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As tensions rise between the U.S. and Iran, we turn to a related story. Drone strikes have been hitting oil pipelines and airfields in the Gulf region. These drones are relatively low tech, yet as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, they are the clearest sign yet that a new era of warfare has begun.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Back in January, a group of high-level military commanders gathered for an event at an airbase in Yemen. It was far from the front lines of the ongoing civil war. But then as the cameras were rolling, something suddenly appeared out of the sky. And a warning - what you're about to hear is loud.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
NICK WATERS: It's pretty scary because it's clear that these guys had absolutely no idea what had just happened.
BRUMFIEL: Nick Waters is with Bellingcat, a group of open-source researchers. What had happened was a small drone had flown over the dais and detonated, peppering the ground with shrapnel. According to press reports, the blast killed several, including the head of military intelligence. This weapon was launched by Houthi rebels over 18 miles away. Waters says it was a glorified model airplane with an explosive on the front and a propeller on the back. It flew a pre-programmed route using GPS.
WATERS: Although it's, like, relatively simple, it can be very effective.
BRUMFIEL: In recent weeks, Houthi rebels have sent similar drones to targets inside Saudi Arabia, including oil pumping stations and airfields. Experts say these drones likely come from the Houthis' main sponsor, Iran.
ARIANE TABATABAI: So Iran started to develop drones in the 1980s.
BRUMFIEL: Ariane Tabatabai is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
TABATABAI: That was in the context of the Iran-Iraq War, and it was largely trying to make up for its lack of conventional capabilities.
BRUMFIEL: Iran has been under various arms embargoes for decades, so Iranian engineers developed drones on their own. Iran has kept the technology to itself until a few years ago when the rival Islamic State, or ISIS, started to gain territory nearby.
TABATABAI: The rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq was really the main driver behind Iran starting to deploy its drones outside of its borders.
BRUMFIEL: In fact, the Syrian civil war has been a drone testing ground for all sides. Israel has sent drones to hunt Syrian air defenses. Russia has tried out its newest technology. Even ISIS used commercial drones to drop small explosives on the enemy. Many of Iran's drones occupy a sort of middle ground between the advanced weapons of major powers and the off-the-shelf technology used by ISIS. Ali Vaez is with the international Crisis Group. He says taking cheap drones to the next level is exactly the kind of thing Iran is good at.
ALI VAEZ: It is very much in line with Iranians' modus operandi.
BRUMFIEL: Vaez says these drones fit well with the nation's overall defense strategy, using asymmetric warfare and proxy groups to take on its enemies far from its own borders. He's also not surprised by recent evidence that Iran is sharing not just drones but drone technologies so that partner groups like the Houthis in Yemen can build their own drones.
VAEZ: The Iranian mentality is generally that instead of giving fish to your partners and proxies in the region, you should teach them how to do fishing.
BRUMFIEL: Nick Waters, who tracks weapons systems in Yemen and elsewhere, says there is evidence that the Houthi rebels are building their own drones now. And he says small drones are showing up in conflict zones from Ukraine to the Philippines.
WATERS: These things are going to be around simply because the capability they give is really, really useful, and they're not that expensive.
BRUMFIEL: Cheap drones are rapidly becoming just another weapon of war. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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