Drone Warfare: Emerging Tactics and Strategic Implications

The introduction of drones onto the battlefield, not only within the military sphere but also the commercial, has the potential to give insurgents historically unprecedented access to air power. Whereas previously, insurgents had been unable to compete with states in the air, drones “democratize” the battlefield, giving militants access to cheap, expendable, and versatile tools for reconnaissance, sabotage, and acts of terror. As the 2019 drone attacks on Saudi Aramco oil facilities demonstrate, drones are quickly become ubiquitous tools of modern warfare not only for states, but for militants and terrorists as well.

Prior to the 21st century, air power was limited to airplanes and helicopters, which made air support inaccessible to most insurgencies. Insurgents often lacked the funds, infrastructure, and technical knowledge required to build, maintain, and house aircraft. Patron countries who sponsored insurgencies often did not want the commitment of supplying airplanes; the cost, in addition to the cost of training, was exorbitant, and airplanes are highly identifiable, which meant that the patron countries risked exposing their involvement. Pilots in most countries are rare, and most are already stably employed, so recruiting them was difficult and training was often not possible. Additionally, insurgencies risked losing their human investment if an aircraft were shot down.

As such, insurgents were forced to concede air power. States had the option of bombing or launching airstrikes against insurgents, which forced insurgents to either hide out under the cover of wilderness or blend in to civilian areas. Anti-aircraft defenses, due to lack of resources, were primitive; the Vietcong learned, by trial and error, to shoot down U.S. helicopters, but only after suffering consistent losses. In the late 1980’s, the Central Intelligence Agency supplied “Stinger” anti-aircraft missiles to the Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan, allowing them to shoot down Russian Hind helicopters and giving the insurgents a powerful advantage over air superiority. However, there was still no “air power” among insurgencies.

Unmanned “drone” craft offset an insurgency’s resource limitations. Drones are cheaper, require less infrastructure, and in many cases can be built on the ground. While they are identifiable, they are a smaller commitment for patron states - considered more comparable to arms than aircraft and therefore cause less scandal if discovered. Drones are also easier to learn to operate, and perhaps most importantly, pose no risk of ‘brain drain’ as the operator cannot be shot down. For the first time, this means that states which had previously taken air superiority for granted must now account for insurgent air power.

The first major advantage this gives insurgencies is reach, specifically access to the “third dimension” of aerial warfare. Drones are a cheap and powerful complement that gives any ground-based soldier the ability to launch his own airstrike. Their reach is highly variable, dependent on model, weather, radio signals, and battery life, but while commercial models are limited, military models like the MQ-1 “Predator” UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) can fly for over 24 hours and cover up to 770 miles. Even a limited commercial model significantly increases the distance at which fighters can attack. Cameras make the drone one of the few beyond-visual-range (BVR) weapons available to insurgents.

Military theorists have argued that the resources available to most insurgents limit most of them to the “flying IED” rather than the Predator. According to War On The Rocks, “The difference between an improvised armed drone and the real thing is much bigger than that between an improvised explosive device and [...] a landmine.” However, while the Predator is considered one of the most capable drones on Earth, and far beyond the standards of most insurgents, sufficient government patronage can significantly reduce the gap, providing insurgents with models closer to the military standard, as seen with Houthi rebels in Yemen. Additionally, while drones cannot carry 500-pound munitions, they can easily mount lightweight explosively-formed projectile (EFP) weapons; coalition forces in Iraq observed that even small EFP devices were capable of penetrating armored vehicles.

The second advantage drones offer is maneuverability. Drones can operate effectively at lower altitudes than most aircraft, in more crowded or urban environments. They are harder to detect on radar due to their low altitude, slow speed, and small profile, meaning that they can be deployed, complete a flyover, and be recalled safely before anti-air or air-to-air defenses can mobilize. Commercial models may be considered “toys” in developed countries, and thus beneath suspicion. Drones can also hover and operate in the air, unassisted, for significant periods of time. Small and precise models can even operate inside buildings, which no aircraft can do, and their ability to turn, stop, and reverse course, even in a confined space, grants them unparalleled maneuverability.

The most obvious application of this is delivering explosives; however, a more useful application for insurgents may be reconnaissance. Drones offer not only a cheap, low-risk way to probe enemies for weakness; for resource-poor insurgencies, they open the previously inaccessible avenue of geospatial intelligence. Israel uses drones to monitor the movement of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories; Hizbullah, in turn, uses them to spy on Israeli nuclear facilities. Civilian “DIY” (“Do it yourself”) operators in the Ukraine have used drones to navigate paratroopers behind Russian lines, providing real-time intelligence that traditional aircraft cannot, due to Russian air supremacy.

