China's cheaper armed drones now flying across Mideast battlefields

The Japan Times

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – High above Yemen's rebel-held city of Hodeida, a drone controlled by Emirati forces hovered as an SUV carrying a top Shiite Houthi rebel official turned onto a small street and stopped, waiting for another vehicle in its convoy to catch up. Seconds later, the SUV exploded in flames, killing Saleh al-Samad, a top political figure. The drone that fired that missile in April was not one of the many American aircraft that have been buzzing across the skies of Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001. Across the Middle East, countries locked out of purchasing U.S.-made drones due to rules over excessive civilian casualties are being wooed by Chinese arms dealers, the world's main distributor of armed drones. "The Chinese product now doesn't lack technology, it only lacks market share," said Song Zhongping, a Chinese military analyst and former lecturer at the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force University of Engineering.


Precision attack on Saudi oil facility seen as part of dangerous new pattern

The Japan Times

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – The assault on the beating heart of Saudi Arabia's vast oil empire follows a new and dangerous pattern that's emerged across the Persian Gulf this summer of precise attacks that leave few obvious clues as to who launched them. Beginning in May with the still-unclaimed explosions that damaged oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, the region has seen its energy infrastructure repeatedly targeted. Those attacks culminated with Saturday's assault on the world's biggest oil processor in eastern Saudi Arabia, which halved the oil-rich kingdom's production and caused energy prices to spike. Some strikes have been claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels, who have been battling a Saudi-led coalition in the Arab world's poorest country since 2015. Their rapidly increasing sophistication fuels suspicion among experts and analysts however that Iran may be orchestrating them -- or perhaps even carrying them out itself as the U.S. alleges in the case of Saturday's attack.


U.S. Navy reports another close call with Iran drone

The Japan Times

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – An unarmed Iranian drone shadowed a U.S. aircraft carrier at night and came close enough to F-18 fighter jets to put the lives of American pilots at risk, the Navy said Tuesday, reporting the second such tense encounter within a week. The Iranian Sadegh drone flew without any warning lights during the encounter Sunday night with the USS Nimitz, said Lt. Ian McConnaughey, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet. The drone did not respond to repeated calls over the radio and came within 1,000 feet (300 meters) of U.S. fighters, he said. That "created a dangerous situation with the potential for collision and is not in keeping with international maritime customs and laws," McConnaughey said in a statement. The drone was unarmed, the lieutenant said, though that model can carry missiles.


New questions emerge after Iran belatedly admits to downing Ukraine airliner

The Japan Times

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Iran's acknowledgement that it shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 people, raises new challenges for the Islamic Republic both externally amid tensions with the U.S. and internally as it deals with growing discontent from its people. The country did itself no favors by having its air-crash investigators, government officials and diplomats deny for days that a missile downed the flight, though a commander said Saturday that he had raised that possibility to his superiors as early as Wednesday, the day of the crash. While its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard took responsibility, the same commander claimed it warned Tehran to close off its airspace amid fears of U.S. retaliation over Iran launching ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces. That retaliation never came, but the worries proved to be enough to allegedly scare a missile battery into opening fire on the Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines. Wider tensions between Iran and the U.S., inflamed after Iran's top general was killed in Iraq by a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3, have for the moment calmed.


In UAE, Trump's adviser warns Iran of 'very strong response' to any attack

The Japan Times

ABU DHABI - President Donald Trump's national security adviser warned Iran on Wednesday that any attacks in the Persian Gulf will draw a "very strong response" from the U.S., taking a hard-line approach with Tehran after his boss only two days earlier said America wasn't "looking to hurt Iran at all." John Bolton's comments are the latest amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran that have been playing out in the Middle East. Bolton spoke to journalists in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, which only days earlier saw former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warn there that "unilateralism will not work" in confronting the Islamic Republic. The dueling approaches highlight the divide over Iran within American politics. The U.S. has accused Tehran of being behind a string of incidents this month, including the alleged sabotage of oil tankers off the Emirati coast, a rocket strike near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and a coordinated drone attack on Saudi Arabia by Yemen's Iran-allied Houthi rebels. On Wednesday, Bolton told journalists that there had been a previously unknown attempt to attack the Saudi oil port of Yanbu as well, which he also blamed on Iran.