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Welcome to the Next Middle East War

Well, it’s already started. The many wars in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran are beginning to come together into one single, bigger conflict. We are on the road to another war.

The shadow war, which has been going on between Iran and its sworn enemies, Israel and America, ever since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution now looks like escalating. In the last few weeks there have been ominous military, naval, diplomatic and psychological-warfare developments on all fronts. The omens are not good; we seem to be heading for a major bust-up not very far from here.

Intelligence officers use a system called an ‘Indicators and Warnings board’ to monitor events and assess where they are heading. Essentially it is a list of key questions, listing the critical information requirements. Examples might be:

• Are the potential enemy’s warplanes bombed-up and armed?
• Are the pilots on weekend leave?
• Is radio traffic normal?
• Have reservists been called up?

The answers are traffic-light coded – green for normal, amber for abnormal activity and red spelling danger.

Today, the I&W board for the Middle East is not looking encouraging. From Tehran to Tobruk the war drums are beating. Iran, as ever, is at the heart of the problem.

Should another red star be added to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf?

The narrow Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint because of the large volumes of oil that pass through the strait. In 2018, its daily oil flow comprises 21 per cent of global petroleum liquids consumption. China’s gluttonous need for fuel makes the Gulf indispensable to Beijing.

This puts Iran in a strong position geographically; and for decades Tehran has been threatening to block the Straits. In July 2018, Tehran hinted that Iran could disrupt oil flows through the Strait in response to US sanctions and Trump’s calls to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. A Revolutionary Guards commander warned that Iran would block all oil through the Strait if Iranian exports were stopped.

The USA has been willing to use its firepower in the past. It escorted ships here during the 1980s ‘Tanker War’. America fought its last naval battle in these waters against Iran in 1988. In July that year, the warship USS Vincennes even shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 aboard, in what Washington said was an accident. Tehran said it was a deliberate attack.

This summer has seen Iranian attacks on tankers with the result that now the US Navy is putting together a coalition of nations to counter a renewed maritime threat from Iran.

This US move to build a maritime multinational force to patrol the key sea route across the Strait of Hormuz prompted outrage in Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Minister blamed the US, insisting that ‘any extra-regional presence is by definition a source of insecurity’ and that Iran ‘won’t hesitate to safeguard its own security.’ The result is that tankers are now being convoyed down the Straits. All it needs now to spark fighting is some out of control Revolutionary Guard commander chancing his luck – and the Iranian RGC is a law unto itself.

This is demonstrated daily in Syria, where the long arm of Tehran now reaches as far as the Israeli border. For months now an undeclared low intensity war has been waged by the Israelis, systematically targeting Iranian weapon dumps, training camps and missile sites across Syria. Unfortunately Netanyahu’s professed strategic goal – ‘the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria’ – is fantasy. The result is a dangerous instability, because Israel is confronting a nasty dilemma. An enemy sworn ‘to drive Israel into the sea’ is camped on his borders; and every day that Tel Aviv does nothing to pre-empt Iran’s expansion makes the potential enemy stronger.

Netanyahu has been steadily raising the stakes, ostensibly with the aim of forcing Iran back to its own turf. But what does Israel seek to achieve? Removing Iran’s forces from the entire Middle East? Changing the Iranian regime?

What kind of American backing can Israel expect? Israel is now upping the ante. It was undoubtedly responsible for recent explosions at Iran-linked sites in Iraq. Sabotage or air strikes were involved and Israel stands at the top of the list of potential culprits. Israel is on the verge of expanding its anti-Iran campaign from Syria deep into Iraq to check the threat from the Islamic republic. But any Israeli action in Iraq comes with high risk that it could ignite a major regional war.

So the danger of crossing the line between limited and full-scale warfare between Israel and Iran grows daily more likely, especially now that Hezbollah – Tehran’s Shi’a proxy, currently running Lebanon – appears to be gearing up for a missile strike on Israel’s cities.

To make this devil’s brew more dangerous still, Iran – smarting from increased US sanctions – is now openly accelerating its drive to get a nuclear weapon. The Mad Mullahs, hell bent on war, can just about be contained; but the Ayatollahs with a bomb? For Israelis that is a chilling step too far. It threatens the country’s existence. Israel has made it very clear: it will not allow an Iranian bomb – by force if necessary.

