cause as the two countries are united against the UAE-Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Russia square.
Clearly, the deployment of drones is the epitome of foreign activism in Libyan affairs. State actors chose to reduce their official footprint and limit their entry costs by substituting manned aircraft with military UAVs.
This shows that the expertise behind lethal drones is not a protected property since new candidates are entering the drone market other than the traditional drone makers like the United States, Israel, and Russia. When a market becomes accessible, competition skyrockets.
Today, Libya is a major theater of drone warfare. Although military drones vary in range, lethality, and size, their deployment has altered the balance of power and deterrence logic in Libya.
The proliferation of drones shrinks the power gap among stakeholders: Striking with a Reaper is no longer so different from striking with a cheaper Wing Loong or Bayraktar. Accordingly, UAVs are a “power equalizer” rather than a deterrent, increasing the complexity of the Libyan civil war.
The ease at which drones are manufactured, the absence of a rigorous legal framework to govern their use, and the quest to minimize casualties are all rationales behind the ongoing race for drones. Nevertheless, if drones minimize the exposure of soldiers to physical risk, they do not necessarily minimize collateral damage.