Drones are an evolving threat: The ‘poor man’s’ precision guided munition

by Asiri Fernando. He is currently reading for a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Politics, Security and Counter Terrorism Studies at Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia. He has completed an internship at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) as a research assistant and holds a diploma in International Relations from the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) in Colombo. He has served as a news editor for the Sri Lankan Air Force Command Media Unit during 2009/10.

One of the UAVs is displayed upside-down to show its IEDs mounted on rails.

One of the UAVs is displayed upside-down to show its IEDs mounted on rails.

On the night of 5-6 January 2018, a new chapter in asymmetric warfare may have opened in Syria. A Russian Air Force detachment at Khmeimim Air Base and at the Tartus Naval station came under attack from a swarm of drones.

Up to 13 drones were used for these two attacks making it an unprecedented use of drone airpower by a non-state actor. The drones were guided by using GPS and could have been launched from up to 100 km away. Apparently, seven of these drones were destroyed by Pantsyr-S short-range air defence systems and the other six were intercepted by electronic warfare units. The Russian Ministry of Defence denied any own losses or damages due to the incident. Two recovered samples were displayed at a press briefing in January 11.

According to a statement of the Russian Ministry of Defence the “[e]ngineering solutions used by terrorists when attacking Russian facilities in Syria could have been received only from a country with high technological potential on providing satellite navigation and distant control of firing competently assembled self-made explosive devices in appointed place” (“UAV attack causes no damage to Russian military facilities in Syria“, TASS, 8 January 2018). Major General Aleksandr Novikov, the head of the Russian military’s UAV development and construction department highlighted that the drones carried each ten 400g improvised explosive devices (IED) with fragmentations (small metal balls). Apparently, Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) was used as explosive basis in the IEDs, which is produces “by a number of countries, including Ukraine at the Shostkinsky Chemical Plant”.

An attack south of Tal Afar in north-western Iraq carried out by an Air-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (ABIED) launched from a drone in February 2017.

Russians finger-pointing could be interpreted as a sign of the growing tensions between the USA and Russia. Both Russia and the USA support, supply and train different fractions waging war in Syria. However, contrary to claim by the Russian Ministry of defence on the satellite navigation and distant control of firing technology, the necessary technological solutions have been available in the civilian market for many years and PETN was used by terrorist groups several times before (for example in the 1980 Paris synagogue bombing, the 2001 shoe bomb attempt and it was used in 2009 by the “Underwear Bomber“). According to Samuel Bendett, a researcher specializing in unmanned systems at the Center for Naval Analyses, “[i]t’s very likely that such parts were most likely acquired commercially, in which case we are entering a dangerous terra incognita with respect to unsanctioned UAV use by non-state and terrorist organizations.” The use of drones by insurgents and terrorists is a growing trend in the Iraq-Syria conflict zone during the past few years; it is a showcase of what is possible with existing and emerging technologies.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and other groups such as Hezbollah and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham have been known to use drones for their activities in the past and continue to do so today. Non-state actors have mostly used drones for reconnaissance, fire correction and to strike ground targets with small munitions or IEDs. The use of drones offers insurgents and terrorists unprecedented tactical advantages to coordinate attacks and gather intelligence, especially in urban environments. Further, imagery captured by drones make valuable propaganda material for groups like ISIS, who rely heavily on online visual content for recruitment. The proliferation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) technologies, ease of access to commercially available components, availability of commercial drones and recreational crafts is viewed as a concern by Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. The number of Airborne Improvised Explosive Devices (ABIEDs) has been increasing since the start of the Syrian war, and ABIEDs have been used in Iraq as well.

Recovered ABIED’s used in the Khmeimim Air Base attack.

Recovered ABIED’s used in the Khmeimim Air Base attack.

