The appearance of commercial, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) represents a revolution in flight history.
Originally designed for leisure, sports, delivery systems (including the ability to send medical aid to difficult-to-reach areas), enhanced filming abilities, and a range of hobbies, commercial drones have brought a world of useful innovation.
But like many advanced technologies, they have proven to be a double edged sword. Commercial drones are being employed in the service of dangerous forces.
They have been seized upon by belligerent, non-state actors to help level the playing the field against their enemies.
The arrival and development of commercial UAVs means every non-state terrorist group and guerrilla force can arm itself with an accurate aerial weapon and use it to attack its target of choice. So far, the world has been slow to respond.
Commercial UAVs vary in size, from units that are smaller than the palm of a hand, to systems that are almost the size of a small helicopter, able to easily take on board two people and equipment.
This has given the non-state actors their own kind of air force, with the ability to gather intelligence, drop bombs, and communicate beyond line of sight – all for a low price.
The drones range in how many rotor blades they have, from three to eight, with the 4-blade system — the quad-copter — being the most famous.
Commercial UAVs can be equipped with ammunition, depending on their size, ranging from hand grenades weighing a few hundred grams, to weapons that weigh tens of kilograms. They can drop mortar-sized bombs as they hover over targets, as seen in Syria.
The technology continues to develop quickly, meaning that terrorist abilities will only grow.
Hostile non-state actors can attach transmission dishes on commercial drones and use them as a cheap satellite to relay communications over longer distances.
The landing of a drone on the White House lawn in May 2015, and on the house of the Japanese prime minister a month before that, are early indications of what will come.
In 2013, an activist from the German Pirate Party demonstrated the intolerable ease with which drones can be used to attack political leaders, when he flew a drone to within a very short distance of an outside stage that was used by Chancellor Angela Merkel and ministers to campaign for the elections. Had the drone operator had hostile intent, the incident would have gone from a stunt to a potentially tragic and historical attack. No amount of body guards would have been able to stop such an attack.
More recently, the shutting down of Israel’s Ben Gurion international airport in December 2017 due to the detection of drones shows just how easily UAV operators can lead to a paralysis of a major transportation hub and nationally strategic site.
Such threats can pop up out of no where, as a terrorist cell can drive with an armed UAV in a civilian car trunk and park a few kilometers away from their target, before launching an attack.
The limits of defense
For security forces seeking to engage commercial UAVs being operated by terrorists in a civilian, urban setting, the constraints are significant. The potential for collateral damage in attempting to shoot them down is high.
Additionally, even a specialized anti-drone cannon could struggle to deal with a drone attack on a sensitive site. An attack on a crowded sports stadium would pose big challenges.
Today, many countermeasures are developing, but none offers guaranteed protection. They include anti-UAV guns, launching a net to bring them down, the use of trained eagles, deploying defensive drones to engage the threats, and electronic disruption means, which mainly block communications between the drone and its base station. None of these guarantee that drone intrusions won’t happen.
The challenge of detecting such threats is growing too. Complex materials can be used to build the drones and give them a degree of stealth from radar detection. Their flight range is increasing too, and currently stands at tens of kilometers. As countermeasure capabilities try to catch up, time is of the essence to grasp the extent of the threat, and prepare accordingly.
Israel’s race against time against commercial drones
On December 24, the Israeli cabinet adopted a series of steps to regulate responsibility in the face of threats posed by commercial UAVs, giving Israel Police jurisdiction to deal with drones operating inside the borders of the state, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israel Air Force (IAF) the legal authority to deal with such threats beyond the borders.
The IAF’s air defense force recognized the threat several years ago, and began taking measures to prepare for it. Since then, the threat has grown exponentially, and looks set to grow further in ways that could be difficult to imagine at this time.
In recent years, there have been a number of attempts by terrorists in Gaza to fly commercial UAVs into Israel — all successfully stopped.
The fact that Israel has assigned areas of responsibilities in responding to commercial drone threats is testimony that it identified the threat early. Israel is, in many ways, a microcosm and laboratory of security trends that later spread around the world. What happens in Israel often happens elsewhere in the years that follow. All states should take concrete steps to prepare.
The terrorists can also fly civilian drones in increasing numbers.
Security forces, seeking to protect vulnerable areas, face a challenge of the first magnitude. The race to prepare accordingly has begun.
Edited By Benjamin Anthony
Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF or the Foreign Ministry. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.