politics

U.S. Will Work With the UAE to Thwart Drone Attacks, Centcom Chief Says

Caroline Brehman | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
  • The collaboration comes in the wake of several successive drone and missile attacks on the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, most of which have been claimed by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
  • The UAE is armed with THAAD and Patriot PAC-3 missile defense systems. But drones remain a potent threat.
  • The Gulf sheikhdom is part of a Saudi-led coalition that's been at war with the Houthis in Yemen since 2015.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The U.S. is working with its Gulf ally, the United Arab Emirates, to develop counter-drone solutions and thwart attacks before they can even be launched, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has announced.

"We are working with our partners here in the region and with the industry back in the United States to develop solutions that would work against drones," Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie told UAE state news agency WAM in an interview Monday. "We would like to work against drones what we call 'Left of Launch,' [meaning] before they can be launched."

The system would be able to detect drone launches and disrupt their flight.

"And if you can't do that, you will certainly be able to shoot them down as they reach their intended target," he said.

The collaboration comes in the wake of several successive drone and missile attacks on the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, most of which have been claimed by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels. A recent attack on Feb. 3 featured three "hostile drones" which were intercepted by UAE forces, the country's Defense Ministry said. That attempted strike was claimed by an Iraqi-based militant group.

Satellite photos obtained by the Associated Press on Tuesday showed the aftermath of a fatal attack on an oil facility in the capital of the United Arab Emirates claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels. The images by Planet Labs PBC analyzed by the AP show smoke rising over an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot in the Mussafah neighborhood of Abu Dhabi on Monday Jan. 17, 2022.
Planet Labs via AP
Satellite photos obtained by the Associated Press on Tuesday showed the aftermath of a fatal attack on an oil facility in the capital of the United Arab Emirates claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels. The images by Planet Labs PBC analyzed by the AP show smoke rising over an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot in the Mussafah neighborhood of Abu Dhabi on Monday Jan. 17, 2022.

The first attack, on Jan. 17, targeted facilities of state oil producer ADNOC and an area near Abu Dhabi International Airport, killing three people. The most significant attack to happen on Emirati soil, UAE authorities described it as having been carried out by both drones and missiles. A second attack just one week later was thwarted by U.S. forces' Patriot missile defense system at Abu Dhabi's Al Dhafra Air Base, which the U.S. said was done in tandem with UAE forces.

Abu Dhabi said a third missile attack on Jan. 31, during Israeli President Isaac Herzog's visit and claimed by the Houthis, was also intercepted.

Strong missile defenses

The UAE is part of a Saudi-led coalition that's been at war with the Houthis in Yemen since 2015. The country has since become one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters, with tens of thousands dead and millions facing famine. The UAE largely reduced its presence in the country in 2019, but continues to support proxy groups that have dealt crucial blows to the Houthis in recent months.  

Seen as one of the most stable countries in the Middle East, the oil-rich UAE is armed with THAAD and Patriot PAC-3 missile defense systems, some of the most expensive and most advanced in the world. But drones, which are typically not detected by radar, are a newer and in some cases more challenging threat.

"We are happy to see that THAAD employed successfully by UAE in the first two combat employments of that system," McKenzie said. "So, that's been very good, and I know that it sends a strong message of reassurance to everyone in UAE. We will continue to work with UAE to make that system even better in the future."

The Houthis say their strikes on Abu Dhabi are in retaliation for its involvement in the war. The Saudi-led coalition first invaded Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthis, a Shiite militia movement, pushed out its internationally-recognized government.  

Drone threats, and solutions, 'are growing rapidly'

Counter-drone technologies were on display at the Dubai Air Show in November and are in high demand from governments. But their capabilities vary. 

"The UAVs the Houthis send fly way faster and higher than a standard drone," said Asaf Lebovitz, an Israel-based drone and defense expert who oversaw sales of counter-UAS technology during the air show. He says the system needed is "between anti-drone solutions and anti-aircraft systems."  

Drone defense systems range from those built for large, fixed-wing UAVs and for smaller drones, and taking them down can involve radio frequency jamming, spoofing, trapping them with physical nets and hard-kill live munition options to shoot them down.

And while low-flying smaller drones are harder to detect, they also carry smaller payloads, so will ultimately be less lethal. The tradeoff is that larger, deadlier weapons like ballistic missiles are also easier to detect.   

"Everyday the technology is being developed; it's a market where the threats as well as the solutions are growing rapidly," Lebovitz said.

"I know that all this knowledge is there in the UAE," he added. "It's a country that is very much aware of the technology and they're thinking 30 years ahead every time — I'm sure they know what to do and how to deal with it." 

'One friend helping another'

The coalition has carried out several retaliatory airstrikes across Houthi territory in Yemen since the UAE attacks, some of which reportedly killed scores of civilians and temporarily knocked out Yemen's internet. The tumult comes amid talks between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors, perhaps ironically, about how to reduce regional tensions.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last week announced the deployment of a destroyer equipped with ballistic missile defenses to the UAE for patrols, as well as F-22 fighter jets to the region.

"Even as the UAE has come under attack, the United States has moved quickly and swiftly to help an old friend," McKenzie said on Monday.

"We brought in a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Cole, which has ballistic missile defense capabilities. It will patrol the waters of the UAE, working closely with UAE air defenders to protect their nation."

"So, we think this is just one friend helping another in a time of crisis."

The U.S. and UAE have long been allies, and in January 2021 the UAE became the first Arab country to sign a deal enabling it to purchase American F-35 fighter jets and lethal drones. That sale has been put on hold amid U.S. security concerns over the UAE's relationship with China.

Copyright CNBCs - CNBC
Contact Us