Civilian Microdrones, IEDs, and Extremists

Civilian Microdrones, IEDs, and Extremists

By Rear Admiral Dr. S. Kulshrestha (Retd.), Indian Navy

Civilian Microdrones, IEDs, and Extremists

Image Attribute: Drone Sky, Pixabay.com/CC0 Creative Commons

“I look to the skies
and expect artificial passenger pigeons,
blackening the light,
people taking potshots for kicks
imagining one day they will be extinct.” 
- Carl-John X Veraj

The Proliferation of COTS Drones


Unmanned aerial vehicles/systems (UAVs/UAS), have been used by military forces in conflict zones to meet various operational requirements for a long time. However, it is only now, due to the availability of drone technologies from commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) market sources, that the use of the UAV/Drones1 in the civilian arena have found multifarious applications. This availability of Drones is also being gainfully exploited by terrorists/extremists/non-state actors/insurgents& rebels for furthering their nefarious purposes. The Drones have been weaponized innovatively to drop mini bombs, booby-trapping, and carrying out kamikaze attacks on the targets of interest. The exploding of a precision crashed drone, in a target area using remote means, at a time of choice is a more recent phenomenon. For example, Skywalker X-8 drone has been spotted by Kurdish forces since 2015. It is understood that a modified Skywalker X-8 (Drone-borne improvised explosive device or DBIED2), white in color, crashed at approximately 1200 hours on October 2, 2016, about 30 to 40 meters from the Peshmerga trench in the Mosul Dam area. Because the drone was light (approx. 2 kg), it was assumed that it was not booby-trapped. It exploded soon thereafter, resulting in the death of two Peshmerga soldiers and wounding of two French paratroopers. The burns they endured were probably due to the detonation of Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil (ANFO) explosive and from the melted expanded polyolefin (EPO) material of the UAV body generated by the heat of the explosion. The explosion of the UAV created a small crater (approximately 15-20 cm in diameter) on the ground where the victims were standing.Since then, the Isis has frequently used weaponized drones to carry out attacks. The type of Drones are commercially available Chinese mini hobby UAVs with ranges upwards of 7km and payloads of up to 40kg.[2]

Image Attribute: Peshmerga Soldier with Chinese-built Skywalker X-8 Drone (flown by ISIS) near Mosul Dam, Iraq / October 2016

Image Attribute: Peshmerga Soldier with Chinese-built Skywalker X-8 Drone (flown by ISIS) near Mosul Dam, Iraq / October 2016

As per a report by Bard College (U.K.), the drone usage by the extremists has increased exponentially in 2017. Drones are being deployed in conflict zones like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Philippines. In fact, the ISIS has a well-organized system for its drone operations, it is understood that the U.S. had targeted the leaders of the ISIS drone program during airstrikes in 2017 [3].The easy availability of cheap drones has also raised the spectre of the extremists, carrying out a spectacular attack using a large number of drones akin to a swarm attack by locusts.

Counter UAS3  - cUAS


The use of consumer drones by militant groups; for battlefield reconnaissance, dropping small bombs/IEDs, propaganda footage for recruitment videos, flying drones into the flight path of commercial airliners, swarming, or creating fear in the minds of public by other acts etc; has accelerated the developments of Counter UAS technologies in major countries.

Western Countries: Whereas the militaries today are conscious that in case of a drone swarm attack it may not be feasible to destroy or take under control of all the attackers it may be a better idea to have a calibrated and a multi-layered approach to the problem. This may include both the kinetic and the electronic warfare options. The threat from small UAVs operated by extremist lone wolves are also being looked at with concern. Some of the efforts at tackling drones by the US include applicability of the British anti-UAV Defence System (AUDS), which integrates Blighter's A400 series Ku-band electronic scanning air security radar; Chess Dynamics' stabilized electro-optic director, infrared and daylight cameras, and target tracking software; and an Enterprise directional radio frequency (RF) inhibitor to detect, track, classify, disrupt, and defeat UAVs up to a range of six miles [4]. The US Army is utilizing multiple types of equipment to deal with the drone threat. For example; U.S. Army has announced a $65 million contract to SRC Inc. New York, to develop, build, and maintain the low slow small unmanned aerial system integrated defeat system; it has also awarded Leonardo DRS, USA a contract of $16 million to develop a counter-unmanned aerial system (C-UAS) capability to protect soldiers from enemy drones; and it has purchased the "Dronebuster," which is a 5-pound radar gun-like device that soldiers can use to jam weaponized commercial drones.