Others in the region are equally nervous of any Atomic Ayatollahs. Sunni Saudi Arabia has the money and technology to build a bomb quickly to deter the Shi’a of Iran; and only last week President Erdogan openly hinted that of Turkey has an interest in obtaining a bomb, adding to worries about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

If this were not bad enough, everywhere you look in the Middle East there are many other dangerous flashpoints, many of them already the scene of fierce fighting. In Yemen, Sunni fights Shi’a (Saudi versus Iran), as the Houthis become part of Iran’s regional proxy warriors. On the Syrian border, Turkey is already busy fighting the Kurds. Gaza and the West Bank still simmer with anti-Israeli anger. Israel has already mobilised some reservists as a cornered Netanyahu looks for a grand gesture – probably a demonstration of Israel’s military might – to help him form a government after the recent elections.

Even sleepy little Cyprus, sitting secure in the eye of the hurricane, is now feeling the heat. Drawn by the lure of black liquid gold, powerful allies are now jockeying for position. Ankara suddenly finds itself having to confront a Greek-Cypriot defensive alliance of Israelis, Egyptians, Greeks and Italians – plus France and the USA – all hungry to get their hands on the spoils of the huge natural gas reserves off the coast. Gunboats now protect the Turkish prospecting ships as a symbol, a warning and a deterrent.

The truth is we are sitting in the middle of a region set to explode at any moment, thanks to an aggressive Iran-sponsored build-up. The plan appears to be to force Israel to concentrate on dealing with threats to its civilian population – from rocket barrages and commando raids – from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. Consequently, Israel would not be able to focus on blocking the principal surge when it comes.

Now even China is involved. Beijing considers Iran to be its strategic partner in the greater Middle East and vital to China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ across Asia. The PRC knows that the Iranian network of roads, railroads and pipelines all the way to the Mediterranean is a major contribution to the ‘New Silk Road.’ But now, Beijing is becoming increasingly concerned by the sudden possible slide to war caused by Iran’s regional ambitions.

It may not come next week, it may not come next year, but be in no doubt, the Middle East is gearing up for a major war. And it’s important to remember that for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, according to their scriptures, a final battle between good and evil will usher in God’s brave new world, free from sin.

The place for this battle? The ancient city of Megiddo, better known by its Greek name – Armageddon – a real, geological location in Israel….

The New Face of War?

Like many others, I was surprised by the announcement by Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff, that his Reaper drone crews will be eligible for the new Operational Service Medal for their contribution to the war in Syria and the defeat of ISIS (also known as Daesh). Traditionally, medals have always been awarded based on risk and rigour. It may seem a reasonable assumption that there is not much risk sitting in a nice warm office up at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire where they operate their Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs). More like playing computer games, perhaps? Where is the risk and rigour in that?

On digging deeper, however, I have changed my mind. There is no doubt that the RAF’s drone operators have made a major contribution to the defeat of ISIS and deserve official recognition.

An unnamed pilot said the drone operators’ job is very different to his Typhoon force operations. The RAF pilot, with 30 long and dangerous combat missions over Syria during his Akrotiri tour, made the point:

‘In some ways it is identical, in some way it is totally different … I think they have it a lot harder in some ways …

‘What people don’t realise is the emotional investment they end up having in it. They will watch a target for weeks on end and they will understand every part of that target’s life.

‘You can’t not become emotionally involved – we need to give those boys and girls a lot more credit that I think people are giving them.’

The pilot’s comments echo the words of the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, who has said: ‘The campaign against Daesh is one of which our Armed Forces can be extremely proud. I am pleased that today those who have bravely fought against such untold evil will get the recognition they deserve.’

During the campaign to destroy the extremists in Iraq and Syria, drones were used to carry out strikes, gather intelligence and conduct surveillance. While front-line operational aircrew do operations for maybe six months or a year at a time, drone operations staff face different challenges The Reaper force is on duty 24/7/365, monitoring an enemy that is elusive, dangerous and determined to attack the West in any way it can in pursuit of its twisted, fanatical world view. The personal strain and pressure watching the every move of these individuals is immense and unrelenting.

Drone crews have been doing that for every working day on Operation Shader (codename for the Syrian campaign) for four years. ACM Hillier pointed out that for the drone pilots, sensor operators and mission intelligence co-ordinators of the Reaper crews, ‘It is not some remote support operations – they are doing operations, engaged in active operations every minute of every day. This often involves weeks of monitoring individuals and then, once a strike has been executed, another vast amount of time is spent ensuring it was successful.’

