Small Wars Journal

Drone Technology Proliferation in Small Wars

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Drone Technology Proliferation in Small Wars

Scott Crino and Andy Dreby

The recent drone attacks targeting critical components of Saudi Arabia’s energy sector, highlighted by the September fourteenth attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Khurais oilfield and Abqaiq refinery, demonstrate the strategic effect small drones can make in conflict zones. While initially attributed to the Houthi‑Movement, officially Ansar Allah, the attacks on Khurais and Abqaiq originated from Iranian territory. The fiery videos of the attacks and their impact on Saudi oil production brought international attention to the Arabian Peninsula where the Houthis and the Yemeni government are locked in five-year-old civil war.

With Iranian technical and material assistance, the Houthis have conducted dozens of UAS attacks in recent months against targets deep inside the Saudi Kingdom who are leading a coalition against the rebels. The Houthis drone war against the Saudis supports a propaganda strategy of theirs which aims to create the impression the Houthis are strong and the Saudis are unable to contain them. While the Houthis have on occasion scored hits against their intended targets, most of the Houthi attacks either miss their marks or are defeated by Saudi air defenses. While the Houthi rebels have an undeniable drone capability, the Khurais and Abqaiq attacks were an Iranian operation, likely carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps with the direction of the attack coming from outside Yemen, behind Saudi radars.

The Saudi’s experiences in defending their country from Houthi-Movement drones mirror recent, ongoing developments in the military use of drones in other small wars. In the last few years, irregular militaries have made increasing use of small drones on their battlefields, as have terror groups in their campaigns. The technological trends and operational demands which are driving this growing presence is unlikely to change in the near future. Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV), were once only found in advanced, well-funded militaries but now; due to technology advances and lowering costs, drones play a salient role in many of the world’s major, low intensity conflicts. This is especially true in the Arabian Peninsula, Middle East’s Levant, Libya in North Africa, and the Donbass Region of Eastern Ukraine. In these fights, a mix of commercially available, custom built and military grade drones have enabled combatants to push themselves into the air domain to perform ISR, affect command and control of ground forces, and conduct lethal kinetic attacks.

This article examines how technological innovation is contributing to the growing role of drones in small wars and how the application of new technology is sometimes shaped by the operational environment and external actors. It will also consider how new change may soon increase the threat of these unmanned systems. The article will use the terms drone and UAV interchangeably to mean unmanned aircraft. The term unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will mean something more; a UAS is a complete system to include the drone, pilot, ground control station and any other components involved in flying the aircraft.  

Small UAS Technology Advances

While the Houthis’ drone capability, when compared to other irregular military forces, is without peer in terms of its range and destructiveness; it has evolved to its advanced state, due in large part to the unique circumstances of the Yemen Civil War’s operational environment. In Yemen, a variety of factors, such as available funding, access to Iranian technology, advantageous terrain and the need for very long range weaponry have all contributed to or compelled the evolution of the Houthis drone capabilities. That said, in other conflict zones where drones are present, the high degree of technical sophistication and tactical expertise evidenced, in some cases, surpasses the brute strength of the Houthi systems. For instance, in Ukraine this April, a spokesperson for the self-proclaimed, Russian-backed Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DPR) displayed a captured Ukraine custom-built hexacoptor which used a sophisticated commercial flight controller to sense and account for orientation changes of the aircraft and could be programmed for autonomous flight. The same aircraft had lithium-ion batteries with a slow discharge rate to improve endurance, operated at 433 MHz to maintain communications at longer ranges, used machine-made calipers to carry-two cylindrical bombs, and a zoom lens for targeting and making post-attack assessments. In all, it is a very capable aircraft.[i]  

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Ukraine Drone Recovered by Russian-backed Separatists (photo: DPR)

UAVs in the hands of militant and terrorist organizations are no longer novel items but are instead, a standard feature of low intensity conflicts. Ten years ago, however, this was not the case. Back then, the technology and wherewithal to develop, maintain and operate drones was the province of only the world’s most advanced militaries. Since then, several factors contributed to a change in the status quo ante from when only a few countries had military drones. Well known among the reasons for this change are the permeation of GPS systems into all things electronic, the commercialization of UAS technology, and the diffusion of technology from proliferating nation states to non-state actors. These factors helped create the current situation we are seeing in the Middle East, Northern Africa and Eastern Europe today, and may produce similar circumstances elsewhere, such as the Horn of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, or other contested territorial spaces.

