Hudson Institute

MENA Defense Intelligence Digest | May 2024

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
MENA Defense Intelligence Digest | May 2024
A man holds up a sign demanding that soldiers from the United States Army leave Niger without negotiation during a demonstration in Niamey, Niger, on April 13, 2024. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

Below, Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers an overview of the contemporary Middle Eastern strategic agenda. 

Executive Summary

  • The United States is withdrawing its troops from Niger after that country’s ruling junta canceled a cooperation agreement between the two nations, a development that is likely to embolden terror networks in the region.
  • Russian paramilitary contractors, including remnants of the Wagner private military company, have arrived in Niger’s capital city, Niamey.
  • Iran is using drones to attain a formidable position in the global arms market.
  • Over the past six months, the US Navy has footed a hefty bill to intercept Iranian drones and missiles.
  • After an operational pause, the Houthi militia has resumed its strikes against commercial shipping and the US Navy, broadening the range of its attacks to the Indian Ocean.

1. The US Withdraws Its Troops from Niger as Russian Paramilitary Groups Enter the Country

The United States announced that it will withdraw its troops from Niger, as the military junta that rules that country declared the immediate cancellation of a 2012 cooperation agreement with the US. Though a timeline for their withdrawal has yet to be established, over 1,000 US troops are set to depart Niger in a decision that will severely undermine counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, a troubled region in North Africa that faces threats from radical extremist terror networks linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

Many analysts consider Russia’s deputy defense minister, General Yunus-bek Yevkurov, to be the driving force behind Moscow’s expanding influence in the region. Guided by Yevkurov, the African nations of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger signed a trilateral defense pact in September 2023. In April 2024, as US officials announced their intent to withdraw from Niger, the Kremlin declared that it had deployed military instructors to the country from the rebranded Wagner Group, now dubbed the Africa Corps, to bolster the ruling junta’s forces.

On April 12, around 100 Africa Corps paramilitaries arrived in Niamey, Niger’s capital city, ostensibly to train Nigerien forces. These paramilitaries follow on the heels of military cooperation agreements that Moscow signed with Niger in late 2023 and early 2024, which allow Russia to deploy military personnel and contractors to the country. In early May, the Kremlin stationed these military instructors at the same airbase that hosts US troops. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin confirmed the Russian presence at the airbase, but said that Russian paramilitaries have not had access to any American equipment or personnel there.

These events reveal the growing alignment Niger’s ruling junta shares with the Kremlin and its allies. Niamey is discussing other security and resource deals with Moscow, and is reportedly even exploring uranium transactions with Iran. Niger’s reorientation threatens US access to a strategically important region where US influence is already waning and terrorist groups such as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State Sahel Province (IS Sahel) are on the rise.

2. Iran’s Unsuccessful Attack on Israel Fails to Curtail Demand for Tehran’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

Open-source defense intelligence suggests that Tehran’s robotic warfare solutions, especially its medium-altitude drones and loitering munitions, continue to find eager buyers in the international weapons market. As of 2023, Iran’s defense expenditures, which totaled $10.3 billion, were the fourth largest of any country in the region, trailing only Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Türkiye. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) receives up to 37 percent of the country’s overall defense spending, and the Islamic Republic isincreasing its focus on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Military spending connected to procurement for Iran’s Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Corporation (HESA) increased by 27 percent between 2019 and 2023. A subsidiary of the Iran Aviation Industries Organization, HESA has numerous ties to the IRGC. In 2008, the United States Department of the Treasury sanctioned HESA as a chief supplier of drone warfare capabilities to the Revolutionary Guards and Iran’s terrorist networks. According to official Iranian news releases, HESA is also deeply involved in arming the Russian military with the loitering munitions that Moscow uses against Ukraine’s civilian population. Since 2022, the IRGC-linked company has signed its contracts using the name Shahin Co. to evade sanctions and export controls.

Iran’s Shahed-baseline loitering munitions also remain in high demand. The drone variants, first used by the Houthi militia in a 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia, have entered the global spotlight due to Russia’s reliance on it in its war on Ukraine. Demand for other Iranian UAVs, such as the Mohajer, has also risen in recent months.

Iranian drones are in high demand as inexpensive, expendable assets that provide significant asymmetrical advantages in mixed strike packages. Attacking forces use the drones to saturate enemy defenses so that follow-on missiles can land more impacts. Any country targeted by Tehran’s UAVs must use expensive interceptor missiles to down the drones, providing the munitions with a critical cost asymmetry that increases their value in the global arms market.

Tehran has designed its drone export strategy with an eye to nations that are either sanctioned by the West, politically indifferent to Western sanctions, or immune to the impact of such sanctions. According to the US Defense Intelligence Agency, international interest in Iranian drones spiked after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. While open-source intelligence cannot confirm the exact number of buyers and prospective clients for Iran’s growing arsenal, past reports suggest that Iranian UAV and missile solutions might now be in the hands of ArmeniaSerbiaAlgeriaSudan, and Venezuela as Tehran pressures other potential countries to purchase its weapons.

Moreover, Iran has established drone plants in Russia, Venezuela, and Tajikistan, outsourcing its critical production capabilities to other malefactors. Tehran’s UAVs have also surfaced in drone markets throughout South America, Africa, and Europe. This highlights the global scale of the security threat Iranian drones pose to the US and its allies.

3. The US Navy Foots a Hefty Bill to Intercept Low-Cost Iranian Drones and Missiles

In the past six months, the United States Navy has spent nearly $1 billion to intercept drones and missiles launched by the IRGC and its terrorist proxies in the Middle East. Biden administration officials highlighted this financial strain during a recent congressional hearing. They stressed that recent defensive combat operations have significantly exceeded their initial budget estimations.

During Iran’s April 13 attacks on Israel, two of the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyers, the USS Carney and USS Arleigh Burke, intercepted at least six hostile ballistic missiles. According to US officials, US forces also stopped more than 80 Iranian drones during these attacks.

While Washington’s interception capabilities are impressive, they are also expensive. Using a Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) to intercept an enemy projectile costs the United States between $9 and $27 million. The Navy also risks depleting its air and missile defense assets, including SM-2, SM-6, and recently SM-3 missiles, to address the rising challenge posed by the Islamic Republic. As the United States’ need for supplemental funding grows, the costs of its interceptors remain high. In most cases, the solutions the American military employs to shoot down Iranian missiles and UAVs cost far more than the hostile weapons themselves.

4. The Houthi Militia Resumes Strikes on International Shipping and Expands the Range of Its Attacks

After a period of relative inactivity, the Houthi militia resumed its strikes against international shipping and the United States Navy, targeting two US warships in the Red Sea and an Israel-linked ship, the MSC Orion, in the Indian Ocean. These attacks indicate that the range of the Houthi anti-ship threat, which previously revolved around the Bab al-Mandab, is now expanding.

The Houthis’ strikes suggest that the recent lull in the group’s activities was only an operational pause. The militia has recently threatened Israel, and has proven the most active and daring of Iran’s proxies since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas War.

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