Of course, in addition sometimes taking the decision to kill whole groups by remote control is made before going home to the family for supper and to help put the kids to bed. Drone pilots face questions like: ‘What did you do today, Daddy?’

As a result the pressure has taken its toll. ACM Hillier confirmed that drone crews are monitored ‘extremely closely for the risk of psychological harm … these people see some quite stressful things. So we have provided the opportunity for counselling, and an environment where we look after each other – a full support network exists. We need to make sure we don’t end up with them [the drone pilots] getting psychologically fatigued.’

This insight into the combat stress of the new warfare is a reflection of how in the last decade drones have become a new battlefield in the ‘vertical flank’. As long ago as 2004, the militant group Hezbollah began to use ‘adapted commercially available hobby systems for combat roles’. These modified toys can be bought easily, as the Gatwick debacle in December 2018 demonstrated, and – at prices ranges from US $200 to $700 – they are as cheap as chips to the military.

Also, adapted drones are lethal. For example, in August 2014 well-directed Russian-backed artillery fire was used to devastating effect in Ukraine, leaving three mechanised battalions a smoking ruin. This mission reached its goal because the units and their positions were identified by a mini-drone with a TV camera: the Ukrainian government lost 200 vehicles – and very-short-range air defences weren’t able to detect the deadly eye in the sky.

Armed services worldwide are taking this new threat very seriously indeed – as well as the new opportunities drones offer.  Whilst much attention has been focused on hypersonic weapons and long-range missiles, small UAVs pose new risks and are a serious challenge to air defences on land and sea.

In America, Dan Gettinger (Co-director: Center for the Study of the Drone) warns, ‘The US military – and any other military – have to prepare for an operating environment in which enemy drones are not just occasional, but omnipresent … Whether it’s a small, tactical UAV, mid-size or strategic, drones of any size will be commonplace on the battlefield of the future.’

He recognises the asymmetrical nature of the drone, armed or reconnaissance. Drones are cheap, hard to detect and don’t bring politically embarrassing body bags to the attention of the media or the folks back home. Drone technology has become a cat-and-mouse game, as militaries struggle to deal with the big threat of little drones.

For example, whilst US ‘supercarriers’ – with 80 warplanes and 5000 sailors – can dominate the narrow waters of the Persian Gulf, these 100,000-tonne behemoths are intensely vulnerable to hundreds of tiny Iranian attack drones – or a swarm of radio-controlled, fast-attack craft. The only remedy is lots of close-range defensive small calibre guns – and the chances are that some of the enemy will still get through. Half a dozen US $1000 missiles can easily disable a vessel costing US $50 billion. As the Americans say: ‘You do the math – go figure.’

Inevitably the market place has latched onto the commercial possibility of drones. Driven by a global increase in the use of mini-drones by terrorists and criminals, the anti-drone market is expected to grow to US $1.85 billion by 2024, according to the US business consulting firm, Grand View Research.

‘As drones become deadlier, stealthier, faster, smaller and cheaper, the nuisance and threat posed by them is expected to increase, ranging from national security to individual privacy,’ Grand View warns. ‘Keeping the above-mentioned threat in mind, there are significant efforts – both in terms of money and time – being invested in the development and manufacturing of anti-drone technologies.’ The Dutch have even trained eagles to attack drones.

Britain’s drone policy appears to be primarily defensive, as the RAF is well aware that the F-35 Lightning (at GBP £65 million a throw) is unlikely to be available in large numbers. Reaper drones and their UAV successors (at about GBP £14 million a copy) can offer a better bang for the taxpayers’ buck. In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute on 11 February 2019, UK Defence Secretary Williamson announced that the United Kingdom was ready to develop and deploy a swarm of drones before the year was out. ‘I have decided to develop swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences,’ he said. ‘We expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of this year [2019].’

This is interesting: it suggests a ‘weapons mix’, where drones accompany crewed fighters as robotic wing mates. It’s cheap – and the technology already exists in the US: for example, the manoeuvrable target drone developed by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions.

The danger, as ever in UK defence procurement, is that the dead hand of Ministry of Defence jobsworths will – once again – gold plate and change the specification, starve it of funds, double the cost and, finally, draft a rotten contract just in time for the next round of defence cuts.

But that’s another story …