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Gulf militaries rush to keep up with drone tech progress

Drones on display at the World Defense Show in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia SPA via Reuters
Drones on display at the World Defense Show in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
  • Drone swarms latest threat
  • Nations ‘trying to upgrade’
  • Signal jamming best defence

A new form of drone warfare used during the Ukraine conflict has changed the nature of battle and created a challenge for military planners in the Gulf region, industry experts said at a defence show in Riyadh this week. 

Drone swarms have been launched by both sides since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. 

The unmanned weapons are usually airborne, but robotic land drones and undersea surveillance drones raise the spectre of coordinated multi-domain attacks. 

Militaries are rushing to stay on top of the latest technological advances. 

“We are interested in this, but who’s not interested in swarm technology?”, said Abdullah Alrashed, general manager of military industry development at the Saudi General Authority for Military Industries.  

“It’s trendy, everybody’s trying to upgrade it. It’s your way to defeat your enemy by disrupting and overwhelming defences.

“It’s hard for government entities to be up to date and generate new policies because these technologies are evolving and always ahead of us. Even the leading countries in the world are trying to catch up,” Alrashed told a panel at the World Defense Show. 

A drone manufactured by Saudi Arabian Military Industries on display at the World Defense Show in RiyadhAGBI
A drone manufactured by Saudi Arabian Military Industries on display at the World Defense Show in Riyadh

Number five in the global list of arms spenders, Saudi Arabia showed off locally manufactured military equipment at the exhibition, including drones, arms and vehicles. It also signed a $3.6 billion deal to buy a South Korean surface-to-air missile defence system. 

Saudi Arabia says it has managed to increase domestic military spending to 13.7 percent of the total in 2022, from 4 percent in 2018. It aims to reach 50 percent by 2030 as part of the kingdom’s massive economic expansion plans. 

Abdulaziz Thuwaini, an exhibitor from Marss, a Monaco-based company supplying surveillance systems to Saudi Arabia, said jamming radio signals was more effective than expensive Patriot missiles to take out air drones assembled at a cost of only $10,000 each. 

“Attacking technology is moving way faster than defensive, which is by its nature reactive,” he said. 

“The way that the jamming would work is it will have a radius from the centre of where the drone is located, it will cover the entire area and even defeat swarm drones.”

But experts said sea drones were also becoming a concern in the Middle East region, pushing strategists to develop their own unmanned automated capabilities. 

“Everything we’re talking about is moving into the multi-domain, it’s very rare that we describe the next potential conflicts as one dimension,” Dave Holmes, managing director of BAE Systems research arm FalconWorks, told the panel.

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