The Democratization of Airpower: The Insurgent and the Drone


An attack on French special operators in Syria caught the world’s attention last week, with many wondering what this means for the future of warfare and, in particular, traditional advantages of states on the battlefield against non-state foes. Ulrike Franke was one of those who took on these questions at War on the Rocks. While providing a good summary of the current usage of drones by irregular groups, she concluded perhaps too optimistically, stating: “In the short term, they are unlikely to fundamentally change the fight.” I am less optimistic. It seems clear to me that cheap commercial drones flying today can and, in the near future likely will, dramatically change the character of conflict between state and non-state actors. Previously on this site, I discussed how this technology will change wars between states; and so here I will focus on how non-state actors can and will use drones.

At the tactical level, these “flying IEDs” will raise the cost of protecting forces in country by heightening the threat to bases and lines of communications.  While one might take comfort in the small size, and hence small payload, of hobby drones, doing so is a serious mistake.  Allied forces in Iraq became painfully aware of the destructive power of explosively formed projectiles (EFPs).  These relatively simple devices place a copper cone at the end of a tube filled with explosives.  As the embedded video demonstrates, when the explosive detonates the cone inverts and becomes a projectile with devastating power.

In this video, an EFP with only 30 grams (.06 pounds) of explosive and a cone roughly one inch in diameter cleanly penetrated about a half inch of steel.  If attacking from above, it would penetrate all but well armored vehicles. Since many inexpensive drones easily carry the GoPro mera system, they can clearly carry a small EFP.  If the EFP is mounted on and aligned with the  GoPro, the operator can aim it remotely.

Fig. 1: How an EFP fires.

Until recently, the hard part of making EFPs was the precision machining necessary to create the copper cone.  Poorly machined cones will not form effective projectiles.  This is why the Iraqi insurgents relied on Iranian-provided cones to build their IEDs.  However, dramatic improvements in 3D printing mean inexpensive home metal printing is now commercially available.  Fused deposition printers, which can print metal, are now available for under $1,000 — or roughly half the cost of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

This changes the tactical problem for all forces in a counterinsurgency.  Rather than using drones as Western militaries do, non-state actors can adopt the concepts of “bringing the detonator” or attacking critical targets.  In the first, the drone delivers a small amount of high explosive that ignites the explosive potential provided by the target.  If flown into a fuel truck, an ammunition dump, or the wing of an aircraft, the drone can set off a much greater explosion.  Or it can focus its  small charge on vulnerable but critical equipment such as radars, communications centers, key leaders, etc.  A carefully planned campaign might focus on shutting down a critical air base or shutting off fuel shipments into the country by destroying fuel tankers.

To counter this threat, state military forces will have to harden some targets and provide air defense for critical elements that cannot be hardened.  Command posts, ammo dumps, fuel farms, living spaces, and all other fixed soft targets will have to be hardened.  The time tested method of digging in with overhead cover will be sufficient but expensive.  Elements that cannot be hardened — including communication towers, satellite dishes, and large parked aircraft — will require a sophisticated 24/7 air defense system.  This will be much more challenging.  Of course, protection will not be limited to the big bases but must include the numerous small facilities forces routinely establish across a conflict zone.  It also must include major government facilities such as the embassy as well as critical host nation infrastructure such as airfields, key ports, government buildings, and perhaps significant cultural sites.

It will be even more difficult to protect mobile assets such as supply convoys. We have struggled for more than a decade to successfully hunt and disarm immobile IEDs.  Drones mean IEDs no longer must be immobile.  The next embedded clip shows that IEDs can now hunt you.

This pilot has clearly developed the skills to intercept and follow a moving target.  He even demonstrates that he can fly the length of a column to evaluate the value of targets and pick a specific one.  Lest you think his drone would be fairly easy to engage with small arms, consider the skills drone pilots in France have demonstrated in racing drones through the woods.  Amplifying the threat, the pilots do not have to see the drone or the course to successfully execute high speed maneuvers on a forest trail.  Any of these pilots could launch from inside an urban area or a covered rural position and fly his drone to the target without ever being visible to anyone.  The speed and maneuverability show it will be very hard to hit one of these systems.  Nor are these pilots uniquely skilled as this freestyle performance shows.  In fact, drone racing is now so widespread that is has become an international sport that includes a million-dollar race.  Much like the airplane races between the World Wars drove aircraft performance to ever greater heights, we can assume these commercial races will do the same for commercial drones and their pilots.  Providing effective air defense for a convoy or even a patrol in a complex environment will be extraordinarily challenging.  As the threat increases, contractors may no longer be willing to provide the long haul trucking through conflict zones necessary to support the American way of war.

