As the battle for control of the Middle East rages on, a new front is opening up in the skies, and it’s capturing the attention of the world’s top military planners.
For years, the United States has relied on large military drones like the Predator or the Reaper for surveillance and reconnaissance missions throughout the region and beyond.
Now, the battle is being waged with off-the-shelf commercial drones jerry-rigged into deadly weapons, dropping bombs from above.
“The skies are filling up,” says Todd Humphreys, an engineer at the University of Texas in Austin who studies drones, or unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs). “Even though [the drones] are rudimentary, that does not mean they are not effective,” he told Global News. “They can certainly be lethal even if they are off the shelf.”
One of the most terrifying displays of this unconventional form of air power happened in the battle for Mosul, in Iraq last year. Fighters affiliated with the so-called Islamic State retrofitted commercial drones with surveillance equipment and small-scale bombs to swarm U.S.-backed Iraqi forces operating on the ground.
In April 2017, the New York Times captured a terrifying battle scene in which ISIS fighters converted commercial drones into weapons to attack Iraqi forces in Mosul. The militant group has also dropped small bombs or grenades from commercial-grade drones In response, the Pentagon launched a US$700-million program in the New Mexico desert to train and equip U.S. forces on how to deal with ISIS drones.
A month before, a drone carrying a grenade caused havoc at an ammunition depot in Eastern Ukraine. The grenade landed inside the factory, setting off a series of massive explosions which burned for days, and forced the evacuation of 20,000 people. Ukraine blamed Russia’s military, or its Russian-backed rebel forces in operating in Ukraine, for the attack.
Russian forces have not been immune to attacks by swarms of drones, either. Moscow’s bases in Syria have been targets, too. In January, Russia’s Defence Ministry said that it had intercepted 13 “unidentified small-size air targets” operating near Russian military facilities on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. In a Facebook post, Russia’s military said it successfully thwarted the attack.
As drones get cheaper and smaller, staying ahead of the threat they pose is becoming a bigger challenge for military planners everywhere. The U.S. already has the world’s most sophisticated fighter jets, along with large surveillance drones. What’s worrying military strategists isn’t that drones might fly in the airspace occupied by jets or expensive drones; increasingly, it’s that they are concerned about airspace where commercial drones can fly.
Drone warfare is an evolving threat, says Richard Shimooka, a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a military think tank in Ottawa. “We don’t know how it is going to shake out,” he says.
Companies that develop military technology are producing ever-smaller drones, some small enough to fit into the palm of a hand. One such example is the Black Hornet Nano drone produced by a Norwegian company called Prox Dynamics. It can be used to fly covertly over enemy territory, including over walls and behind corners where fighters may be hiding.
“Given the way that autonomous vehicles are going, they are smaller, cheaper, lighter, and they are starting to develop the swarming technique, where you have dozens of them operating in tandem, there is real need for procuring a system that can deal with that kind of threat,” Shimooka says.
To neutralize that threat, military engineers are developing the means to jam drone signals. Drones rely on GPS for their navigation. Drone jammers can confuse the transmission of these signals. They can also interfere with so-called “command and control” signals that are sent from ground controllers to the drone. These tactics can force the drone to return back to its base, or they can scupper the drone’s ability to reach an intended target.
The United States is developing sophisticated jamming technology, but so, too, are armed forces hostile to the U.S, notably Russia. “It is a game of sophisticated cat and mouse, of measures and counter-measures,” Humphreys says. Russian jamming of drones was first observed during Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, he says. “I saw the actual data that indicated jamming was happening in Ukraine. It was an especially potent form of jamming,” he told Global News in an email.