ISIS is believed to be the most prolific user of drones up to now. Although insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Syria have used fixed-wing drones from time to time in the past few years, most of the used drones have been commercial quadcopters, most of which are small enough to be carried and used by one individual. The possibility to purchase them online at a low cost makes them an ideal choice. The quadcopter configuration offers a stable slow and low altitude platform and comes with easy to master controls, real-time video downlink and simple navigation systems. Furthermore its ability to hover over a target offers relatively good accuracy. For aerial attack, quadcopters are often used with small ABIEDs. The most frequently ones have been made of 30 mm or 40 mm grenade launcher ammunition with an improvised tail-fin assembly (Nick Waters, “Death From Above: The Drone Bombs of the Caliphate“, Bellingcat, 10.02.2017). ISIS is also known to have designed and manufactured in numbers, several types of ABIEDs, projectile bombs and related fuses in Syria (“Islamic State’s Multi-Role IEDs: Projected Grenades Used as Air-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (ABIEDs)“, Conflict Armament Research, April 2017).

However, according to military analyst Nick Waters, the ABIEDs recovered after the Khmeimim attack may be specifically built for a drone-borne attack (see his Tweet below). The downed drones displayed by the Russian Ministry of Defence indicate that they were purpose built. Designed in a conventional aircraft (fixed–wing) configuration and powered by a small diesel engine, it is clear that these drones were designed to have greater range and higher payload capacity. These facts indicate that the Khmeimim Air Force Base attack was a progression in the tactics of drone-borne ABIED-use by a non-state actor. Further, the use of commonly available “off the shelf” components make it difficult to track its origins and builders, adding a layer of deniability to the drone user.

There have been reports of drones and ABIEDs being used in the ongoing civil wars in Yemen and Libya. In December 2017, the US have used a recovered drone amongst other exhibits as evidence for alleged Iranian state sponsoring of Yemeni rebel and terrorist groups. Laura Seal, a US Defence Department Spokesperson, referred to the Qasef-1, an ABIED “kamikaze-style” drone, which had been recovered from Houthi groups by the Saudi Forces. Seal claimed that “[o]nly Iran makes the Qasef-1. It is a member of the Ababil UAV family, designed and produced by the Iranian government.” Due to such claims, it is prudent to expect that more sophisticated UAS technology and more advanced types of drones may be fielded by non–state actors in the future. Drones such as the Qasef-1, give non-state actors a degree of stand-off range precision strike capabilities which were previously only available to government forces.

The asymmetric threat posed by drones are very much a concern for security planners and practitioners around the world (see also Darien Cavanaugh, “Small, Cheap UAVs Are Making the Pentagon Nervous, so DARPA Is Stepping in to Help“, offiziere.ch, 15.11.2016). The increasing sophistication of such ABIEDs and drones used indicates that they are on an evolutionary path to becoming a more common insurgent and terrorist tool in the coming years. In 2017, the US Army awarded a contract worth up to USD $16 million to develop and field a mobile Counter-UAS (C-UAS) system by early summer 2018. .

Captured Qasef-1 Kamikaze style drone, on exhibit by the US Department of Defense.

Captured Qasef-1 Kamikaze style drone, on exhibit by the US Department of Defense.

Off the battlefield, drone-borne threats to critical infrastructure, aviation and soft targets are a significant security concern, too (Asiri Fernando, “Unlawful Use of Civilian Drones in Sri Lanka: A Security Concern?“, Institute of National Security Studies of Sri Lanka, 29.07.2017). Between early October and late November 2014, drones breaching the restricted airspace over 13 of France’s 19 nuclear power plants caused the French authorities to introduce several measures to counter illegal drone intrusions over critical infrastructure and defence related sites. In 2015, a drone carrying radioactive sand landed on the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence. Police later arrested a man who had intended to protest against Japan’s Nuclear energy policies with the drone landing (“Japan Radioactive Drone: Tokyo Police Arrest Man“, BBC News, 25.04.2015). Such acts demonstrate that Drones or UASs can be used to deliver small chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear payloads.

In February 2017, the US Department of Homeland Security released a document on critical infrastructure security where it notes that drones can be a significant threat to national security and that the potential for drone use in an attack is on the rise. Utility services networks such as the national power grid, water distribution systems and filtration plants, telecommunication networks, ports and oil refineries are key to maintain the economy running smoothly and are vulnerable on drone attacks. Therefore, it is important that security policymakers pay attention to the evolving threat landscape, especially in relation to critical infrastructure protection.

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This entry was posted in Asiri Fernando, Drones, English, Technology, Terrorism.

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