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Remote Controlled Weapon Station (RCWS): From National Arsenals to Terrorist Organizations

Anastasios Giannakis, Jean Scott, Katherine Yusko, W/T Team

November 30, 2020


Reports that the perpetrators behind the recent assassination of prominent Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeha may have utilized a remote-controlled weapon station (RCWS) has drawn significant attention to advanced RCWS technology. This technology may change how RCWSs are used on the battlefield and may assist terrorist organizations in deploying advanced RCWSs in combat as well as to carry out terror attacks.[1] Some terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, have been known to use and manufacture RCWSs, but due to their relatively low levels of sophistication, their use of RCWSs has been limited.[2] However, new developments in RCWS technology could, in the long term, make it possible for terrorists to exploit RCWSs to unprecedented heights.


Remote Controlled Weapon System (RCWS)[3]


The perpetrators behind the assassination of prominent Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who had played an instrumental role in Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, allegedly utilized a remote-controlled weapon station (RCWS) to carry out the attack, according to claims made by Iranian officials.[4] Although many questioned the veracity of this assertion, multiple media sources soon identified a remote-controlled weapon that could potentially have been used in the assassination, specifically, the SMASH Hopper, a light remote control weapon system (LRCWS) produced by the Israeli company Smartshooter. While the use of a SMASH Hopper or any RCWSs in the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh remains unconfirmed, the fact that RCWSs may be have been effectively deployed in the assassination of a high-profile individual is of concern, as it suggests that terrorist organizations could potentially deploy RCWSs to similar ends.


While such an event may seem unlikely, terrorists have indeed been known to use RCWSs.[5] One such incident occurred in 2016 when Islamic State terrorists ambushed Kurdish forces in Iraq with a modified Dragunov SVD, installed on a moveable base with a camera attached. Reports indicate that Kurdish forces suffered several casualties before they were able to neutralize the weapon. The RCWSs terrorists have produced and deployed are of varying levels of sophistication, but they seemingly consist largely of small arms that have been modified to allow for some degree of remote control and are often standalone weapons. While these weapons are much less sophisticated than those deployed by national militaries which are often integrated with vehicles, they have the potential to pose significant threats.[6]


Even with less sophisticated models, terrorists gain several advantages when using RCWSs instead of more conventional firearms. For instance, RCWSs do not require an operator to be in direct proximity to the weapon. This improves the survivability of the RCWS operator. Because this person is safer, their stress due to conflict is mitigated, which, in turn, decreases detrimental stress-induced effects such as inhibited motor functions.[7] This allows an assailant to be more accurate and thus more lethal with an RCWS than they might be using more conventional weaponry. Furthermore, an RCWS may allow a terrorist to operate from a significant distance away (such as from another building), which would significantly improve their odds of evading security forces during and following an attack.[8] Another significant advantage that terrorists gain in the use of RCWSs is that these weapon systems can be more difficult to neutralize than personnel. They may be smaller targets than individuals and can be better protected.


However, despite the advantages offered by RCWSs and the apparent capacity for terrorist organizations to produce them, terrorist organizations are only using them in a limited fashion at present. This is mainly because terrorist groups seemingly do not have significant access to these weapons or the capabilities to produce them on a large scale. Furthermore, their RCWSs have tactical limitations, for instance, they are largely designed as stationary weapons and are not practical for relocation or rapid deployment. However, recent technological developments such as the SMASH Hopper, which may have been utilized in the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, indicate the potential for the aforementioned factors to be mitigated.[9]


The SMASH Hopper, unlike most RCWSs manufactured by the armament industry, is designed to be compatible with small arms.[10] It also allows for standalone deployment and is relatively light, making it more mobile than the majority of RCWSs—hence its official designation as a light remote-controlled weapon station (LRCWS). The SMASH Hopper’s ultra-light, foldable variant, the SMASH Hopper Light, was designed with covert activity in mind and is even lighter than the original model.[11] Both the SMASH Hopper and the SMASH Hopper Light have advanced Fire Control Systems (FCS), which allow these LRCWSs to detect targets, as well as lock onto and track them.[12] In effect, these weapon stations have the capability to function semi-autonomously.


Because these technological advances offer significant military and strategic advantages on the battlefield, nation-states may increasingly deploy RCWSs such as the SMASH Hopper in the future. The military use of RCWSs and LRCWSs would likely be initially limited to select infantry units, such as special forces groups. With time, however, this technology is likely to become cheaper due to ongoing technological advances, which could eventually result in RCWS use by the general infantry. This increased presence of RCWSs would result in a heightened risk of terrorists and other non-state actors gaining access to advanced RCWS technology. If RCWSs are deployed with infantry, they will become more common and therefore easier to capture. A captured RCWS would allow terrorist groups to attempt to reverse-engineer this weapon and further their ability to recreate one for their own purposes.


The threat of terrorists using advanced RCWSs is not necessarily limited to what they may capture; it is also necessary to account for the potential for terrorists to produce their own RCWSs. As previously discussed, terrorists have a clear interest in RCWSs and possess some capability to manufacture them; they have also shown signs of experimentation and attempts to further develop this technology.[13] At present, terrorist groups may experience limited successes in any attempts to reverse engineer or manufacture advanced RCWS. However, the aid of a nation-state may significantly boost this capability. The Houthi movement was able to manufacture relatively advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for instance, allegedly as a result of aid from Iran.[14]


While it is therefore a possibility that terrorists may deploy RCWSs on a significant scale in the distant future, there are too many variables to provide an exact time frame on when this is likely to occur. However, it is possible to analyze the potential impact of RCWS use by terrorist groups. RCWSs would clearly offer terrorists significant advantages in combat zones, but this advantage could be countered through the use of similar technology by military forces. The impact of RCWSs in terrorist attacks on civilian centers is likely to be felt more deeply. The specifications of LRCWSs, like the SMASH Hopper Light, allow these weapon stations to be covertly transported and rapidly deployed, unlike the majority of RCWSs currently in use at present.[15] This constitutes a significant threat, as the response by law enforcement to such an attack would likely be inadequate.


