In this podcast episode, Dr. Sergii Masol talks about the ongoing violation of human rights in Ukraine from the perspective of the law. This small, but informative, talk covers the nature of human rights and international criminal law; the Ukranian Conflict; and the legal status of mercenary groups (e.g. Wagner Group).
Dr. Sergii Masol is Humboldt postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cologne. Sergii obtained his doctorate in law from the European University Institute in Florence, where he also worked as a research assistant.
Interviewer: Vittoria Brunazzo - Human Rights Team
Author: Danilo dalle Fave - Article Intelligence and Military Strategy Team
The Iranian strategic doctrine and the role of drone warfare
Iranian strategic doctrine has been influenced by the peculiar nature of its political regime and its history. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 infused in the Iranian strategic doctrine of Shah’s era, inspired by the contemporary Western military doctrines, some elements that influence the current role of drones in Iranian warfare: “holy defence”, export of the revolution, and especially the concept of self-reliance are the ideological foundation of the current Iranian strategic doctrine.
The Iraq-Iran war of the ‘80s has defined the current duality of Iranian armed forces: due to the distrust toward the Iranian army (Artesh), seen as an instrument of Shah’s supporters, the khomeinists developed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a parallel army and the main instrument of their foreign policy. The purges against the high command of Artesh and the lack of strategic doctrines among the pasdarans compelled them to create an ad hoc military doctrine, deeply influenced by their origin as an ideological militia with a revolutionary structure.
The result is a strategic doctrine centred around three pillars: proxy warfare, which means the use of guerrilla groups of Shia communities around the Islamic world used as an instrument for the projection of Iranian influence abroad; asymmetric warfare, a direct consequence of the military and technological superiority of their enemies; the focus on Ballistic missiles, which is caused by the weak Iranian air forces and the foreign dependency for aeronautical components and have compelled to focus on specific arms systems that can provide deterrence and be produced domestically.
Despite being formally a defensive strategic doctrine, the current supreme leader Ali Khamenei has provided also the official state doctrine for external interventions in 2010, the so-called two-wing doctrine: the Foreign Ministry and the Quds Force, the overseas operations arms of the IRGC, have the task to protect Iran and enhance Iranian role in the region. This means that the military instrument is embedded in Iranian foreign policy.
IRGC interventions of the last ten years have shown how foreign operations are usually conducted when certain conditions are met: the presence of a Shia community that can provide the proxy actor (e.g. in Lebanon Hezbollah or the Houtis in Yemen), the weakness of the state actors, like in Iraq or Lebanon, that can allow the strengthening of pro-Iranian forces and provide a logistics pipeline, capable of transfer personnel, weapons and allowing training by IRGC forces.
In this framework, drone warfare is exclusively conducted by the IRGC aerospace force, which also controls Iran’s strategic-missile force. Drones are used to compensate for the weakness of Iranian air forces in the reconnaissance and surveillance domain and the industrial constraints to the mass production of warplanes.
IRGC drones are perfectly suited to match the IRGC view of warfare: in the air domain, drones can be used along with ballistic and cruise missiles to attack enemy positions to strike and rapidly retreat, for reconnaissance and to overwhelm enemy positions. Swarms of loitering munitions can overburden enemy air defence allowing missiles to strike their objectives. The recent use in the Ukraine of Iranian-made drones by Russia is a clear example of how these kinds of saturation tactics can be very effective. In the sea, the traditional naval swarming tactics, developed during the Iran-Iraq war, can be augmented with unmanned vehicles and balance the military superiority of the US and their allies.
Iranian Unmanned Aerial vehicles and industry
The first family of Iranian drones are the Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA) Ababil: originally developed by the IRGC-owned Qods Aviation Industries, the Ababil-1 was a suicide drone used during the Iran-Iraq war usually launched by pneumatic truck launchers. Now they developed a specific Unmanned loitering munition drone, the DIO Arash.
This experience allowed the production in the 90s of the Ababil-2 and its different variants: the Ababil-B, a target drone for air-defence exercises, the Ababil-S, the first Iranian surveillance drone, the Ababil-T, a twin-tail variant that can be used for surveillance and as strike munition payloads and has been adopted by Hezbollah and the Houtis. The latter has deployed the Qasef-1 and Qasef-2K, Abadil-2 variants with 30 kg warheads, used as loitering munition against the Saudi-led coalition forces since 2016.
The Ababil-3, suspected to be a copy of the South African Denel Dynamics Seeker, is an Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR) drone and has been used extensively by Iranian forces during the Syrian civil war. The last member of this family, the Ababil-5, debuted in April 2022 and appears to be a Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, similar to the American Predator.
The other family of Iranian drones is represented by the Mohajer, the first ISR drone produced in the 80s and widely exported to Iranian proxies. Many Iranian drones are the result of a reverse-engineered version of Western drones, like the IAIO Fotros, IAIO Yasir, HESA Hamaseh, and IRIAF Kaman-22: the most important of them are the Saegheh, an entire family of drones that are the result of the acquisition of US Lockheed RQ-170 Sentinel, downed in 2011, which shows how Iranian industries are capable to copy stealth drones and in general to adapt western technology for internal purposes.
The most important drone family is the Shahed: the HESA Shahed-129, a dual-role drone is deployed for patrols and direct attacks for the Iranian Army and Navy, while the HESA Shahed-136 is a loitering munition designed for swarm attacks against ground targets. The last addition is the HESA Shahed-149, a reusable attack drone capable of launching missiles and bombs and being equipped for electronic warfare.