The third advantage this gives to insurgents is suicide drones, which offer insurgents expendible, precision-guided munitions, a “poor man’s smart bomb.” The Islamic State (IS) has already scored casualties with drones costing less than $200, which they regularly employ against Kurdish YPF. Hizbullah, which pioneered the use of drones for terror, estimates that their large drones could carry up to 50 kilos of explosives. Suicide bombers are dangerous because they only require that the bomber get close to the target, not escape; suicide drones not only add a third dimension to this, only requiring that the target be reachable by air, but they do not deplete insurgent manpower, do not require recruiting, training, or conditioning, and do not suffer from stress or nerves. IS has taken the extra step of booby-trapping their models in case their attacks are shot down, in order to kill anyone who attempts to study them.

The acquisition of such drones by insurgent groups vary, ranging from purchases of commercially available drones to internal manufacturing and foreign patronage. Commercial drones have occupied the arsenals of insurgents since the commencement of drone-borne IED use on the battlefield. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, for instance, in their initial deployments of weaponized drones in 2015, employed the widely available DJI Phantom series quadcopter to drop explosives upon enemies in battle. IS, too, has been known to employ similar methods in its fight against Iraqi, Kurdish, and Turkish forces. Quadcopters, however, although not obsolete, have been met with a growing emergence of fixed wing suicide drones.

While quadcopters have been favored among insurgent groups due to their relatively low price range, compact size, high maneuverability, and their ability to takeoff from virtually anywhere, fixed wing drones offer greater range and flight stability while carrying payloads. Thus, commercially available fixed wing drones like the Skywalker X8, sold online for as little as $200, have become the favored aircraft of insurgents carrying out suicide drone missions. Yet, despite the wide availability of drones on the civilian market, insurgent groups have not limited themselves to solely purchasing them. IS has been known to manufacture its own improvised drones through the repurposing of engines, propellers, and piping. In 2017, after Mosul fell to Iraqi forces, dozens of crude drone “factories” were discovered throughout the city.

Though insurgent groups most commonly employ inexpensive commercial drones, questions have recently arisen regarding the role of foreign patronage, specifically between Iran and the Houthi rebels. Since 2016, Houthi rebels have launched several Qatef-1 drones- a drone which the rebels proudly claim to manufacture. However, in 2018, a panel of United Nations experts examined the drone, stating that it was “virtually identical in design, dimensions and capability” to Iran’s Ibadil-T drone, developed by Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries. For reference, the Abadil T is capable of delivering a 100 pound warhead over a 95 mile distance. Thus, if the Houthis are indeed in possession of this Iranian technology, they may gain air superiority over their enemies and may challenge the air forces of neighboring nations.

In assessing the threat of drones, it is important to remember that rendering the enemy forces totally incapable of fighting back is not the purpose for which these weapons were designed. The U.S. Army fights to completely subjugate the enemy; guerillas fighting the U.S. Army do not share this goal. They are attempting to force the U.S. out, by killing enough soldiers and reducing occupation to a grinding, costly slog until Americans demand that the government recall troops. Some analysts have written off the threat of drones because insurgents such as IS cannot produce weapons “like ours;” however, the popularity of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrates that insurgents do not need weapons “like ours.” They need the means to kill one or two soldiers, cheaply, over and over and over. Drones suit this purpose better than Hellfire missiles.

As such, if drones become more ubiquitous weapons in the hands of insurgents, the technology needed to counter these threats must adapt. Targets which previous defended solely against ground threats may require hardening against air attacks. Troops out in the open, as well as in crowded urban areas where civilian drones may fly, will be targets. Security detail around protected assets will need to account for airborne threats. Countries and private industries worldwide are already working on C-UAS technologies (counter-unmanned aerial systems), including interception, signal jammers, hacking, and sonic weapons. Jamming remains the most popular and reliable interdiction technology, though it can affect civilian systems beyond drones and as such may not be suitable for urban environments.

There are several private companies pioneering C-UAS development for both military and civilian use. These companies have produced an array of products designed to both detect and disable hostile UAVs, offering protection for private properties or military bases, as well as mobilized military forces. Much of the technology designed to protect properties against drones involve the installment of small radio-like towers. Combining radar, radiofrequency, acoustics, optics, and thermal technology, towers can detect incoming drone threats from miles away, providing users with enough time to prepare for an incoming attack. Towers may also be equipped with defensive measures, such as signal jammers to eliminate incoming drones. Companies have also created portable jamming devices, some hand-held and others that may be mounted on a vehicle, that provide mobile military forces with a means of defending themselves from aerial threats that may have otherwise gone undetected. While the C-UAS market has grown substantially and offers many new solutions in both detection and interdiction, research on counter-drone technology remains ongoing.

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) remains committed to supporting counterterrorism effects. We continue to monitor emerging trends to isolate means by which terror actors main gain tactical advantages, and we continue to provide updates in order to better inform clients of what threats must be countered.

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