One way that terrorists might utilize RCWSs is through sniper-based attacks on civilian centers. Depending on the capabilities of the RCWS, such an attack could be significantly more accurate and thus more lethal than if a more conventional weapon had been used.[16] Furthermore, the psychological impact of such an attack should not be underestimated. Past instances of sniper-based killings have shown that these attacks can have an extreme psychological impact, and the psychological effects would likely be exacerbated when the general public learns that an RCWS was used, not only because it would likely leave the perpetrator free to commit another attack, but because of the rogue technological advancement on display.[17] It should also be noted that RCWS could be deployed in combination with other methods of attack; for example, an RCWS could be used to target emergency responders arriving at the site of an explosive-based attack.

Although terrorist use of RCWSs may be a long-term threat, several measures can be taken to mitigate the potential dangers of such a scenario. Governments and military technology institutions must ensure the security of advanced RCWS technology. This entails physically preventing terrorists and other malicious actors from obtaining RCWSs, as well as preventing these actors from gaining the information necessary to manufacture these advanced RCWSs. Furthermore, the activity of malicious actors should be monitored in regard to the development of RCWS. Social media, in particular, may also be a good indicator of terrorist RCWS development, as terrorist organizations have been known to share information about their RCWS developments online.[18]


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is dedicated to detecting, deterring, and defeating terrorism around the world by thoroughly analyzing worldwide data, conducting intelligence analysis reports, and developing knowledge to provide solutions. The CTG Weapons and Tactics (W/T) team is working to identify the weaponry that terrorist organizations may acquire and utilize, and is continuing to monitor further developments regarding advanced weapons, such as RCWSs. Furthermore, the W/T team will continue its efforts to detect and deter future terrorist threats. Authorities and intelligence agencies should monitor the development of military technology for anything that might become a future terrorist threat and take action where necessary.


__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Let’s talk about Remote-Controlled Gun Turrets and the Killing of Iran’s Top Nuclear Scientist, The Drive: The Warzone, November 30, 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/37882/lets-talk-about-remote-controlled-gun-turrets-and-the-killing-of-irans-top-nuclear-scientist

[2] Terrorist and Insurgent Teleoperated Sniper Rifles and Machine Guns, USArmy, August, 2016, https://info.publicintelligence.net/USArmy-TeleoperatedSniperRifles.pdf

[3] Remote Controlled Weapon Station (RCWS), from Twitter, via @I30mki

[4] Let’s talk about Remote-Controlled Gun Turrets and the Killing of Iran’s Top Nuclear Scientist, The Drive: The Warzone, November 30, 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/37882/lets-talk-about-remote-controlled-gun-turrets-and-the-killing-of-irans-top-nuclear-scientist

[5] Terrorist and Insurgent Teleoperated Sniper Rifles and Machine Guns, USArmy, August, 2016, https://info.publicintelligence.net/USArmy-TeleoperatedSniperRifles.pdf

[6] This Portable Remote Weapon Turret Is Right Out of Call of Duty or Contra, The Drive: The Warzone, July 22, 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/35031/this-portable-remote-weapon-turret-is-like-contra-and-call-of-duty-video-games-come-to-life

[7] The Impact of Acute Stress Physiology on Skilled Motor Performance: Implications for Policing, Frontiers In Psychology, November 7, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6856650/

[8] Why the Army is worried about insurgents turning to remote-controlled weapons, The Washington Post, August 30, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/08/30/insurgent-groups-such-as-isis-are-increasingly-turning-to-remote-controlled-weaponry-army-report-says/

[9] Let’s talk about Remote-Controlled Gun Turrets and the Killing of Iran’s Top Nuclear Scientist, The Drive: The Warzone, November 30, 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/37882/lets-talk-about-remote-controlled-gun-turrets-and-the-killing-of-irans-top-nuclear-scientist

[10] Ibid.

[11] Smash Hopper Light, Smart Shooter: Precise Technological Solutions, 2020 https://www.smart-shooter.com/products/smash-hopper-light/

[12] Ibid

[13] The Islamic State’s Remote Control Guns, Popular Front, 2020, https://www.popularfront.co/daesh-robot-gun

[14] Yemen Houthi drones, missiles defy years of Saudi air strikes, Reuters, September 17, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-aramco-houthis-idUSKBN1W22F4

[15]Smash Hopper Light, Smart Shooter: Precise Technological Solutions, 2020 https://www.smart-shooter.com/products/smash-hopper-light/

[16] Why a Remote-Controlled Machine Gun Was The Perfect Weapon For Assasinating Iranian Nuclear Scientist, Forbes, November 30, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2020/11/30/why-a-remote-controlled-machinegun-was-the-perfect-weapon-for-iranian-assassination/?sh=76f1f2d6110a

[17] Psychological responses to the sniper attacks: Washington DC area, October 2002, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, October, 2006, https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(06)00225-X/fulltext

[18] The Islamic State’s Remote Control Guns, Popular Front, 2020, https://www.popularfront.co/daesh-robot-gun

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