Image Attribute: Block 3 Dronebusters: This is a hand-held drone detection and jamming systems for use in the battle against ISIL. It was certified by the Army’s Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) product directorate in January of 2017 at Yuma Proving Ground and chosen for use by U.S. forces overseas working in Operation Inherent Resolve. The Dronebuster is a 5 lb. 21-inch long drone jammer.

Image Attribute: Block 3 Dronebusters - This is a hand-held drone detection and jamming systems for use in the battle against ISIL. It was certified by the Army’s Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) product directorate in January of 2017 at Yuma Proving Ground and chosen for use by U.S. forces overseas working in Operation Inherent Resolve. The Dronebuster is a 5 lb. 21-inch long drone jammer. 

Drone Defence of UK uses DeDrone's Drone Tracker to detect and identify unauthorized UAVs, then utilizes either the man-portable Dynopis E1000MP to jam the UAV or it's Net Gun X1 C-UAV system to capture the aircraft. Operating from either a fixed location or as a mobile unit, Drone Tracker uses acoustic, optical, and infrared sensors for real-time detection and identification.

DeDrone's Drone Tracker

Image Source: DeDrone

Airbus Defence and Space in Toulouse, France, has developed a cUAV System combining the company's radars, IR cameras, and direction finders with state-of-the-art data fusion and signals analysis. The system can identify an approaching drone and assess its threat potential at ranges between 5km and 10km, then offer electronic countermeasures like its Smart Responsive Jamming Technology, to minimize the risk of collateral damage.

Russia: The first Russian permanent tactical unit to combat unmanned aircraft has been positioned around Kursk [5]. It is equipped with R-330KMK Zhitel or “Resident” automated radio interference systems. These systems are understood to be able to detect and jam radio signals and interfere with UAV mission systems up to a radius of 30km. “Zhitel” (R-330Zh) system consists of two elements: a wheeled platform with an operator station for the reconnaissance system (0.1-2GHz frequency range) and a trailer with emitters and antennas of the active jamming system. The system’s purpose is to detect, track and jam the Inmarsat and Iridium satellite communications and GSM 1900 cell phones, and also to act against GSM navigation system utilizing the NAVSTAR satellites. “Zhitel” may be operated autonomously or it may, alternatively, be remotely controlled by the R-330KMK station. Its range has been defined as 15 kilometers in case of the ground-system jamming and 200 kilometers, with regards to the airborne platforms.

Image Attribute: “Zhitel” (R-330Zh) System

Image Attribute: “Zhitel” (R-330Zh) System

Israel: At the Singapore Airshow in February 2016, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) revealed the Drone Guard, its new system for drone detection, identification and flight disruption.ELTA, a subsidiary of IAI, offers 3D radars and Electro-Optical (EO) sensors for detection and identification, as well as dedicated Electronic Attack (EA) jamming systems for disrupting drone flight [6].

Image Attribute: IAI's Drone Guard / Youtube Screengrab

Image Attribute: IAI's Drone Guard / Youtube Screengrab

China: China’s Ministry of National Defense released images of the new cUAS on 28 Nov 2017. The cUAS is a container based, road-mobile short-range air defense system. As per UAS Vision [7]; the detection and jamming vehicle is equipped with roof-mounted radar, electronic jamming system, and a small electro-optical (EO) ball turret. The other vehicle has a roof-mounted laser emitter, a tracker (EO and thermal), and a laser range-finder on a stabilized elevatable and rotatable platform. SZMID High Technology Co. Ltd of China has offered a new cUAS against illegal intrusion, which claims that it can disrupt the navigation of an unmanned aircraft, forcing it to land or return to base [8].


Image Attribute: China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) released images on November 28, 2017, what appears to be a new counter-unmanned aircraft system (C-UAS).