As previously said, Iran relies on drones in order to overcome the lack of a proper aerospace industry: the cost-effectiveness of drones in production and maintenance avoids the costly traditional aircraft procurement. At the same time, it is also a matter of internal political dynamics. Drone producers are mostly linked with the IRGC which managed to concentrate power in recent years, especially with the current president Ebrahim Raisi. The main consequence of this, apart from a greater role of IRGC in Iranian politics, is the “capture” of funds by the IRGC, leaving the Iranian Air Forces with shrinking resources to develop their vehicles and devices. That is why Iran relies, as during Shah’s era, on imports: the recent discussion for the procurement of the Russian Su-35, a 4th generation multi-role jet fighter, is a clear sign of the overreliance on imports for traditional aircraft.
Summing up, drone warfare is an important element of the Iranian way to wage war: it reflects Iranian leadership’s preference for asymmetric approaches and the adaptation to Western sanctions that prevented the development of traditional aerospace vehicles. Despite domestic strifes and tensions with the US, Iran can exploit its expertise in drones to obtain technology and know-how in the aerospace field that needs to scale up its military prowess: deeper cooperation with Russia, favoured by the isolation of both countries in the international arena, could augment Iranian aerospace forces, with consequences on the military balance in the Middle East.
Currently, there exists no popular support to equip the Union with substantial military capabilities to defend itself against common threats. There is no consensus among leaders regarding European Strategic Autonomy, the key aspect of European defence planning. And if this decision is made, European leaders need to craft a common strategy. This query would entail questions such as what the risks are, who would join, or what are the next steps.
Unless the United States abruptly decided to abandon its commitment embodied in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European defence configuration is unlikely to vary. Since the beginning of the Cold War, the United States has always acted as the security guarantor of Europe. In particular, the long-standing American support for the Old Continent's defence and security has pivoted around NATO. As a full-fledged multilateral security alliance, NATO has provided an effective shield against the threats arising in Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood. The Organisation also represented the main framework through which Member States’ forces have engaged in military operations under American guidance.
Approaches to Security
Nonetheless, as positions concerning defence diverge, propelling European self-defence would put the unity of the block under pressure. Europe should not stand solely on its feet, as transatlantic support has and will prove crucial. However, it must undoubtedly increase its defence autonomy to a great extent. According to Chancellor Merkel, the ‘task of the future’ for Europe is to take destiny into its own hands.
After a rather unipolar age, the EU should use the global power rebalancing scenario to its benefit. New challenges are compelling the US to shift its focus and resources from Europe and the Middle East towards the Indo-Pacific. This rebalancing dynamic, which partially began with the so-called Pivot to Asia during the Obama Administration, culminated with the Indo-Pacific Strategy introduced by President Trump. The attention required by the US posture in the Pacific, combined with Trump’s proneness to threatening European allies to withdrawal the American troops, have somehow pushed Washington and Europe far from each other.
The Union beyond question needs a more autonomous security approach. This is certainly the viewpoint of President Macron, who advocates for ‘European autonomy’ in defence matters, based on the principle of interoperability. This approach evokes a Union capable of delivering both soft and hard power. The German approach is comparatively different. It is based on cooperation, support, and it emphasises the importance of strong transatlantic relations. A coordinated European approach is needed to secure the continent in an unprecedented environment marked by COVID-19 and a complex setting on the East wing.
Impact of European SecurityApproacheson Strategy
Given the ever-changing uncertain global outlook, observing strategic moves conducted by other global actors is paramount. After Brexit, the UK pivoting from Europe to a global strategy adds complexity to the EU’s defence strategy. In January 2021, the European Union officially lost an important partner for its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Other than holding one of the most powerful militaries in the world, the United Kingdom, together with France, has historically proved essential in nuclear deterrence and expeditionary capabilities for the European Union.
After leaving the EU, the UK aims to revive a more global dimension of its foreign policy. This would allow London to regain a leading role on the international stage. The Integrated Review 2021 offers a first glimpse of the new ‘Global Britain’, conveying that the UK will be the first European country to tilt to the Indo-Pacific region, thus inevitably shifting its focus away from a continental perspective.
Further crucial points need to be addressed in common security matters of the EU. The EU's internal and external security issues are becoming increasingly intertwined. An updated version of the 2016 EU Global Strategy and the implementation of tailored policies are required to counter potential security threats.
Initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PeSCo) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) are turning points for a coordinated approach to security. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) comprises both assets and capabilities of Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), dealing among others with crisis management. And yet, this task remains a vital milestone to secure Europe.
This is even more essential concerning the EU's southern and eastern neighbours. In this regard, Karrenbauer highlights the need to pay attention to the four cardinal points. The CFSP, in fact, is a model based on multilateralism that aims to demonstrate that this sort of international order functions. However, European multilateralism will not prove successful without coordination and agility. The unanimity factor implies that if member states do not arrive at a consensus other states might make a move to solely benefit themselves.
Member States should work together concerning security matters in the direction of strategic autonomy. The region should take on its hard power responsibility in an uncertain multipolar environment. There is an inevitable overlap between internal and external security threats. Exchanging information is crucial to achieve an effective defence strategy.
As Kramp-Karrenbauer, German Minister of Defence, wrote, Brexit exhibits the results of a European policy that feeds on sentiment instead of devising ideas for a common European future. Brexit has possibly fissured relations between the UK and the EU, as press biases indicate.
Europe needs to cooperate to bring forward a common defence framework that rises above politics. The way ahead should be a combination of more strategic autonomy and stronger transatlantic relations; while the former will be critical, the latter has proved crucial. The US rebalance of power, the pandemic and Brexit are increasing the temperature of the stove. European leaders should know that a watched pot never boils.
Here is an in-depth analysis of Russia’s motivation in the region.