Next-Gen Drones: Making War Easier for Dictators & Terrorists

Photo: John Moore/Getty

The introduction of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) permanently altered the modern battlefield. New technological advances in drone technology could do it again: from advanced materials that allow drones to fly, roll, run or swim in less forgiving environments, to thinking software than makes them more independent, to stealth technology that renders them even less visible. On the positive side, the intelligence that drones provide helps focus lethality on the intended target and limit the risk of civilian casualties and friendly fire incidents. But drone advances also will get cheaper to copy, so non-state actors will be able to employ them as well, giving insurgents or terrorists an outsized advantage.  

  • The U.S. use of drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and kinetic strikes surged in the global fight against terrorism. Under the Obama administration, estimates show, a total of 563 drone strikes targeted militants in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen alone – compared with the 57 strikes that took place under the George W. Bush administration. This does not include drone strikes in Southeast Asia, Libya, Iraq or Syria. From 2002 to 2014, armed drones conducted 98 percent of the non-battlefield targeted killings. The remaining 2 percent were a result of raids, manned aircraft or cruise missiles. Under the Trump administration, drone strikes continue unabated, with new plans to expand the use of armed drones to the Sahel based out of Niger.
  • While a number of technological limitations have restricted drones largely to use in asymmetric warfare such as the U.S.-led global war on terror, a parallel trend of technical advances to make them smaller and easier to operate has made UAVs more accessible, including to democratic and authoritarian state and non-state actors. Currently, some 90 state and non-state actors possess drones for surveillance purposes, and more than 30 countries have or are developing armed drones, with at least eight countries known to have used them in combat, including the U.S., Israel, U.K., Pakistan, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
  • Israel is the largest exporter of drone technology, responsible for 60 percent of the market share, with estimated exports delivered between 2010 and 2014 reaching 165 drones, and a total of $525 million worth of drones in 2016.
  • During the same time period from 2010 to 2014, estimates show the U.K. was the largest importer of drones, purchasing 55 UAVs from Israel and an additional six armed variations from the U.S.
  • After Israel, the U.S. is the second-biggest exporter of drone technology, but it has imposed tighter restrictions than others on its sales of armed variations. Beginning in 2015, the U.S. began the sale of armed drones such as the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk to foreign countries, delivering them to the U.K., Italy and Spain.
  • France made the decision in September to begin arming its U.S.-purchased drones stationed in Africa and the Middle East. France, alongside Germany and Italy, is seeking to develop its own medium-altitude, long-endurance drones to reduce its reliance on U.S. technology.
  • China has quickly risen to a prominent developer and exporter of drone technology, including selling armed drones to Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Weapons-capable Chinese drones are seen as a popular choice among countries looking for unrestricted delivery and cheap prices.

Michael Horowitz, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

“Armed drone exports have accelerated over the last few years as it has become increasingly clear that widespread drone proliferation is inevitable. More than 15 countries now have armed drones, and most of them acquired those armed drones from China. Armed U.S. drone exports have been very constrained, creating opportunities for China to build military ties with U.S. partners such as Jordan.”

  • Iran – which reportedly has flown drones such as the Shahed-129 over Iraq and Syria – also has been known to export its drone technology, albeit to non-state proxy actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and perhaps even a maritime and aerial drones to the Houthis in Yemen.
  • Other non-state actors, such as ISIS, have turned to small commercial drones for ISR and even explosives delivery – flying IEDs that all but halted the advance of Iraqi troops into the city of Mosul, presenting a novel challenge for counterinsurgency forces.

Michael Horowitz, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

“Non-state actors are already getting their hands on drone technology they can use to generate destruction. Militant groups can modify commercially available drone technology to develop less sophisticated, but still deadly, drones. Iran also has exported drones to militant groups. The use of armed drones by ISIS and other actors suggests that drone proliferation is not just inevitable for governments, but for militant groups as well.”

Deborah Lee James, former Secretary of the U.S. Air Force

“While small drones can be a hazard domestically, their threat to the warfighter is growing as well. Footage of weaponized drones being used by ISIS provides a disturbing glimpse into the group’s tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), and the future of asymmetric warfare. We have seen ISIS-controlled drones drop precision bombs on compounds, destroy armor and kill soldiers. And as dangerous as they are now, the lethality of drones will only increase as other nations and non-state actors refine their technology and TTPs.”

