Destabilizing speculation

Drones, drones everywhere – by Giselle Donnelly


(Photograph by Christian Marquardt / Getty Images.)

Arrived Sunday at his villa of al-Mintqa al-Khadraa, or international district of the green zone along the Tigris, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was attacked by a “suicide quadricopter”. It was an improvised explosive device of a different and newly popular genre: a small commercial-grade drone equipped with cluster bomb-like ammunition.

While most speculation about the anonymous attack so far has focused on the likely perpetrator – likely one of the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, known collectively as Hashd al-Shaabi, or Forces popular mobilization – and on politics – Hashd the candidates were defeated in the recent parliamentary elections, winning just 17 seats out of 329 members of the legislature – the biggest import of the moment could be military and strategic. The assassination attempt may have been less than a complete technical or tactical success, but it’s a harbinger of things to come, things to be very concerned about.

The details of the attack remain unclear, but the basic facts are clear. It was launched somewhere near the Republic Bridge, about three kilometers upstream from the green zone as the crow flies. Two or perhaps three drones carrying small improvised explosive devices were used; all but one were shot. David Hambling’s analysis in Forbes is insightful: the green zone is heavily defended, especially with regard to drone attacks, benefiting from “some of the US military’s most advanced drone jamming equipment.” … The fact that the attack drones apparently avoided jamming suggests that they may have been on a preprogrammed flight path with no direct link between the drone and the operator to jam.

The ammunition from the downed drones did not explode, but it does reveal a certain level of sophisticated fusion: When the bomb is dropped, it spins a propeller-like device that arms the device, which explodes on impact. This is often loaded into a cup-shaped holder which is, in essence, “turned upside down” to release the ammunition. The bombs themselves carried what is called a “shaped charge,” designed to penetrate armor or other protection rather than simply scattering shrapnel.

Improvised suicide drones have been used sporadically for several decades, employed by irregulars from Colombia to Lebanon via Syria and Iraq; Iranian proxies – Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and now the Iraqi militias – and the Islamic State quickly embraced technology and tactics. The “quadcopter”, familiar to millions of hobbyists, has four vertically mounted propellers that stabilize the drone’s flight, is much more accurate than the first wave of insurgent drone attacks, which were often small wing-style planes. flying that dropped recycled mortar towers as they passed over a target area.

A 2018 report by West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center on the Islamic State’s drone program provides insight into the proliferation of low-end drones. Like ISIS itself, the drone effort was quickly institutionalized and relied on global sources, initiated by “two Bangladeshi brothers who leveraged companies in the UK, Bangladesh and Spain that they created to move funds, drones and other dual-use components to and on behalf of ISIS ”, possibly starting as early as 2015. Over the course of the program, the group overcame a variety of cost issues and technological, ultimately developing a ‘new weapons system built from commercial components’ that ‘challenged … states’ ‘ability to respond’ and by exploiting ‘the loopholes and seams’ in countermeasures such as jamming.

The report also predicted that ISIS’s successes “could serve as inspiration for other terrorists and / or nation states and proxy groups” – a prognosis confirmed by the Kadhimi attack. The report also predicted rapid development of drone tactics, targets and weapons and suggested that attacks by multiple drones, possibly launched from different points on land and at sea, would increase. Indeed, experts studying the future of war have long predicted the advent of “swarms” of drones that could overwhelm even sophisticated, layered defenses. The counterterrorism center was also not optimistic about the prospect of limiting insurgents’ access to necessary technology: “significant gaps in knowledge of the supply chain probably exist.” Although professional weapons trackers, including non-governmental organizations specializing in this work, have been able to trace the components to their source, there are almost certainly too many holes in the drone’s levee to plug them. effectively for a long time.

The Middle East has become a particularly fertile ground for the development and experimentation of drones. The Yemeni Houthis, also backed by Iran, like to use larger drones to attack oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. Houthi spokesman General Yahya Saree proclaimed 2019 as the “Year of the Drone” and the Houthis more than fulfilled that boast and continued to acquire new abilities. In September 2019 on the international financial markets.

But perhaps the most striking display of drone power is Turkey’s intervention in the 2011 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the oft-contested Nagorno-Karabakh region and then in Libya. In both cases, Turkish drones turned the tide in favor of its allies, Azerbaijan and the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, in both cases also defeating opposing Russian-backed forces. The stars of the shows were the Bayraktar family of drones, in particular the medium-altitude TB-2, similar in size, endurance and weaponry to the US Predator, but at a cost of around $ 1.5 million compared to $ 60 million and more. price of the American-made aircraft. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama – himself an enthusiastic drone enthusiast – said his big investments in drones have made Turkey a “regional power” in the Middle East that has “resolutely shaped the outcomes of three conflicts and promises to ‘do more’.

It can be argued that Turkey’s drone dominance could stabilize, even if it serves President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s occasional Ottoman dreams and domestic repression. Yet the proliferation of drones has so far proven to be a primarily destabilizing phenomenon and, if Kadhimi’s assassination attempt is any indicator, small drones in the hands of small bands of terrorists or insurgents will be a problem. particularly serious. It is easy to imagine that such groups are working on ways to launch strikes using weapons as small but much deadlier than reworked grenades.

It is to be expected that the problem of the proliferation of drones will also have a domestic American dimension. At that time, there are about 1 million commercial drones registered with the FAA, and perhaps five times as many recreational drones. . The international drome market is estimated at nearly $ 20 billion today and will double in size by 2027. There are almost certainly members of Antifa or Proud Boys who own quadcopters.

Finally, the attack on Kadhimi has both philosophical and security aspects. For several decades there has been an inconclusive debate about the ethics of drone warfare and its position in the philosophical tradition of “just war”. This theory, formulated, adapted and refined over the millennia and founder of Western political philosophy, generally maintains that there are two tests legitimizing the use of armed force: jus ad bellum, that is, the criteria to be met before going to war; and ius in bello, standards governing the conduct of armed conflicts. Traditionally, the issue of assassination – even when it targets political or military leaders in uniform – has been thorny. While the act of killing seems to become more precise and lessen the imminent risk to an attacker – two developments which mark the development of armed drones in particular, but also confuse the use of precision-guided weapons in conventional conflicts, cyberware and near-Earth space – the United States and allied armies now frequently rely on the decisions of military judges. Events such as the botched strike that resulted in the US assassination of an Afghan aid worker mistakenly viewed as an ISIS terrorist will continue and possibly accelerate this trend.

But what is anathema to modern civil society is a windfall for terrorists and insurgents. The attack on Kadhimi appears to have achieved its political objectives, highlighting the weakness of the Iraqi prime minister’s position and reminding Iraqis that the Iran-sponsored militias, rejected at the polls, remain a powerful force. The combination of cheap and widely available technology, shop-floor manufacturing ingenuity, and thoughtful employment to highlight adversaries’ vulnerabilities may be a unique brew in Baghdad, but the recipe is appealing overall. In an America unfortunately prone to political violence, this is indeed a cause for concern.


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