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Militant groups can use drones as weapons

Militant groups have drones. Now what?, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,  Perry World House, 8 Sept 17,  Militant groups have a new way to wage war: drone attacks from above. As recent news reports and online videos suggest, organizations like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have used commercially-available uninhabited aerial vehicles—better known as UAVs or drones—to drop explosives onto their adversaries in the battle for territory.

That ISIS would weaponize drones shouldn’t be surprising. Militant groups often use the latest consumer technology to make up for capability gaps and level the fight against regular military forces. ISIS broadcasts propaganda through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and plans attacks using encrypted communication platforms like Telegram. This embrace of innovation extends to the way militant groups use military force. Over the last year or so, they have begun to use modified commercial drones for offensive strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. These new tools of war provide a way to conduct terror attacks against civilians, and can also pose a threat to ground forces. Stopping drone proliferation is not an option because of the ubiquity of the technology. That means government forces will have to learn to counter drones operated by militant groups, just as they are now training to counter drones used by national militaries.

Already a “daunting” threat. The threat posed by militant groups flying drones is as much about where the threat is coming from—the sky—as it is about the munitions being launched. Militaries fighting militant groups have enjoyed air superiority for decades. US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, have rarely, if ever, feared attacks from the air. Civilians and humanitarian groups in Syria worry about air strikes from Assad’s regime, but not from militant groups like ISIS. The adoption of drones by militant groups is therefore generating a novel challenge. Speaking at a conference in May, Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of the US Special Operations Command, called commercial drones the “most daunting problem” his troops had faced over the previous year. At one point, he said, the anti-ISIS campaign “nearly came to a screeching halt, where literally over 24 hours there were 70 drones in the air.”

Militant groups using modified commercial drones can threaten militaries in more ways than one. In addition to dropping munitions on unsuspecting soldiers, they can strap explosives to drones to generate devastating effects. For example, militants can crash an explosive-laden drone into a target, creating a sort of MacGyvered cruise missile. Alternatively, militants can booby-trap drones. In one case, Kurdish fighterstrying to examine a grounded drone died when it exploded. In Ukraine, Russian-backed separatists use drones to target military infrastructure and cause immense damage. For instance, they used a commercial drone to drop a Russian-made thermite hand grenade on an ammunition depot in Eastern Ukraine, causing an inferno and close to $1 billion in damage. Put simply, commercial drones are enabling militant groups to engage in a more diverse array of missions to advance their goals against militarily superior forces…….

Drone wars of the near future. One worrisome potential source of growing drone capacity might seem benevolent at first: the commercial sector itself. As commercially available technology develops at a rapid pace, the variety of military applications is increasing as well. Goldman Sachs recently estimated that between 2016 and 2020, buyers will spend about $100 billion on drones. Defense spending by militaries will account for about $70 billion of that total, but the remaining $30 billion will be made up by consumers, businesses, and civilian government bodies buying commercially-available products.

Within the drone market, the sensor component segment is forecasted to grow the fastest. Sensors can perform a variety of functions, such as transmitting images or detecting heat signatures. Sensors are built for commercial purposes like search-and-rescue operations and crop analysis, but can also be adapted for military purposes. ……

Currently, countries and businesses around the world are grappling with how to best address the challenge in a variety of ways. In Japan, the Tokyo police are using drones equipped with nets to stop potentially hostile drones. The French military and Dutch police are breeding golden eagles to destroy small drones. For its part, the US military tested a “drone-killing laser” and solicited proposals for other solutions to counter unmanned aerial systems…….

Commercial drones are here to stay—in backyards and battlefields, in the hands of militants and militaries, conducting both surveillance and air strikes. While the advantage belongs to the aggressor in this domain, militaries have good options for addressing the threat.

This column is by Itai Barsade (@ItaiBarsade) and Michael C. Horowitz (@mchorowitz). Barsade is a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, where Horowitz is a professor of political science and associate director.


September 9, 2017 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, safety, weapons and war

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