The global proliferation of drone technology will have potentially serious implications for international stability, including in counterterrorism operations, authoritarian regime survival and territorial control.

  • Drones lower the costs of using force by removing the risk of military casualties, meaning some states will be more likely to engage in kinetic action – particularly democracies that require popular support for use of force. Democratic constraints against war occur when the citizens bear the burdens of war – commonly through casualties – in that they pressure their leaders to be more selective about the wars they engage in. The Pentagon’s reported decision to deploy armed drones not long after the domestic backlash following the death of four U.S. troops in Niger is indicative of this characteristic.
  • Advanced military drones have the ability to remotely deploy over distance. This is a key tool in the U.S. arsenal, enabled by numerous forward operating bases that allow them to reach remote locations using over-the-horizon satellite-based remote control. These drones enable their controllers to loiter above targets for an extended period, allowing pilots to verify identities through patterns of life and biometric analysis, and strike with relative precision as compared with conventional military weapons. They are also able to loiter to assess the impact of the strike. These attributes make drones especially effective in targeting militants seeking refuge in expansive regions of largely inaccessible and ungoverned territory.
  • But current drones face a number of limitations as well. They fly significantly slower than manned aircraft. The F-16 cruises at a speed of about six times that of a Reaper – making drones susceptible to the air defenses of many states and even some non-state actors. They also currently do not possess air-to-air capabilities or countermeasures if engaged by manned aircraft in contested airspace.
  • Furthermore, remotely controlled aerial systems rely on a data link connecting the pilot on the ground to the system in the air, which introduces the risk of jamming, hacking and spoofing. For example, in 2009, Iraqi insurgents intercepted the video feeds of U.S. drones, and used that data to maneuver forces on the ground out of harm’s way. Russian-backed separatists consistently jam radio frequency and GPS signals of Ukrainian drones as well.

Michael Horowitz, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

“Drone capabilities are evolving in a way that is giving governments access to more sophisticated sensors with more autonomy, though the sophistication of drone platforms still trails inhabited aircraft when it comes to speed, survivability and armaments.”

  • For these reasons, current-generation drones are largely ineffective in conventional conflict – for example, were the U.S. to engage directly with China in the South China Sea or Russia in Eastern Europe. Unarmed drones are, however, possibly a point of stability in border disputes – such as those taking place in the South China Sea and East China Sea – in that their real-time surveillance might alleviate uncertainty or the element of surprise. The downing of unmanned systems also has not had the same escalatory effect as the downing of a manned aircraft – a case in point is Iran’s downing of a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone in 2011. That makes the systems most appropriate for gray-zone conflicts that do not clearly amount to full-scale war.

Sarah Kreps, Associate Professor of Government, Cornell University

“One of the reasons why drones are not a game changer in interstate war, let’s say in Asia, is because they fly low and slow, so they are easy targets for countries with sophisticated air defenses. But if you can make them go faster with speed and stealth, then you can overcome those current operational impediments. So I think that is a key direction the U.S. will be going in terms of its development.”

  • Where drones are most useful currently is in asymmetric conflicts, such as counterterrorism operations, or even in the violent repression of opposition by authoritarian regimes. On the one hand, the proliferation of drones could allow states to better combat terrorism within their own borders without direct U.S. military support. But drones can also act as a tool of authoritarian maintenance. Centralized regimes often fear an outsized military as it could create the potential for a coup. By relying on remotely controlled drones deployed from centrally controlled capitals, authoritarian leaders could still reach into the peripheral regions to target opposition forces without risking a check to their power.

Chris Inglis, former Deputy Director, National Security Agency

“If the government is making use of these things, and its intent is to weaponize them, then there is a degree of abstraction between this human being that’s affecting this activity and the thing that actually delivers the payload that we ought to be very careful about. There is a lot of study on what the degree of disambiguation is on the part of somebody that launches a weapon from a drone, if that has the same visceral effect. Does it perhaps encourage the application of force in a way that is not helpful to societal values? How do you retain your hand on the button such that you think about this in the same way that somebody is physically engaging a threat?”