Along with the major tech drivers, there are also some lesser known but equally important reasons for the rise of drones in small wars. For instance, most small UAS communicate in the Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) radio bands. Originally, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limited the recreational use of ISM bands for only single channel radios. Single channel communications meant if the RC aircraft was flying in airspace where someone else was using the same channel (e.g. a passing truck with a CB radio), the other person could unintentionally interfere with the aircraft’s communication and cause the pilot to lose control. As a consequence, the remote control (RC) aircraft of the era were flown mostly by hobbyists and were flown mostly at short ranges, so the pilots could recover them. In the mid-1980s, the FCC opened ISM bands to unlicensed frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) radios which greatly reduced the problem of interference and enabled RC pilots to fly much longer missions. [ii]   

Another change was the move away from hardware to software-enabled components. This was especially true for radios and the accelerometer technology which are used for inertial navigation. In military drones before the year 2000, accelerometers used gyroscopes to measure acceleration. Today’s commercial drone technology now relies on software enable accelerometers, embedded in mobile technology, to measure an aircraft’s acceleration, orientation and tilt. This has significantly reduced the cost and complexity of building drones. Other technological developments include the big gains made in action cameras like GoPro, improvements in the power-to-weight rations in lithium batteries, and advances in multi-factor authentication and encryption which protects aircraft from being electronically hijacked. All these changes, big and small, expanded the appeal and reduced the cost of UAS which in turn broadened their popularity. The unintended consequence of the mass availability of inexpensive, highly capable UAVs was these aircraft began to appear in the hands of malicious users.

From a defensive perspective, the various technology changes which have led to the rapid propagation of drones in small wars have put counter UAS technologies a bit on their back feet. Legacy air and missile defense systems were never intended nor designed to fight small UAS. When drones first started to appear in conflict zones after the United States’ invasion of Iraq, a common rhetorical question in the military was why use a million dollar missile to shoot down a hundred dollar drone. The expression was meant to illustrate the weak cost to benefit relationship of firing something like PATRIOT air defense missiles against inexpensive, low utility drones but instead, it unintentionally showed the asymmetric advantages of drones would eventually have because of the absence of effective counter UAS responses to their capabilities.   

Operational Environment

As it exists today, the small UAS threat is multi-faceted, varies greatly from region to region and is constantly evolving. At Red Six, we keep a constant eye on the UAS threat using publicly available information and we maintain a repository of UAS and counter‑UAS incidents and developments. Unsurprisingly, we see a lot happening in Yemen, Libya, and Ukraine where we observe the increasingly important role of UAS in both ISR and direct attack operations. In Syria, the diminution of the Islamic State’s caliphate has not ended UAS activity but has instead, led to changes in aircraft design and tactics, which now seem to emanate from areas under the control of the militant, Salafist group Hay'at Tahrir al‑Sham. All four of these conflicts are notable in the sense that they are shooting wars grounded in local grievance and loss of government legitimacy, as well as ethnic or tribal divisions, with the involvement of foreign powers supporting one or more local sides as their proxies. In addition to conventional weapons and munitions, the foreign powers often supply air power, now in the form of drones, and intelligence to their favored proxies.

