Interview: Rising drone capabilities of non-state actors

Interview: Rising drone capabilities of non-state actors

Asymmetric warfare, especially in relation to terrorist groups, is constantly evolving and adjusting to new technological capabilities. While non-state actors have long sought to match armed forces in conventional weaponry, states have maintained an almost exclusive air superiority in most conflicts. This is beginning to change.

As unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones become more widely available and easier to build, recent years have seen an increase in drone proliferation of non-state actors, and the risk that drones might be used for terrorist attacks in the West is of high concern for those in charge of counter-terrorism measures.

Ulrike Esther Franke, an expert on emerging military capabilities, shared her insights with GRI on the security risk that drones can pose in the hands of militant non-state actors.

Linda Schlegel: What are the strategic benefits of using drones for non-state actors?

Ulrike Franke: For non-state actors, drones provide a unique and novel capability: an airborne capability. So far, most, if not all, non-state actors have not had access to the aerial dimension, as they do not have air forces. This changes with drones. The importance of this can hardly be overstated. An airborne capability allows a new view of the battle space, a new way to collect intelligence. Drones have also been used to smuggle goods over frontiers, or into/out of prisons. Drones equipped with explosives or weapons piloted by non-state actors create a new threat for armed forces, which have become used to having air superiority in the areas they fight.

LS: What kind of drones are most likely to be used by non-state actors? For what purpose?

UF: At this point, non-state actors use three types of drones. First, commercially available, off-the-shelf systems (such as DJI Phantom, the most common hobbyist/commercial drone), home-made systems of varying sophistication, and military-grade systems provided by states.

Within the last few years, commercially available systems have become very sophisticated, in a way that they rival smaller military systems. Non-state actors such as Daesh have bought these systems, or foreign fighters have brought them to the battlefield. Firstly, these technologies were used for for propaganda, then for reconnaissance, and then in combat, armed with explosives. The advantage of these systems is that they are comparatively cheap, and easily available.

Several non-state groups, from Hamas to Hezbollah and Ukrainian militants to Daesh are building their own systems. This is not particularly difficult, as drones are not like nuclear weapons; not much technological sophistication is needed to build some type of drone. This is especially the case because these systems can use commercially available sensors, which are found in smartphones. These home-made systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

In addition, states provide non-state actors with their drone technologies. Hezbollah in particular has been using drones over Israel for over a decade – provided by Iran. However, so far, no state has provided a non-state group with highly sophisticated, bigger, armed systems comparable to the Predator.

LS: Can we estimate how the threat will evolve in the future?

UF: All these developments are likely to continue and intensify. Non-state actors will use more drones, more often, in more sophisticated ways. For surveillance and reconnaissance, and combat. In 2017, a Harvard researcher found Daesh documents on their drone use, that showed very clearly that the group’s use of drones was not incidental and sporadic but planned and thought-through.

Furthermore, non-state drones will leave more-or-less official battlefields such as in Iraq and Syria, and be used as terrorist weapons, including in the Western world. Here, the biggest dangers are attacks against commercial airliners, and targeted assassination by drones of high-level politicians and the like.  

LS: In your opinion, how likely is a terrorist attack involving a drone in the West?

UF: Very likely. It is a question of when, not if. It should be noted, however, that the consequences of such an attack can vary drastically. A high-casualty attack is possible, if a drone is used against a commercial airliner. But more likely is a terrorist attack with explosives put on a drone, instead of a hidden backpack bomb or a suicide bomber. In this scenario, a drone would not necessarily have an impact different from the other methods, but it would spread terror more efficiently by bringing the threat into the air.

LS: What measures can we implement to prepare ourselves for drones in the hands of non-state actors? What counter-measures can/should be taken?

UF: States should focus on ensuring that military-grade drones do not fall into the hands of non-state actors. Organizations such as UNIDIR are working on limitations and restrictions of armed drone proliferation.

Anti-Drone systems have already become an important growth area and a lot of money is being invested to find cost-effective, transportable systems. At the moment, options discussed range from lasers to shoot down drones, jamming guns that allow the ability to jam the link between drone and operator, and even trained eagles to take out small drone systems. The biggest problem is not how to fight drones – which at this point are unable to defend themselves and are comparatively easy to shoot down – but to detect them and bring them down cost-effectively.  

Ulrike is a policy fellow with the New European Security Initiative, working on German foreign and defence policy and emerging military technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence. She joined the European Council on Foreign Relations in 2015 as Research Assistant to the Director, working part time while finishing her PhD in International Relations at the University of Oxford. 

About Author

Linda Schlegel

Linda Schlegel holds a BA in Liberal Arts (cum laude) from the University College Maastricht and an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society (distinction) from King's College London. Her special interests include counter-terrorism, radicalization, societal resilience and social deviance.