Pandora’s Box: The Democratisation of Drone Warfare

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On the night of January 6, 2018, 13 drones took off from a location in Northern Syria. Made from plastic, foam and plywood, they looked more like toys than weapons of war. However, a few hundred dollars worth of off-the-shelf parts had turned these backyard creations into killing machines. For something which could herald the future of war and terrorism, they were a rather strange sight.

Drones used in the attack on Khmeimim airbase in Syria. (Russian Ministry of Defense)

The drones carried 10 homemade bombs, each with the explosive power of a fragmentation grenade. They were not radio controlled, like most drones used by hobbyists or photographers, but rather used GPS guidance systems which remotely guided them to their target, above which they would drop their bombs.1.“The Poor Man’s Airforce” : Bellingcat That night, the target was Russia’s Khmeimim airbase.

Drones used in the attack on Khmeimim airbase in Syria. (Russian Ministry of Defense)

The attack failed. Russian Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile systems managed to shoot down several of the drones, while others fell victim to electronic countermeasures (ECM).2.“Russia Says 13 Drones Used In Attack On Its Air Base, Naval Facility In Syria” : Radio Free Europe

But this may not have been the first time these drones were used.

A week earlier on the night of the 31st of December, the airbase had again come under attack. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, a “mortar attack” killed 2 Russian servicemen.3.“Russia Says Two Soldiers Killed in Mortar Attack in Syria” : Radio Free Europe” Reports also circulated that up to 7 Russian aircraft had been destroyed in the attack, and later pictures from the airbase were leaked showing several damaged aircraft. The nearest rebel positions to Khmeimim were tens of kilometres away, far out of the range of mortars or artillery making the Russian MoD claims somewhat implausible. This suggests that these drones (or similar ones) could have been responsible.

No group in Syria claimed responsibility for either attack, something which is relatively rare in the propaganda-intensive conflict.

ISIS fighters launch a fixed wing drone in a propaganda video focusing on their drone program.

The Democratisation of UAV Technology

These attacks, on their own, will do little to change the situation on the ground in Syria, they do however represent a change to the very nature of wars and conflicts around the world. In the past airpower has been almost exclusively the domain of the state. Due to the expenses involved in producing armed aircraft and the advanced systems associated with them, only the most powerful and well-funded armed forces could maintain an effective airforce. Now, however, a convergence of technological factors has reduced the price of air power by several orders of magnitude.

Microprocessors, GPS miniaturisation, navigation software and high-powered batteries are now consumer items. The popularisation of small drones for photography, racing and hobbyists has led to the creation of a large, and highly-competitive market for these systems as well as their component parts.4.Consumer drone statistics, Statista Given that drones were first developed as military systems, it was only a matter of time before non-state actors began to take advantage of their commercial availability.

“Proliferation is generally an issue, especially with smaller drones as they are dual-use systems and you can buy them commercially. Militaries and police forces around the world are very aware of the risks,” explains Ulrike W Franke, a drone scholar from the University of Oxford.

By 2014 commercial photography drones such as the DJI Phantom were being used as surveillance and propaganda platforms by Islamist groups in Syria.5.“ISIS propaganda, Call of Duty style” : The Daily Mail In 2015, ISIS began to experiment with using such systems to carry bombs, and then a year later during the Battle of Mosul, they were deployed in mass to attack Iraqi and Coalition troops to significant effect. 6.“ISIS Is Reportedly Packing Drones With Explosives Now” : Popular Mechanics7.“Islamic State uses drones to attack Iraqi army in Mosul” : Reuters However, these drones were still rudimentary when compared to those used to attack Khmeimim Airbase, as they required manual piloting, and could only carry one or two small bombs at a time.

Instructions on how to make such drones could be easily found on the web, such open communities as are sharing such things […] you can even find it in their terms and conditions on the website that any kind of “military” content is prohibited, but people can decide on their own how to use this information.

Jacob Ceretili, general manager of Ukrainian drone manufacturer UKRSPECSYSTEMS.

It is difficult to understate just how cheaply an armed drone can be made. Ceretili estimates that the total price to build each of the drones used in the Khmeimim attack stands at around $3000. At these price points, hundreds of these systems could be built for the price of just one traditional piloted bomber aircraft.

Within this environment, one possible solution is to highly regulate the sale of drone parts, much in the same way that firearms, explosives and drugs are all controlled by governments. Experts on this technology however suggest this may be difficult.

I’m not sure we’ll be able to limit the sale or proliferation of the drone parts themselves, as so much of it is civilian available and used in non war areas. For example, the Russians (wrong) said that the drones use of GPS showed a state military like the US was behind it. Ha! Every kid with a smartphone has GPS now.

Peter W. Singer a specialist on 21st century warfare from New America.

Given that drones are dual use items, it is extremely difficult to regulate sale of drone parts. That’s even more true given that drones aren’t necessarily particularly sophisticated.

Ulrike W Franke.


The bottom line is that drone technology is now so cheap that non-state actors, and even individuals can now use not just one, but whole swarms of aircraft to commit attacks, something which has very severe security implications. Moreover the small nature of these craft, and the fact that they can be employed en-masse means that current defense systems are relatively ineffective.8.“Inside the Pentagon’s Plan to Overwhelm Russian and Chinese Air Defenses” : The National Interest Militaries would lose the air-power advantage they once had when fighting insurgencies, and an ever greater numbers of vectors would need to be defended against, something which would make fighting these wars even more costly.

The use of these new weapons has caused a flurry of development of new devices to defend against these drones. As current kinetic-based air defense systems have often incredibly expensive projectiles (a single US stinger missile costs approximately $38,000), cheaper and lighter systems are needed to prevent an enemy from simply wasting all of a military’s ammunition. To this aim, new devices – such as DroneShield’s DroneGun MKII – which attempt to jam radio communications, or even take control of drones, are being deployed both to combat zones and high-security events.9.DroneShield Other more bizarre defense strategies have seen countries like Russia and France training eagles to defend against drones.10.“These Drone-hunting Eagles Aren’t Messing Around” : Time Magazine 

Despite these developments, such craft could also conceivably be used not just in war, but also by terrorists in ‘peacetime’ for targeted assassinations, or simply aerial bombing of civilian targets. Anywhere with open sky above it could be a target, and right now, countermeasures can not be deployed across a wide enough area to protect everyone or everywhere.

Michael Cruickshank

Michael Cruickshank is a freelance conflict journalist original from Australia, specialising in the intersection of emerging technology and warfare. Other articles by him can be found here.

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