Intelligence Briefings

Drones, Balloons, and Sanctions

Recent events point to a rapidly increasing vulnerability of fixed sites – including energy infrastructure.

ESAI EnergyLast week’s headlines highlighted strategic competition and war in the modern age. Israel likely conducted a short-range drone attack on military facilities in Isfahan, Iran, striking at targets that were under the control of Iran’s Ministry of Defense and may be involved in Iran’s nuclear programs. The United States identified several Chinese high-altitude balloons that were flying over U.S. territory and Latin America carrying intelligence-gathering equipment, finally downing one off the east coast of the United States. In response to the ongoing Iranian provision of drones to Russia for its war on Ukraine, the U.S. added still more sanctions against individuals associated with an Iranian drone manufacturer. Taken as a whole, these events point to a rapidly increasing vulnerability of fixed sites – including energy infrastructure – to attacks by state and non-state actors and the lagging ability of states to either deter or prevent such attacks.

States and non-state actors are gaining increased access to information about the location of buildings, including industrial facilities. Even if the state in question does not possess its own satellite network, it can buy high-resolution imagery and exact location data commercially. Coupling that information with increasingly available missiles and drones equipped with commercially-available targeting capabilities now gives capabilities to many states that used to be reserved for great powers. This spread of capabilities will only increase, spurred on in part by the demands of both Ukraine and Russia for these types of capabilities for their current conflict.

These capabilities might not seem so potentially dangerous if there were ways to prevent their use or their effective use. At this point, however, both the capability and the will to use these new capabilities are outpacing both deterrence and defense. Norms against the use of such weapons, perhaps based on concerns about retaliation and the fact that most of these capabilities rested in the hands of nuclear-armed states, is eroding. Prominent examples over the past several years include multiple drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabian oil facilities near its capital city by Iranian weapons fired from Iran as well as those provided to Houthi rebels fired from Yemen. Another barrier in the past to long-range strikes was concern about aircrews either being killed or captured on a mission. The proliferation of long-range missiles and uncrewed aerial vehicles has taken away that concern.

Finally, while air and missile defenses can intercept some of these attacks – particularly in cases where strikes are anticipated and common such as in the Ukraine-Russia war – at this point technologically offense dominates defense. Defenders normally have to fire multiple interceptors to have a reasonable chance of a hit, and defensive systems usually can only cover a relatively small area. Longer-term counters to the spread of these types of technologies, such as recent increases in U.S. sanctions against the directors of Iranian companies involved in their manufacture and export, have limited and lagging impacts.

With capabilities spreading, norms eroding, and defense difficult, one can expect to see a more normalized use of long-range weaponry not just in open wars but in cases of longstanding, militarized rivalry where states and non-state actors seek to coerce or punish rivals or adversaries. Cases, where these capabilities can expect to see increased use, include: Iran-Israel (including Lebanon and Syria), Israel and Palestine, Iran and the Gulf Arab states (including Yemen), Turkey and states that border it with Kurdish populations, Armenia-Azerbaijan, India-Pakistan, India-China, and North and South Korea.

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