On Tuesday, French media broke the story that two French soldiers in Erbil had been severely injured and two Peshmerga fighters killed by what appears to be the first successful use of a drone carrying explosives.
At this point, little information is available. The French daily Le Monde reported that “two paratroopers were struck by the booby-trapped drone, sent by a group linked to the Islamic State. The exact circumstances of the attack remain to be specified.” The article also mentions a number of light injuries among other soldiers.
If confirmed, this would be the first known instance in which an explosive, booby-trapped drone was successfully used by a non-state actor against Western forces. We do not know what kind of drone was used, and we can only speculate as to what type of explosives it carried (assuming that was in fact the payload). The drone was most likely commercially available, not unlike those some War on the Rocks readers fly in a park on the weekend. Regardless, this was an inevitable development. For a while now, civilian drones have appeared on the world’s battlefields, having come full circle: Drones were initially an exclusively military technology, but civilian use has grown exponentially over the last few years, and we are now seeing these systems flown by non-state actors across the world’s hotspots. Both sides in civil wars now use off-the-shelf drones, from Ukrainian separatists to the Iraqi interior ministry. Even Western states are purchasing and using commercially-available platforms, including the Dutch and German navies as well as U.S. Special Operations Command.
State groups used these commercially available or crude home-made systems almost entirely for surveillance – including to direct artillery and mortar strikes – and to shoot propaganda videos. There have been videos of militant-controlled drones dropping bombs in Syria. And in recent months there had been reports that ISIL has begun to pack its drones with explosives . After all, for a group that has both drones and explosives at its disposal, arming the former with the latter is an obvious and, sadly, comparatively easy step. And the idea is by no means new: German terrorist groups toyed with the idea of putting explosives on model airplanes already in the 1970s.
Le Monde reports that the drone exploded on the ground after having been intercepted by the soldiers. This is a good sign. Despite the tragic casualties, it can be assumed that this has saved lives, although The New York Times now reports that the forces were actually trying to take the system apart when it exploded, not realising it was booby-trapped. Still, it is possible that the interception averted something worse – an explosion in an area with more people, the targeting of a weapons stash, etc.
Advanced military forces have been preparing for this threat. The U.S. military has noted the risk of these crude armed drones in its doctrine and includes these scenarios in training. Counter-drone technology is a big growth sector, according to a Goldman Sachs Investment report, almost 10 percent of U.S. defense research and development funds goes into such systems which range from jamming rifles to lasers to other drones.
How much of a danger do these drones pose to troops? The media is already going in overdrive about ISIL’s “armed drones.” Technically, the term may be correct – it is a drone that is fitted with armament in the form of explosives – but, at this point, such hand-made systems barely resemble the armed drones used by militaries. In fact, the difference between an improvised armed drone and the real thing is much bigger than that between an improvised explosive device and what it tries to emulate, namely a landmine. Whereas a sophisticated IED may cause similar effects as munitions and military platforms, the kind of self-made armed drones we have so far been seeing on the battlefield have very little in common with military armed drones; the range, endurance, and payload of the latter is potentially hundreds or thousands of times higher, not considering the even more important aspects of the underlying infrastructure and the sophistication of sensors and resultant control. A Reaper can be loaded with multiple Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs. It stays in the air for the better part of a day while searching for targets through high-end sensors, all while being piloted from halfway around the world. The systems that are now appearing on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria have an endurance of a few hours, carry a maximum payload of a few kilograms, and are controlled by fighters in close proximity who struggle to identify their targets. Thus, at least in their current form, these booby-trapped drones should not be considered crude armed drones, but rather flying IEDs.
Flying IEDs are not a game changer, but they add a level of difficulty to military operations, and they have the potential of making life for deployed troops even more perilous. The rationale of using flying IEDs is similar to using suicide bombers: They can ensure a charge explodes at the most opportune moment to cause the biggest effect. And drones provide non-state groups with airborne capabilities. Given that threats from the air have been largely absent in the wars that have occupied Western troops since 9/11, this adds a new psychological element to drone IEDs, even for veterans with several tours under their belts. We are likely to see a series of action-reaction-counter-reactions as has been the case with the roadside IED: Counter-UAV technology and doctrines will be developed and fielded. Clever insurgents will find a way around them, and then the technology and doctrine will adapt once more.
Flying IEDs will claim lives. In the short term they are unlikely to fundamentally change the fight. In the longer term, however, troops are likely to encounter more sophisticated systems that will be much harder to intercept. Autonomous drone swarms – a scenario the military places much hope in – are likely to eventually also be adapted by non-state actors.
Ulrike Esther Franke is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford where she works on the use of drones by Western armed forces and the revolution in military affairs. She is a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.