The low cost of some commercial drones – even autonomous ones — mean they can be expended as rounds of ammunitions.    In 2014, a team at the University of Virginia developed a fully autonomous, 3D printed drone. The body of the aircraft was printed in a day, then a small electric motor and two batteries were added. Autonomous waypoint navigation was provided by a Nexus smartphone.  The total cost was $800 for the aircraft and an addition $1500 for the ground station.  The ground station was needed only if the operators chose to control the aircraft in flight.  With a 1.5-pound payload capacity this drone could easily carry an EFP.  In short, for about the cost of an RPG round in Syria, one can have a weapon that reaches 20 kilometers rather than the 300 meters of the PRG.  Insurgents use literally hundreds of RPG rounds despite poor hit percentages.  We have to assume they can afford a similar number of drones.

Neurala, a robotics company, has gone a step further and developed an iOS/Android app called “Selfie Drone” that enable low cost drones to follow a person autonomously.  A phone app that can identify a person in a group can certainly identify a C-17 on the parking apron at Bagram.  By setting the drone to fly on a specified heading and then attack when it sees the designated target, insurgents can use drones as weapons without even needing a pilot.  And Google Maps (Earth View) can provide the azimuth and rough range from a launch point to the target area.

As cheap computing power increases and 3D printing improves,  drones are coming down in price even as their capabilities increase.   The UVA team took just over a day to print their drone in 2014.  In 2015, Carbon3D introduced a printer that is 25 to 100 times faster and leases for only $40,000 a year.  These machines are spreading quickly – and inevitably the Chinese will develop a result in even cheaper Chinese counterfeits.  With minimal additional personnel or material, production increases massively.

Using Carbon 3D printing technology, a small team in a small facility could produce 25 to 100 relatively cheap drones per day.  And with the right “app,” they can be effectively autonomous. Because they are cheap, reliability and flight coordination are secondary concerns.  Even if only five reach the flight line of an airbase and hit an aircraft on the ground, air logistics as we know it will cease. Whether they choose to try to print their own drones or simply purchase the ever more capable commercial drones, insurgents and terrorists can add an effective air attack system to their inventory.

While swarms will be more difficult to employ, we should not underestimate insurgent ingenuity.  As early as October 2003, Iraqi insurgents used a GMC truck as a multiple rocket launcher platform using Soviet-era 107mm rockets.  The truck and launcher system blended into the Baghdad traffic enough to park directly across the street from an American VIP hotel.  Recently, the Army and Marine Corps’ Switchblade drone has been upgraded by the Navy to the LOCUST multiple launch system.  In either form, it will provide a lightweight, lethal system that is highly mobile and easy to conceal.  The Switchblade can be concealed in a wide variety of containers and the LOCUST could be placed in a 20-foot container or smaller pods in trucks like the GMC used in the Baghdad attack. This type of drone and launcher can allow a state sponsor to provide highly effective yet still relatively inexpensive precision weapons systems to clients.

To date, the IED threat has been limited to the operational theater, but the rapidly increasing capability of drones combined with steep cost reductions means they can be used against intermediate staging bases too.  This can be done one of two ways.  Insurgents can send teams to targets out of the immediate combat zone — say an intermediate staging or logistics base — just as the Islamic State coordinates a global campaign of terrorism today.  Since the drones are small, a dozen could easily fit in a small van.  Using Google Maps, they could conduct advance reconnaissance to determine launch sites and targets.  Commercial airfields have the largest profile and the impact of attacking them would be enormous.  Using online airline schedules, they could determine when the largest number of jumbo jets will be parked at the gates and send their small swarm out to attack the aircraft.  If they are lucky, they will get a secondary explosion from the fuel in the aircraft. If they get really lucky, they could create a truly mass casualty event.  Even if they don’t, the very fact commercial aircraft in large numbers were attacked will shut down commercial aviation in the region, if not globally.

