Attack of the Drones: Drone wars

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By Stasa Salacanin

Unchecked proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and their use by state and Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG) alike opens an entire new security paradigm. Numerous reports indicate that terrorists and armed militia groups are already experimenting and weaponizing consumer drones and it is only a matter of time before they use them to carry out attacks in Europe.

As a matter of fact, Europe has already seen an episode where a drone has been used for political propaganda, causing major disturbance of public peace and order. In October 2014, the UEFA EURO qualifying match between Serbia and Albania was abandoned after 41 minutes as a drone flew over the pitch carrying a banner with the image of Greater Albania, resulting in chaos on the pitch and the stands. Although this was not a terrorist attack and there were no human casualties, many have come to the conclusion that this occurrence could be a game changer. If a banner can be carried, there’s no reason why a bomb can’t be if the device is put in the wrong hands. Various NSAG groups are already experimenting with the potential use of drones. According to last year’s report titled “Hostile drones: Supplementary risk assessment” conducted by Open Briefing, the world’s first civil society intelligence agency, the overall risk from the hostile use of drones by non-state actors against British targets is assessed to be medium, though the threat from terrorist organisations and insurgent groups is assessed as high.

Hobby shop bombers
Daesh has already used commercial off-the-shelf drones equipped with 40mm grenades in their attacks, killing and wounding Iraqi and Kurdish troops, explains Wim Zwijnenburg, a Humanitarian Disarmament Project Leader for the Dutch peace organisation PAX and an expert on emerging military technologies. He told us that since the rise of Daesh in 2014, we have seen the use of commercial drones for propaganda videos in their first video from Fallujah. This fitted in a wider trend of non-state armed groups experimenting with commercial and/or military drones. Hezbollah made various attempts to equip drones with explosives and attack Israeli targets in 2009. It is believed that Hezbollah, for example, has a fleet of 200 UAVs.

In most cases so far, the use of drones has had limited success as they were relatively slow and easy to shoot down. But despite technological limitations of non-state groups and their current drone fleet, the technology is catching up at an alarming rate and it is only a matter of time before these devises become more effective.

So, how easy or hard is to convert drones that are commercially available into flying bombs and how effective are these devices? According to Justin Bronk, Research Fellow specialising in combat airpower and technology in the Military Sciences team at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), it is actually easy to convert a commercially available quadcopter drone which is capable of carrying a modest payload such as a camera into a weapon by attaching grenades or submunitions from cluster weapons as Daesh and others have proven. “However, the effectiveness of such improvised flying bombs is limited by the very small size of explosive packages that they can carry and by the inaccuracy of dropping such devices remotely using improvised means,” he said.

Despite obvious flaws, drones look like ideal weapons to carry out terrorist attacks in public. Although they are not that lethal on the large scale, they could still cause chaos and panic, triggering negative psychological effects and a sense of insecurity. In addition, drones are cheap, highly accessible and highly portable systems. Currently there are around 200 types of drones available on the streets or online and according to Open Briefing, consumer drones available today are capable of delivering an explosive payload equivalent to a pipe bomb (1-4 kilograms) or a suicide vest (4-10 kilograms).

Wim Zwijnenburg notes that the Syrian conflict proved to be an experimental lab for NSAGs to test the opportunities for commercial drones in military operations. He said that it was only logical that these groups started to equip them with lethal payloads. It was just a matter of finding out what type of payload works best. “For example, recent reporting from Mosul indicates that Daesh has used the Chinese DJI Phantom drone as a platform of delivery,” he adds.

According to Bronk, so far the most lethal and dangerous use of commercial drones on the battlefield is the role of ‘spotting’ devices to direct indirect fire such as mortars and artillery, providing even lightly equipped groups with the ability to open indirect fire on targets using real time imagery to observe the disposition of enemy forces and the fall of munitions. In addition, they are an excellent tool for making propaganda videos, something that Daesh has already exploited heavily.

“What we witnessed from thevideos coming out of Iraq and produced by Daesh is that troops often do not notice the drones. On the occasions that they do, it’s often difficult to hit a small target at such a distance, thus new counter-drone measures are needed to protect army units,” Zwijnenburg explained.

This “advantage” could be easily applied in non-military zones as well, when attacking soft targets in cities and at public events. Even more disturbing is the fact that current technological limitations are expected to become irrelevant very soon as the NSAG know-how is progressing fast. Zwijnenburg told us that Daesh also proved to have a steep learning curve when it comes to equipping drones. We might very well see home-made drones soon, so that the reliance on the import of commercial drones is not there anymore. Moreover, they could carry larger payloads, or fly in swarms, so multiple drones will carry out an attack. Open Briefing warned that if used in a swarm against a crowd at a major sporting event they would cause serious injuries and multiple fatalities.

Zwijnenburg also raises concerns about armed groups disseminating their knowledge through the internet, thus making it easier for terrorists in the West to use drones for carrying out attacks. “The only caveat is that in Western countries it is quite difficult to get access to military grade explosives, thus making them less likely to be used in an armed attack.” But other means for attack with drones can be developed as well.

Bleak scenarios refer to the possibility of drones carrying dirty bombs containing radioactive material or other toxic substances as well. The former British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of this possibility last year, expressing his deep concerns that terrorists could use drones for spraying radioactive material over Western cities. But at the moment “the likelihood of such a scenario is rather low”, said Zwijnenburg, and according to Bronk, their main limitation as a delivery system is their small payload. “The difficulty for terrorist groups is not delivering dirty bombs or radioactive agents. It is getting hold of such materials in the first place and engineering them into weapons without dying of radiation poisoning in the process. A truck bomb is a much more likely vector for a dirty bomb attack on a Western city,” noted Bronk.

A hawk against a missile?
So is there any effective protection from hostile drones? Bronk feels that there are various methods of protecting areas against commercial drones such as shooting them down, using high powered jamming or microwave devices to disable them, and even training hawks. French army and Dutch police, for example, are teaching birds of prey to bring down remote-controlled drones when they enter a no-go urban airspace. However, he continued: “The disadvantage in a crowded urban area is the high danger of collateral damage – whether physical from projectiles or electronic from jamming or microwave devices – which might well outweigh any damage a small drone could do on its own.”

Zwijnenburg noted that one step already taken is to register commercial drones, in particular the larger types that can carry heavy payloads (not the toy drones for kids), so there is some sort of control and background checks over who is acquiring drones. But all these measures can be easily circumvented. Therefore, according to Zwijnenburg, no-drone zones would need to be set up and enforced if there is a risk to the public. “There is a growing industry that is developing counter-drone measures, and I think we are still in the beginning of discussing how to deal with these threats.” He offered a simple comparison with another technological invention which we needed to adapt to and regulate. “Just as with the invention of cars and increased regulations, we will need to go towards having a drone-licence, drone traffic rules and registration of drones before they can be used. But as we saw with cars, one can also drive a car into a crowd, so there will always be risks of misusing the technology of any kind.”
Open Briefing’s report “How to respond to the threat from hostile drones in the UK ” from last March proposes the United Kingdom adopts a hierarchy of countermeasures – regulatory, passive and active, which provide a layered defence. In short, regulatory countermeasures include sale regulations, civil aviation rules and manufacturing standards and restrictions. Passive countermeasures include early warning systems and signal jamming. Active countermeasures include kinetic defence systems such as missiles, rockets and bullets, and less-lethal systems – projectile weapons and net guns.

Overall, Zwijnenburg believes that it is mostly up to intelligence agencies and law-enforcement bodies to identify any potential threat and stop it, which is usually the best way to prevent any terrorist attack. Rules and controls alone will not be enough.