These operational environments also share commonalities in terms of their physical geography and the disposition of the military forces within them. In terms of geography, the military terrain of Libya, Yemen, Syria and Ukraine all generally exist at lower elevations with large expanses of open ground. Low lying, open ground is good flying terrain. The military forces fighting within these countries tend to operate from relatively fixed, well defined lines. There is little maneuver warfare in these fights. The open terrain of these conflicts combined with fixed battle lines creates tactical situations where there are long standoff distances between the combatants who fight from behind defensible positions. Drones are well suited for overcoming the twin challenges of quickly covering the open terrain separating the combatants and getting over their battlements. In a sense, it’s not much different than the first use of airplanes in Europe for combat in World War I. Interestingly, the first known aerial bombing in combat took place in Libya in 1911, when an Italian pilot dropped two hand grenades from airplane on a Turkish position in Libya.[iii]                 

While the value of small drones to military operations in small wars has historical parallels, the technology available to the combatants in these theaters are revolutionarily different. We see the UAS capabilities being demonstrated in today’s conflict zones as resting primarily within three spheres of technological maturity: commercial adoption, as when militants and terrorist groups simply take commercial off the shelf (CoTS) technology for use in their military operations, organic growth which is when these same actors gain the necessary know-how to build their own UAS, and external state sources which is when they accept or procure advanced capabilities from external sources, such as state sponsors or arms merchants. There is also evidence in these fights of a fourth, leap ahead sphere, which arises when the threat groups use innovations in the commercial sector to advance their UAS capabilities beyond what is available either through CoTS or military sources.[iv]

Commercial Adoption

Initial commercial adoption is a common approach followed by combatants fighting small wars. This happens when a local side in a fight recognizes a critical need for an aerial capability like ISR or attack aircraft but realize they have neither the inherent capability to build aircraft nor ready access to foreign suppliers. Adoption of CoTS drones was a clearly evident strategy of combatants in the Levant and Ukraine in the years 2014 and 2015.  As a pariah proto-state, the Islamic State was denied access to legitimate foreign markets but they had money and used it to procure CoTS. In 2014, Islamic State began using CoTS, such as small DJI Phantom drones to surveille coalition forces and to drop grenades. The Islamic State supply chain eventually matured to include sixteen different companies in seven different countries. As Don Rassler chronicled in The Islamic State and Drones, “The Islamic State was able to innovate and surprise its enemies from the air by taking a relatively simple approach that creatively merged sophisticated CoTS with low-tech components and other technological add-on’s. This cobbling together of high- and low-tech systems, and the small and easy-to-replicate enhancements that the Islamic State made helped to transform off-the-shelf drone products into unique and fairly capable weapons.”[v]

The pattern used by Islamic State was independently followed in Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimea and Russian-backed separatists took over the Oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbass Region. There, both Ukraine and the separatists relied heavily on CoTS drones and continue to do so today. Initially in the Donbass, the drop-mechanisms used by the combatants on drones were sometimes as simple as tying a hand grenade’s pin to a wire and shaking the flying aircraft until the grenade jerked free. Now, the apparatus being used for drop-mechanisms is much more sophisticated. In March of this year, Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation displayed pictures of a recovered DJI Phantom 4 which had been carrying an air droppable VOG-17 fragmentation grenade.[vi] The recovered Phantom’s showed many technical improvements from the grenade on a string method to include a release mechanism triggered by a photo cell, 3D printed bomb fins to stabilize the grenade, and a toggle switch safety to protect the UAV crew from an accidental release.

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Recovered DJI Phantom 4 and Munition (19Mar19)

CoTS UAS have a singular attraction to adversaries in these small wars; they produce superb video, which provides valuable material for propaganda and information for intelligence. Many CoTS UAS come out of the box with integrated cameras using 4K resolution or cameras can be easily added for well under $100. The Taliban and Islamic State made extensive propaganda use of video footage of ground attacks on United States and coalition forces in Iraq. The Islamic State regularly filmed ground suicide attacks in Western Iraq and Syria from UAS and then posted the chilling video on Islamic State channels (with music and chanting soundtrack added), filming both the attack in progress and then flying back over the target location to revel in the scale of death and destruction.[vii]  Ukrainians use UAS for forward observer teams with their artillery and to film artillery strikes on Russian-backed separatist positions in the Donbas. They then set the videos to music with anti‑Russian lyrics which they post them on YouTube.[viii]

For the Islamic State’s operations in Syria and Iraq and likewise, the Ukraine’s Donbass Region, manned aircraft were never really an option for the irregular forces fighting within them. Conventional air forces are expensive, difficult to maintain, require skilled pilots, and are highly visible which makes them easily susceptible to attack. In addition, having a conventional air force causes the client state to be heavily reliant on the its state sponsors for support which can constrain the client states’ decision space.  In contrast, CoTS UAS are relatively cheap, easy to maintain, fairly easy to pilot, and difficult to track. UAS can also free the insurgency from obvious dependence on a sponsoring power, and often offer plausible deniability.