For a bit more money, but less than supporting a major operation, insurgents might try to obtain a truly long range, autonomous drone.  Aerovel sells the Flexrotor for about $200,000.  It has a range of 2000 miles, multi-spectral sensors, takes off vertically, and is the size of a man.

From northern Syria, all of the Middle East and much of Europe is within range.  Thus political pressure to cut U.S. lines of communications may extend across this region.

Defending against drones is extremely difficult.  They have very low signatures and widely varying flight characteristics.  Fortunately, the Pentagon has been working very hard to develop anti-drone technology and thus is fairly well positioned to deal with current hobby drones in an open environment.  Unfortunately, as the forest fliers have demonstrated, drones can fly very low and fast in urban or rural clutter to prevent most systems from seeing them.  Further, they can emerge at very short distances from many targets to minimize defense reaction time.  And of course, almost all defenses for bases, ammunition dumps, fuel dumps, and airfields are designed to stop a ground assault.  This is why we see a scramble to develop anti-drone technologies.

Back in the 1980s, the U.S. government worked with the Afghan resistance to develop a long-range, but team-portable, rocket system to shut down Russia transport operations at Bagram.  A two-year, multi-million-dollar effort led to the destruction of only two IL-76s.  Worse, the wide dispersion and poor gunnery demonstrated in the hundreds of rounds fired fixed at Russian positions showed that each hit had been a very lucky event.  In short, the rockets were not enough of a threat to shut down the airfield.  Today, a much smaller investment and much shorter training pipeline could put several dozen inexpensive drones within easy range of the parking aprons.  If not intercepted, these drones will have a very high probability of hitting the target.

The Pentagon is working on some promising anti-drone technologies with emphasis on directed energy weapons.  Lasers show particular capabilities but are subject to a variety of problems.  Atmospheric particles (e.g., water, dust, smoke) can bend or scatter laser energy.  And of course lasers are line-of-sight, which will dramatically limit engagement times in an urban or forested environment. A second approach uses microwave energy to kill the electronics of the drone, essentially the same effect as an electro-magnetic pulse.  As demonstrated by a variety of systems, this works against the current generation of small drones.  However, in the same way radios were hardened against electro-magnetic pulses during the Cold War by enclosing the key electronics in a Faraday Cage, drone electronics can also be protected.

Pursing a different approach, a number of firms are working on technology that “hijacks” a drone’s control system and either sends it back to its start point or lands it at a designated safe location.  Simpler systems  jam the control signals so the operator cannot direct the drone.  Unfortunately, once insurgents have autonomous drones, this counter-measure will be defeated.  Autonomous drones that use GPS navigation remain vulnerable to GPS jamming. Miniature inertial navigation systems for drones, however, are currently available commercially and hobbyists are striving to build their own at home.  Further, in locations like airports jamming is simply unacceptable.  In the longer term, drones may actually carry lasers and use them to defeat air-defense lasers. As Franke notes, this will be the part of the ongoing action-reaction-counter-reactions that have marked conflict throughout recorded history.

As noted earlier, defending mobile forces with directed energy will be a much greater challenge.  The demands on defensive systems will be higher while the weight and power available will be much lower.  The environment will change constantly and the systems will be subject to repeated hard shocks.

The one spot of good news is that insurgents have not been particularly good at employing new or cutting-edge technology.  Unfortunately, they have proven to be very creative in using technology that is widely available in society.  For instance, their use of cell phones, garage door openers, and wireless home phone systems to trigger IEDs in Iraq allowed them to quickly modify the detonators used on their IEDs.  This is a concern because drones are rapidly moving from cutting-edge to pedestrian.  Sales in the United States alone are expected to reach 7 million annually by 2020.  As they become pervasive, we can expect to see insurgents and terrorists use them very creatively.  It is essential we make use of the very short time available to develop defenses against these systems.


T.X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: Greg Clarke, CC