By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — A new arsenal of drones and satellite-guided weapons is changing the nature of warfare. America and its NATO allies possess these high-tech weapons, but smaller countries want them, too. Here’s an inside glimpse of how the process of technology transfer works:
A year ago, Saudi Arabia was fighting a nasty border war against the Houthi rebels across its frontier with Yemen. The Saudis began bombing Houthi targets inside Yemen on Nov. 5, 2009, but the airstrikes were inaccurate, and there were reports of civilian casualties.
The Saudis appealed to America for imagery from U.S. surveillance satellites in space, so they could target more precisely. Gen. David Petraeus, who was Centcom commander at the time, is said to have backed the Saudi request, but it was opposed by the State Department and others. They warned that intervening in this border conflict, even if only by providing targeting information, could violate the laws of war.
So the Saudis turned elsewhere for help — to France, which has its own reconnaissance satellites. The French, who were worried that imprecise Saudi bombing was creating too many civilian casualties in Yemen, agreed to help. The necessary details were arranged within days.
When President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Riyadh on Nov. 17, he was ready to open the new intelligence liaison channel. A Saudi official recalls that by the first night of Sarkozy’s visit, detailed pictures of the Yemeni battle space began to move electronically to the Saudis.
With this precise satellite intelligence, the Saudis were able to monitor the Houthis’ hideouts, equipment dumps and training sites. Saudi warplanes then attacked with devastating effectiveness. Within a few weeks, the Houthis were requesting a truce, and by February 2010 this chapter of the border war was over.
For the Saudis, this was an important military success. “The French were extremely helpful” and their assistance “was a key reason we were able to force the Houthis to capitulate,” says a Saudi official.
But the Saudi incident raises larger questions about the transfer of technologies that have demonstrated their deadly effectiveness during the past decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. These weapons are seductively attractive; they offer the promise of destroying an enemy from a safe distance of 10,000 or 20,000 feet in the air.
The lid on Pandora’s box is coming open: The Saudis, understandably, now want their own satellite capability, and they will soon request bids from Western companies for such a system. Riyadh also wants drones that can see and attack enemy targets in remote places. The U.S. has been weighing whether to include versions of its Predator drones in an arms sale to the kingdom. Such weapons would boost Saudi ability to deter Iran, but they could also threaten Israel.
Consider the case of Turkey: For years, Ankara has sought U.S. technology to fight what it sees as an insurgency by Kurdish rebel groups, especially the so-called “PKK” that hides in northern Iraq. Now, that high-tech help has arrived.
The U.S. has quietly created a joint “centralized command center” with Turkey for surveillance drones flying over northern Iraq. Turkish officers look over the shoulders of their U.S. counterparts at the imagery and are free to target suspicious activity when they see it. The U.S. doesn’t pull the triggers; it just shows the pictures.
The fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen illustrates the complicated legal issues that intersect the use of technology. A year ago, U.S. Special Forces held back from using advanced technology to locate Anwar al-Aulaqi in Yemen; that’s because he wasn’t yet on a formal “capture or kill” list of terrorists who threatened the United States. He is now, so the Obama administration has decided to bring its Predator drones into the hunt over Yemen, with quiet endorsement from the Yemeni government.
These weapons are so good they can become addictive. They make possible precise acts of war that, in another time, would be called “assassination.” Other countries want to protect themselves from terrorist rebels just as much as the United States does. This means the demand for such weapons will grow.
The “laws of war” may sound like an antiquated concept in this age of robo-weapons. But, in truth, a clear international legal regime has never been more needed: It is a fact of modern life that people in conflict zones live in the perpetual cross hairs of deadly weapons. Rules are needed for targets and targeters, alike.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.