An additional attraction of UAS, particularly small UAS, to small war combatants is the asymmetry they create between the offensive, adaptive capabilities of UAS vis‑à‑vis the counter UAS systems arrayed against them which struggle to keep pace with the ever-changing signatures of small UAS. Both multirotor and fixed-wing small UAS are difficult to detect, very difficult to identify, and extremely difficult to either jam or physically intercept. Their small radar cross-sections often makes them indistinguishable from birds; there is a proliferation of model types and control frequencies; they can operate at night and in bad weather; and they are getting faster, thereby reducing the decision space from time of identification to response. Moreover, they can be preprogrammed to fly autonomously, thereby removing the need for real-time pilot interaction.

All this said, there are drawbacks to using CoTS small UAS as military weapons when compared to buying the components of a drone and building it yourself. While CoTS UAS are relatively inexpensive, small purpose‑built drones often can be put together even more cheaply. Since CoTS UAS are mostly built for recreation and photography, they usually have limited power and range, and their payload capacity is typically small. Moreover, acquiring small UAS in conflict zones is more difficult than simply buying them online and the artifacts of the financial transactions made in their purchase can be exploited for intelligence. For these reasons and others, organizations with a long term need for militarized small‑UAS eventually have to develop a limited organic capability to design and build their own drones.     

Organic Growth

When combatants in small wars reach the capability limits of small CoTS UAS, they begin making their own drones. The materials and components necessary for making drones are easy to come by. The wings and fuselages can be made from balsa wood, EPO foam, and shrink wrap. GPS devices, autopilots, radio receivers and cameras can all be found inexpensively online. Once built, a custom made drone can be weaponized in a wide variety of ways, with lethal packages ranging from hand grenades to high explosives. A very capable, flying bomb can be built for under one hundred dollars.

In August, Damascus’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) posted pictures online of one such simple, fixed-wing drone used by militants in Northern Syria (see below). The drone was recovered from rebels near Tall Rifat, north of Aleppo, where the SAA is currently conducting offensive operations.[ix] Despite its crude appearance, the UAV has some noteworthy design features. First, the aircraft is very light, its wings and tail look like they were made using a Coroplast-like material; the same material used in yard sale signs. The structure of the wing, using foam ribs on a spar, took a good amount of RC aircraft modeling expertise. And the numbering on its foam ribs indicate it was designed to be disassembled and reassembled like a kit. The aircraft uses a pusher configuration with a propeller located at the rear of the UAV. The pusher propeller and the aircraft’s twin-boom design push the center of gravity backward making it possible to put more weight in its nose which is where the rebels mounted a PG-7VL high‑explosive anti-tank round. This small, easy to fly drone would make an excellent weapon to use against vehicles or bunkers.

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Small Electric Powered UAV Recovered Near Tall Rifat, Syria

The rebels fighting the Syrian government routinely use drones to attack Russian forces stationed in Syria. In June, the SAA recovered a good example of the type of drones used in these attacks near Hama, Syria.[x] Notice this aircraft is considerably heavier than the one recovered near Tall Rifat. It has sturdy wooden wings and is carrying ten small grenade bombs. This aircraft can be heavier because it is powered by a 2-cycle gas engine much like you might find used for a commercial-grade grass-trimmer. The Russians take the threat posed from the rebel drones very seriously. They have deployed Pantsir S1 missile systems to Khmeimim airbase near Latakia to protected Su-57 fighters positioned there. The Pantsir combines short and medium range anti-air missiles on an integrated vehicle platform. At Khmeimim, the Russians have also setup a powerful GPS jammer whose effects can sometimes be felt as far away as Tel Aviv.[xi]

