Islamic State’s armed drones herald a new frontier in air wars
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An American Reaper drone Photo Credit: Ethan Miller/ Getty Images Israel

Encounters with the UAVs in Iraq again proves that drone technology is not the preserve of regular militaries anymore

On October 2, two Kurdish soldiers were killed and two French soldiers wounded when they attempted to dismantle a drone belonging to ISIS. The drone was in fact shot down, reports Le Monde, but packed with explosives that then went off and hit the nearby soldiers.

Reports have previously surfaced of explosives-laden drones built by ISIS and other terrorist groups, but this incident is the first time such a drone is believed to have killed anyone.

These “kamikaze drones” are a poor man’s guided missile, in much the same way a vehicle-born improved explosive device (VBIED) is a suicidal smart bomb on the ground. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) will increasingly lend themselves to these ends with their long loiter times, small radar profiles, and large effective ranges for targeted surprise attacks.

Although the technology is still in its infancy, countering it would require a major shift in how armies defend their facilities from attack, the way airports operate, and how cities manage airspace access for public events and around sensitive infrastructure.

Inside a drone workshop

ISIS has a number of factories in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq manufacturing weapons systems, from car bombs to artillery shells. At least some of these sites are dedicated to drones. One such workshop, in Ramadi, Iraq, was explored by members of the Conflict Armament Research (CAR) team in February following ISIS’s retreat from that city.

In a report provided to Geektime, investigators described seeing multiple unfinished prototypes, avionics systems, and also dismantled MANPAD (man portable air defence system) components. “The co-discovery of drone construction and attempts to repurpose missile components,” CAR concludes, “plausibly suggests attempts by IS forces to develop some form of weaponised drone.” Building material for the drone bodies (plywood and styrofoam) are believed to have probably been sourced locally.

Except for the missile parts, which were made in the USSR in the 1980s, all of the electronics discovered were two to three years old, with traceable commercial origins to firms in South Korea, Japan, and the US (by way of Turkey).

There is no evidence that any of these companies engaged in illegal behavior. CAR has previously documented how easily commercial electronics are repurposed by ISIS to build weapons without the manufacturers’ knowledge. Drone components, even avionics control packages, fall into a still nebulously regulated category of sales and operators.

Hovering above the battlefield

Drone surveillance planes flying over city Photo Credit: John Lund / Getty Images Israel

Drone surveillance planes flying over city Photo Credit: John Lund / Getty Images Israel

What would these fleets of attack robots look like? According to the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), drone fall into several categories. “Hobbyist” models sold in stores or online, mid-sized systems with commercial or government operators, and large craft – some of which are stealth-capable – that are so expensive they are only used by well-equipped air forces at present.

Large and mid-sized drones could be configured into something like a cruise missile, but this would probably be a waste of costly, purpose-built systems that could instead perform surveillance or carry air-launched munitions. Smaller drones, however, would be far cheaper to use, comparable to regular small arms and light weapons in unit cost, and offer great mobility. Militaries imagine “swarms” of such drones in the future though so far, drones are rarely deployed en masse except for surveillance purposes.

This will change in the coming decades, though. According to Armament Research Services (ARES), “the ongoing miniaturisation of precision guided munitions suggests that their incorporation into small UAV systems in the future is a distinct possibility.” These lightweight guided missiles are at present limited to countries with highly advanced military-industrial complexes, however, so using the drone itself as the carrier and delivery system is the most feasible option. Dropping unguided grenades and bomblets from an UAV is also an option, as Hezbollah has demonstrated with its UAV fleet, but will not have the same effect with as great a level of accuracy.

Much of the effect from these first-generation “kamikaze drones” would be psychological. Even a relatively small amount of damage from an attack on a civilian airport, convoy of soldiers, or VIP giving a speech would prompt massive changes in how drones are marketed, sold, and operated.

If developed properly, even cheap models with a range of just a few miles, small payloads, and just enough power to fly for a few hours could be far more effective than dumb-fired rockets or stationary IEDs. Improvements in materials science and guidance software, like those outlined by defense blog War on the Rocks, would theoretically bring costs down to a few thousand dollars per unit and give controllers ample practice time on their machines.

There is less of a danger from regular commercial drones being used to attack vehicles and people. Although they could be maneuvered to do so, most lightweight drones lack the mass to cause more damage to a modern airplane than a typical bird strike. But, birds don’t have spinning metal blades and lithium-ion batteries that could combust if sucked into a jet engine, or the ability to pack explosives (as far as we know).

Solutions to defeat and deny these drones from carrying out attacks are being pursued in earnest by defense contractors and military specialists. Commercial technology is also advancing, with airports testing early warning systems to detect “rogue” incoming UAVs that could pose a risk to passengers. It is worth noting that many commercial drones now include programming that internally restrict them from entering these no fly zones.

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