The world is becoming saturated with drones, and the technology that underpins these systems is only expected to become more sophisticated. Next-generation drone technology now in development includes: additive manufacturing for bulk production; advanced materials for enhanced stealth and smaller size; energy storage, solar powered systems and satellite-based communications for long-distance flight endurance; and automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning for ease and speed of navigation and targeting.

Deborah Lee James, former Secretary of the U.S. Air Force

“Among the most worrisome factors is the speed of their technological development, especially in the case of small drones. This includes: the ability to move from Line of Sight (LOS) operations to Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) operations; construction techniques and materials that can impact size, power and weight advances that lead to increased endurance and payload capacity; and the ability to do autonomous operations. These capabilities will allow increased coverage with fewer ‘sorties,’ resulting in reduced costs for the operator and perhaps increased lethality for the extremist.”

  • Boeing, for example, has filed a patent for a solar-powered, high-altitude, long-endurance drone that is expected to be able to remain in the air for long periods of time, possibly even years. And China has a solar-powered high-altitude, long-endurance drone called Caihong-T4 (Ch-T44) under development, according to Popular Science. Both potentially could replace expensive satellite communications hubs and imagery gathering.
  • Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning could lead to small drones that communicate with each other as a cognitive hive mind with the capability to swarm targets, leaving kinetic air defenses with too many targets to engage.

Michael Horowitz, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

“Increasingly, many militaries are conducting basic research on smaller, cheaper drones that could potentially be deployed in swarms. Whether these investments translate into new capabilities is still unknown. Smaller, more disposable drones, particularly deployed in swarms, could have implications for everything from tactical support for ground units to new concepts of operation for conducting strikes against air, ground and naval targets.”

  • Both software and hardware are at the core of next-generation drones. The physical limitations of drone proliferation inherent in hardware do not apply to software, which is more diffuse and rapidly adaptable. Programming drones to remain on a “leash,” following warfighters wherever they go, or with the ability to loiter over a designated area and automatically find, fix and engage threats on their own, has tactical implications for war, particularly in the urban battlefield of the future replete with infrastructure that provides concealment for enemy forces.
  • At the same time, advances in nanotechnology could lead to drones that mimic birds or insects, such as the Black Hornet, which could be capable of stealthy, close-quarter audio, video and possibly even DNA-sample intelligence collection. More disruptively, these nano-drones could engage in highly targeted killings through the injection of poison or self-destruction.
  • However, while the proliferation of next-generation military drone technology has significant security implications, they are primarily tactical, not strategic, in nature.

Sarah Kreps, Associate Professor of Government, Cornell University

“Some of these subtleties actually matter for drone proliferation, in terms of when and whether it is software versus hardware, whether it is the U.S. versus other countries, whether it is counterterrorism versus interstate war, and what time horizon we are talking about – are you talking about today or 10 years from now? I think those calculations will change over time and depending on the particular battlefield context in question.”

Levi Maxey is a cyber and technology analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13.

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3 Replies to “Next-Gen Drones: Making War Easier for Dictators & Terrorists”
  1. It is highly possible that drones could be used to;
    A deliver chemical or biological weapons to target areas,

    B Deliver EMP devices to neutralize air defense systems and communications,
    Or
    C Deliver small yield nuclear weapons against either a tactical or strategic target

    1. – Drones might fly slower than aircraft, but
      carry missiles with high speed, high altitude capability.

      – Drones operating in swarms, armed with something similar to a Metal Storm weapons system, will seriously hamper infantry, artillery operations

      – The swarming aspect of drones might be used to multiply effect by highly coordinated precision attacks in form of serial order attacks or simultaneous attacks on known weak spots (especially with tandem charges, tripled charges and so on)

      -Drone minefields (air/land)

      1. – The real lethality will be in the complex preprogrammed cooperation patterns and in the diversification of the drone swarm.

        -The devolopment in the area of missile technology will play a big role in the use of drones

        – The methods of deployment and element of surprise. Submarines will have a new role to play in releasing drones for beach assaults, or at sea against aircraft carriers.

        – Drone minefields will be an active tactical asset, in its mobility and in its deployment to various locations, such as enemy airbases, making takeoffs impossible for many hours, even days.

        Well, I think you have thought of all this already…