ISIL & Drones: Understand the Network to Defeat the Network
Noah B. Cooper
The employment of weaponized drone technology by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a unique innovation that demands the mobilization of the defense industry to develop an immediate solution. Well, not exactly. This sensationalistic narrative contains both fact and hyperbole - there exists documented evidence of an ISIL drone program and there have been several instances of ISIL successfully dropping small munitions on Iraqi military positions, but the enemy’s use of drones is yet another demonstration of a materially weaker opponent adapting technology to exploit the vulnerabilities of a stronger foe.
Exaggerations of the problem statement aside, the weaponization of drones by ISIL is an operational issue that necessitates scrutiny and effort to degrade the enemy’s employment of this capability. However, the various entities compromising the collective organizations addressing this matter will no doubt seek diverging approaches. The U.S. military’s development and fielding of expensive, technological solutions to contend with low-technology implements adapted for battlefield use by the enemy has emerged as consistent practice for an institution that leverages the nearly unlimited financial resources of the U.S. government. Nevertheless, and particularly in fiscally austere times, high-cost systems that have long production times are not ideal solutions. A partial solution to this problem is not expensive, created from exotic materials, or overly glamorous, but rather, an approach that requires only the slightest redirection of priorities: the use of the intelligence process to discern the enemy network.
Network analysis is an intelligence methodology designed to understand the relationships in place between actors in an organization. The primary types of linkages connecting individuals include direct relationships (e.g. relative, subordinate, colleague, etc.) and indirect relationships (e.g. an associate of a relative, subordinate, colleague, etc.). This approach to analysis establishes an understanding of an organization’s structure through visualizations (e.g. link diagrams) of the group’s relationships and identifies “critical nodes” or, those elements whose disruption or removal would precipitate cascading effects on the network. The use of advanced analytical software suites allows the identification of these critical nodes via mathematical computations. Notwithstanding the accuracy of the algorithms contained in this programming, the precision of this analysis relies upon the volume and accuracy of the intelligence reporting used to construct the network. As such, assessment and evaluations of the network, its critical nodes, and its anticipated courses of action depends on the intelligence professional’s tradecraft.
The barriers to entry to acquire drone technology are low; however, to weaponize and extend the range of a commercial-off-the shelf system requires a knowledge and expertise uncommon to even the most adherent drone enthusiasts. ISIL’s use of drones to deliver munitions is analogous to the insurgents’ employment of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan against U.S. and Coalition forces: specialists possessing the skills to construct bombs designed to kill personnel and defeat even the most heavily armored vehicles were integral to the insurgencies’ operational activities. Placing these individuals in the context of network analysis, an intelligence analyst would characterize them as critical elements within the bomb-making network.
Logically, it follows that their removal will disrupt the network and have damaging operational effects, specifically as the specialists require extensive time and training to hone their skills and thus, are difficult to replace. This line of reasoning applies to ISIL’s drone mechanics, as well as to other specialists within an insurgent or terrorist network, to include financiers, logisticians, and others in possession of unique skill sets.
The principal challenge of the aforementioned scenario is the ability to collect information on the identity, whereabouts, and operations of the specialists from reliable sources and fusing it to create intelligence that is actionable or, stated simply, of sufficient value to a battlefield commander to launch an operation normally designed to capture or kill the concerned individual. In an era of casualty aversion, the certainty of the information coupled with the assessed risk to the force will influence a commander’s decision-making process. Additionally, the intelligence professionals will recommend the execution of such an operation that does not compromise the intelligence sources and methods associated to discovery of the targeted individual.
In the case of the current conflict waged against ISIL, there exists inherent difficulties in achieving the level of fidelity required to opt for such an operation. The absence of a considerable quantity of ground forces operating within the population restricts the availability of human intelligence (HUMINT), a precursor for effective intelligence analysis in conflicts where the enemy distributes it forces within the population for the purposes of coercion and control. This condition thus dictates the availability and use of “standoff” intelligence collection such as signals intelligence (SIGINT) and imagery intelligence (IMINT) capabilities. Though the information provided by both SIGINT and IMINT assets are characteristically more definitive compared to HUMINT, it is nonetheless a significant challenge to collect on the communications or movements of a group that is fundamentally clandestine and secretive.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, there are other, non-traditional means to pursue the information relating to the enemy’s network. First, host-nation intelligence sources often prove just as valuable, if not more so, than sophisticated multi-function collection capabilities. The insights provided by their respective intelligence organizations and personnel should become an integral component of coalition intelligence analysis. Though it is easy to question the reliability of such information, at minimum, host-nation intelligence could serve to either enrich or question the propositions developed by those who are displaced physically and geographically from the operating environment. Second, as it is ideal for “intelligence to drive operations,” the obverse can provide utility in the presence of an intelligence void. Each of these activities will benefit the intelligence process by contributing supplementary collection and by adding to the reporting required to construct the enemy’s network in an effort to identify critical nodes for targeting.
ISIL’s employment of weaponized drones is not a novel problem that necessitates new solutions. Network analysis is an integral function executed by a military force’s intelligence apparatus, which serves to identify those critical nodes that undergird the enemy’s operational activities. This intelligence methodology is a potent tool to minimize the threat presented by ISIL’s drone program.
Despite this line of thought though, analyzing the network is one among other capabilities to counteract such a threat. For instance, low-cost, innovative solutions designed to neutralize drones in-flight, as well as other kinetic means, which includes such simple solutions as shooting down drones with assault rifles, combine to neutralize this capability.
In future, as in past and current conflicts, the materially weaker power will always seek to gain advantages through the exploitation of the stronger opponent’s vulnerabilities. This will include the adaptation of technologies for the purposes of violence, such as ISIL’s weaponization of drones. Innovative means employed by the enemy does not necessitate an investment in expensive systems to counter the threat. Instead, precise targeting, supported by diligent network analysis that identifies critical nodes within an organization’s structure will degrade the enemy’s ability to use specialized means.