Attack by Rebels on Russian Bases in Syria using Drone Swarm


"As for these attacks, they were undoubtedly prepared well. We know when and where these unmanned vehicles were handed over [to the attackers], and how many of them there were. These aerial vehicles were disguised - I would like to stress that - as homemade. But it is obvious that some high-tech equipment was used, [9] "

- President of Russia, Vladimir Putin

On 6th Jan 2018 rebels in Syria launched a swarm attack using drone borne IEDs. The attack involved using more than a dozen of weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles on Russia's Khmeimim Airbase and a Russian navy supply base in Tartus. Khmeimim or Hmeimim Air Base is a Syrian airbase is located south-east of the city of Latakia in Hmeimim. It is being operated by Russia under a 2015 treaty with Syria. The airfield facilities of Bassel Al-Assad International Airport are utilized by the Khmeimim Air Base. The Russian naval facility at the Syrian port city of Tartus is a leased facility. It is used as minor repairs and logistic supply base by the Russian Navy.

Image Attribute: Drones hijacked and landed by Russian troops in Syria on Jan 6, 2018 /Source: Russian Defence Ministry

Image Attribute: Drones hijacked and landed by Russian troops in Syria on Jan 6, 2018/Source: Russian Defence Ministry

It is understood that 13 drones were used in the attacks, seven were shot down using the Pantsir-S1 system and six were force landed using electronic warfare [10]. The Pantsir-S1 is an anti-missile and anti-aircraft system which has a combined missile/gun for automatically engaging up to 4 targets simultaneously. However, using an anti-aircraft/anti-missile system to bring down ISD modified COTS drones is a very expensive way to neutralize the drone swarms, and militaries are looking for cheaper solutions and measures for the same [11].

The bombs attached to the captured drones were recovered and had “semi-transparent casings, white plastic fins, and a thick metal hook to attach them underwing.” The bomb’s explosive payload consisted of metal ball bearings epoxied to an explosive core and placed in a mortar bomb-like aerodynamic shell [12].It is understood that Russians were able to track down the militant launch site after decoding the data recorded on the UAVs and kill the militants responsible for the swarm attack.

The swarm attack by rebels has caught the world by surprise mainly because of the complexities involved in controlling and directing a large number of drones to designated target tens of kilometers away. That the rebels have been able to modify the commercial drones to carry explosives as well as procure rudimentary software to carry out a coordinated attack has shaken the Russians and Americans alike. The possibility of such attacks in near future on non-military targets and urban areas cannot be ruled out.

"The incident itself, while it wasn't necessarily a spectacular attack by terrorist standards, it certainly portends a very dark future."

- Colin Clarke, RAND Corporation

Chinese Drones


A look at China’s ingress into the global drone market is required at this juncture since China is making sophisticated and inexpensive drones that are beginning to dominate the global military and civil markets. The emphasis in this section is on drones which could be easily acquired for exploitation by extremists or rogue regimes.

Military Drones: Chinese drones have been purchased by many countries including allies of the US. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have purchased Wing Loongs, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Myanmar operate CH-3. Nigeria uses CH-3 against Boko Haram. Saudi Arabia and the UAE utilize CH-4s and Wing Loongs against Houthi in Yemen [13]. Iraq has got CH-4s. Jordan and Egypt have also bought Chinese drones. China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the manufacturers of CH-4 UAV, have already set up production factories in Pakistan, Myanmar, and Saudi Arabia [14].


Image Attribute: CH-3 UAVs

Image Attribute: Royal Saudi Air Force's CH-4 UAV

Image Attribute: Royal Saudi Air Force's CH-4 UAV

The bigger combat UAVs come under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) but China is not a signatory to the same and can, therefore, proliferate its military drones.

Commercial Drones: China’s DJI is a company that has risen to one of the top manufacturers in the commercial drone market. DJI is famous for its Phantom and Mavic Pro drones. It represents 50 percent of the market across all price categories [15]. DJI’s rise in the consumer drone market has been due to its ability to innovate and produce feature-rich drones. DJI also reduces its prices periodically forcing other manufacturers, at times, out of the market.

China’s DJI Drones - Phantom and Mavic Pro

The commercial drones are far cheaper and easily available in the open market, further, there is no current binding or international law against the sale of commercial drones and therefore it is very lucrative for the extremists to buy and modify them to suit their objectives.

