The White House is guarded by amongst the most comprehensive suite of passive and active defences in the world. Any air asset that comes within a restricted corridor is to be met by the warning message from a United States Air Force aircraft, its missiles firmly locked onto the incoming threat. And yet, an unknown aircraft crash lands onto the White House lawn.
In Europe, alarm bells start ringing at a sensitive nuclear site. Air based radar systems have picked up an incoming hostile aerial target. As a crisis team assembles to counter from the ground, a signal is sent to a nearby air force base. As fighter aircraft start taxiing, they receive further news. Instead of one target, there are a hundred.
Halfway across the world, a leading political figure is giving a speech at a rally. As his eyes observe the crowd gathered before him, though bulletproof glass, he feels secure knowing that the area is guarded by the best military units in his country. And yet, nearby, there is an explosion, directly above the crowd.
All three scenarios have happened, or are nervously awaited by security experts. The weapon used in all three instances? Commercial drones, which can be purchased by anyone with the requisite financial ability. Since the dawn of organized society, there has been an increasingly frantic battle between the attacker and defender. In years of yore, walls were built to stop crusading armies. These armies responded with projectiles hurled from catapults and multi-story siege weapons. Walls became thicker, a strategy which worked till the introduction of the cannon, decisively used in the Fall of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. The 20th century saw the introduction of aircraft, which were quickly weaponized. A new game of cat and mice began, with faster aircraft meeting more advanced anti-aircraft technology, from flak to rockets to modern heat-seeking missiles and in the future, laser-based systems.
This was met in parallel by a new technology: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), known more colloquially as ‘drones’. These are the very ones which the United States has used to wage war and destruction from Yemen to Waziristan, and the very ones we saw near nightly bulletins of, their destruction marked as collateral.
War strategists were quick to experiment with the idea of using drones as battle, with American battle doctrines reflecting everything from using these technological marvels as reconnaissance, as cheap offensive platforms, as anti-aircraft objects, and even as decoy attacks, which would trigger enemy defences, allowing the actual attackers a free, mapped corridor.
The main advantage of drones has been clear from the first day: they lack a physical pilot to carry, and can thus be smaller, slower, be built more cheaply, and be disposed of in case it is required by the mission. It is these reasons why they have found such favour with military planners, and why they are finding such favour with non-state actors.
The usage of commercially available, or assemble-able drones was noted by US planners in a 2008 study by the RAND Corporation, entitled ‘Evaluating Novel Threats to the Homeland: Unnamed Aerial Vehicles and Cruise Missiles’, or simply ‘Novel Threats’. The study delineated five reasons why aerial drones might be considered effective ways to target an individual, group, or facility, which were:
n An ability to circumvent perimeter defence
n Attacking from outside national borders
n Staging multiple simultaneous attacks
n Sustaining protracted terrorist campaigns
n Dispersal of unconventional weapons
While these seem easily understandable today, the study went on to argue that it was unnecessary for terrorists to use drones for attacks. Mind you, this was in 2008. Fast forward to today, civilian drone manufacturer DJI’s market share will be worth 11 billion USD. The slightly more distant future offers us cargo and passenger carrying drones, as well as smaller city-based systems which will replace municipal tasks like gardening, repairs and cleaning.
The same reasons which have made military drones the darling of the battlefield are what are making them useful for terrorist groups, and rogue actors: for relatively low cost you can target, or threaten, nearly any facility in the world. What is worse is that the defences against this threat are laughably under-developed.
Radar systems are rendered impotent, since most drones are small and have the same radar cross-section as many birds. Short of telling anti-air weapons operators to target every pigeon and crow in the sky, not much can be done. Furthermore, most drones fly slowly enough that an observation over time of trajectory and distance does not offer any clues to their true nature.
Even in visual range, the range of instruments at the disposal of those defending against a civilian drone attack are limited: while it is easy to shoot down a slow moving, aerial target, in confined urban areas, the risk towards injuring civilians is great. Even if the order is given, the construction of most commercial drones (Styrofoam and other light plastics and foams) means that they can keep flying unless a vital part is hit. Even then, due to the laws of gravity and relativity, the neutralized threat is going to fall in an area close to its intended target.
US defensive manuals offer two prescriptions: active and passive defence. Active defence refers to utilizing radio jamming to counter and/or hijack the drone operators control over the machine, thus rendering it either neutralized or temporarily neutered. However, whether this can be done on a large enough scale, and in time, is not something which has been tested. However, signs are promising, and in a recent test Russian military officials managed to tackle a swarm of 13 drones using a combination of anti-aircraft missiles and hacking.
All this goes back to the beginning, however: history has seen pitched battles of escalation between attackers and defenders. Every time a new threat appears, countermeasures are created. And so on, and so on. This is matched with the near infinite ability of human beings to use machines for evil.
The problem remains that as we move into the future, commercial drones are becoming more sophisticated and capable, and terrorist groups using them, more brazen, and creative. Individual actors are not far behind, and if we buy the argument that terrorist attacks are about sending a message, the future seems to be a scary, scary place.
The author has a Masters in IR from Durham University, and teaches politics at a local university.