China’s Swarm Technology

"Our swarming drone technology is the top in the world," 

- Zhang Dengzhou of CETC, China

For years, the U.S. appeared to have a clear lead when it came to swarming drones. In 2015, the Advanced Robotic Systems Engineering Laboratory (ARSENL) of USA, had claimed a world record by launching a swarm of 50 drones. However, at the 11th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) bettered that record with a swarm of 67 drones flying together [16]. The drone used was Skywalker X6s, made by the Skywalker Technology Co. of China. Skywalker drones are popular because they're cheap, readily available, and easy to customize. ISIS has earlier adapted Skywalker drones to carry bombs. At the Zhuhai 2016 Airshow, the SW-6 was showcased, it is a small drone with folding wings which can be dropped from a mother aircraft. Its stated role is reconnaissance, but it is also a good candidate for China's drone "swarm" project.

Image Attribute: On January 24, 2017, the media center of the Islamic State's Nineveh Province released a propaganda video, in which it documented the group's use of weaponized UAVs, including a Skywalker X8 FPV fixed-wing UAV.

Image Attribute: On January 24, 2017, the media center of the Islamic State's Nineveh Province released a propaganda video, in which it documented the group's use of weaponized UAVs, including a Skywalker X8 FPV fixed-wing UAV.

Chinese Micro Killer Drones

There are a number of combat drones or CUAVs developed by China but of interest and likely application in "swarm" formation, warfare includes the CH-802 and CH-803. These drones have been developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).

CH-802: It is a fixed-wing micro air vehicle (MAV) with elevated high-wing configuration and V-tail.  It is hand launchable. It has a cylindrical fuselage and a two-blade propeller driven by an electric motor. It has a payload capacity of 1 kg and a range of 30 km.

Image Attribute: China's CH-802 UAV

Image Attribute: China's CH-802 UAV

CH-803: It is a fixed-wing UAV with a cylindrical fuselage propelled by two-blade propeller driven by an engine mounted in the nose. It is launched by catapult and recovered by a parachute. It has a range of 30 km and a payload capacity of 3.5 kg.

The Future


The drone and drone swarms in the arsenal of the extremists are going to be here for a long time to come. The drones are going to carry more and more harmful weapons like the chemical sprays or the biological viruses. They will be deployed against the state & civil infrastructure as well as personnel. The targeting and guidance are going to be better and better in tandem with the advances in the commercial sector. Better speed, obstacle avoidance, longer range, night operability and payload capacities etc. are going to be the norm in near future.

India, as of today, appears to be deficient in effective cUAS/anti-DBIED defensive measures. Major nations across the globe have already strengthened their capabilities in this field while pursuing unmanned technologies. It is true that as of now such attacks by extremists have more of a propaganda value than a debilitating one. However, considering the capabilities which can be easily transferred by our adversaries to the terrorists under the current trade regimes, and without any fear of international repercussion, the feasibility of a multitude of attacks upon diverse targets launched from across the borders by non-state actors should not be ruled out. India could capitalize on the innovative use of artificial intelligence, AI in collating information leading to purchase of drones, their modification, purchase of civil explosives & chemicals, flight pattern of drones etc to augment the EW and kinetic options of cUAS.

It is imperative that India should put in place an AI-based robust kinetic and EW counter drone program at the earliest for protection of the military as well as civil areas of interest to the terrorists.

About the Author:

RADM Dr. S. Kulshrestha (Retd.), INDIAN NAVY, holds expertise in quality assurance of naval armament and ammunition. He is an alumnus of the NDC and a Ph.D. from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He superannuated from the post of Director-General, Naval Armament Inspection in 2011. He is unaffiliated and writes in defense journals on issues related to Armament technology and indigenization.

Cite this Article:

Kulshrestha, S. "Civilian Microdrones, IEDs, and Extremists", IndraStra Global Vol. 04, Issue No: 01 (2018), 0035, http://www.indrastra.com/2018/01/Civilian-Micro-Drones-IEDs-and-Extremists-004-01-2018-0035.html | ISSN 2381-3652

Endnotes:

1. Drones and UAVs are considered to be synonymous references.

2. DBIED (Drone-borne improvised explosive device) - is a drone attached to a bomb fabricated in an improvised manner incorporating destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic, or incendiary chemicals and designed to destroy or incapacitate personnel or vehicles.

3. A UAS is an all-encompassing description that encapsulates the aircraft or UAV, the ground-based controller, and the system of communications connecting the two.

References:

[1] The Use of Weaponised UAVs by the Islamic State: Analysis of DBIED Incident on Peshmerga Forces in the Mosul Dam Area on 2 October 2016. A Report by Sahan Research Ltd London circulated on 29th December 2016. http://sahan-eu.stackstaging.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Sahan-Research-Report-1st-Investigation-of-an-ISIS-Weaponised-Drone-29xii2016.pdf(accessed 18 Jan 2018)

[2] Charles Clover and Emily Feng. Isis use of hobby drones as weapons tests Chinese makers. Financial Times. 11 December 2017.https://www.ft.com/content/82a29f96-c9e7-11e7-ab18-7a9fb7d6163e(accessed 18 Jan 2018)

[3] Drone Year in Review: 2017. Center for the Study of the Drone, Bard College, 3 January 2018. http://dronecenter.bard.edu/drone-year-in-review-2017/(accessed 18 Jan 2018)

[4] J.R. Wilson. The dawn of counter-drone technologies. Military & Aerospace. 1 November 2016. http://www.militaryaerospace.com/articles/print/volume-27/issue-11/special-report/the-dawn-of-counter-drone-technologies.html(accessed 18 Jan 2018)

[5] Philip Butterworth-Hayes. Russia forms first battlefield tactical counter-UAV unit Kursk. Unmanned Airspace. 01 November 2017. http://www.unmannedairspace.info/counter-uas-systems-and-policies/russia-forms-first-battlefield-tactical-counter-uav-unit-kursk/(accessed 18 Jan 2018)

[6] IAI Unveils "Drone Guard": Drone Detection and Disruption Counter UAV Systems. IsraelDefense. 18 February 2016. http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/iai-unveils-drone-guard-drone-detection-and-disruption-counter-uav-systems(accessed 18 Jan 2018)

[7] China Test-Fires New Laser-Based C-UAS. UAS Vision. 30 Nov 2017. https://www.uasvision.com/2017/11/30/china-test-fires-new-laser-based-cuas/#24TYFbwDTJLE1El6.99(accessed 18 Jan 2018)

[8] Dylan Malyasov. Chinese defence company offers new counter-UAV system.22, Sep 2017.  http://defence-blog.com/news/chinese-defence-company-offers-new-counter-uav-system.html(accessed 19 Jan 2018)

[9] Putin slams drone attack on Russian base in Syria as provocation. Russian Politics & Diplomacy January 11, 20:01. http://tass.com/politics/984721(accessed 19 Jan 2018)

[10] Kyle Mizokami. Russian Bases in Syria Attacked with Black Market Drones. Popular Mechanics. 12 Jan 2018. http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a15062767/russian-bases-in-syria-attacked-with-black-market-drones/(accessed 20 Jan 2018)

[11] Marcus Weisgerber.  Air Force Buys Mysterious Israeli Weapon to Kill ISIS Drones. Defence One.23 Feb 2017. http://www.defenseone.com/business/2017/02/air-force-buys-mysterious-israeli-weapon-kill-isis-drones/135620/(accessed 20 Jan 2018)

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ben Brimelow. Chinese drones may soon swarm the market - and that could be very bad for the US. Business Insider. 17 Nov 2017.https://www.businessinsider.in/Chinese-drones-may-soon-swarm-the-market-and-that-could-be-very-bad-for-the-US/articleshow/61687119.cms(accessed 19 Jan 2018)

[14] Minnie Chan.Chinese drone factory in Saudi Arabia first in Middle East. South China Morning Post.26 Mar 2017.http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2081869/chinese-drone-factory-saudi-arabia-first-middle-east(accessed 19 Jan 2018)

[15] April Glaser. DJI is running away with the drone market. Recode. 14 April 2017. https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:tLjIuXb8JLUJ:https://www.recode.net/2017/4/14/14690576/drone-market-share-growth-charts-dji-forecast+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=in(accessed 19 Jan 2018)

[16] David Hambling. If Drone Swarms Are the Future, China May Be Winning. Popular Mechanics.
Dec 23, 2016. http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/research/a24494/chinese-drones-swarms/(accessed 19 Jan 2018)

[17]  ibid.
    Blogger Comment
    Facebook Comment