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Small Gas Powered UAV Recovered Near Tall Rifat, Syria (photo: Abdul Ghani Jaroukh)

Open source media usually attributes the rebel drones being flown in Syria to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Organization for the Liberation of the Levant. HTS is an amalgamation of four Salafist groups of which the Jabhat al-Nusra commonly referred to as al-Nusra Front, is best known. HTS operates primarily in Idlib in Northern Syria. Although crude in appearance, the rebel drones recovered by Russian and SAA units appear to follow a standardized production design. This supports the theory that there is a regularized supply line supporting HTS’s drone efforts coming into Syria through Turkey.  The consistency of the aircrafts’ design also supports the idea that there is a small group of builders and trainers who prepare other less skilled fighters to be their aircrews.         

Drone builders in small war conflict zones can get pretty creative in the aircraft they design. In March this year, soldiers with the 93rd Independent Mechanized Brigade in Ukraine downed a fixed-wing UAV in Avdiivka, near the DPR separatist enclave. The captured drone appeared to be a mix of military grade and CoTS components and materials. Our examination of the airframe suggested it was based on a RC model airplane series, V-tail designed aircraft formerly sold online by the Hobby Zone.

The work of combatants in small war conflict zones to build their own drones is made easier by the availability of sophisticate but inexpensive flight controllers, software defined radios, autopilots and navigation systems. Products like the Pixhawk family and the APM series of autopilots have become ubiquitous throughout the world.  These autopilots use a type of programable microcontroller and open-source software known as Arduino. Arduino systems allow for the integration of other micro-computers to perform additional functions, such as image processing. Every day the capabilities of these autopilot systems improve. Since Arduino is open source, programming help for it is available through its large user community. Additionally, there are thousands of forums and YouTube videos dedicated to helping new operators become successful with these systems.

In small UAS, the autopilots are coupled with navigations systems to enable pilots to program flight plans for the aircraft. Technological advances in navigation systems and reductions in their cost means there are literally hundreds of different GPS systems to choose from for this purpose. The most popular navigation systems are UBLOX GPS systems which are designed for Pixhawk and APM autopilots. These systems use all available satellite types, which yields much greater accuracy.  Some of the newer systems like the Here GPS are able see more than twenty-five satellites at a time which provides accuracy readings to within inches rather than feet or yards.  These new units are very similar to traditional UBLOX GPS, except they also have anti jamming sheathing to shield the autopilot on the bottom and all sides with only the system’s top exposed. The sheathing feature protects the Here GPS systems from jamming. The new systems also have intelligence built-in to aid with anti-spoofing.  So, when these GPS see large jumps in location, they will show a GPS error, rather than immediately updating their locations.  Oftentimes, these systems include a magnetometer that can be used for navigation.  When paired with a compass inside the autopilot, even more redundancy is available.  Some autopilot systems even allow multiple GPS to be attached simultaneously to increase accuracy.

 Small UAS, with features such as those described above, present a difficult challenge to conventional counter UAS systems. As Arthur Michel has observed, “The air defense systems that have traditionally been used to protect airspace from manned aircraft are generally ineffective against drones. Military anti-aircraft radars are mostly designed to detect large, fast-moving objects. As a result, they cannot always pick up small, slow, low-flying drones. Furthermore, since unmanned aircraft are cheap, it is impractical to use traditional anti-aircraft weapons, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit, to shoot them down. Even formidable air defense systems have sometimes failed to bring down rudimentary unmanned aircraft; in July 2016, a simple Russian-made fixed-wing drone that flew into Israeli airspace from Syria survived two Patriot missile intercepts, as well as an air-to-air missile attack from an Israeli fighter jet.”[xii]

External Military Sources

While a pure CoTS play or developing an organic capability to design and build drones are both effective approaches, combatants in small war conflict zones when able, will almost always decide to upgrade to military grade UAS. This has been especially true in Yemen and Libya. The civil wars and fights in these countries are striking for their complicated mosaic of shifting alliances and the involvement of local proxies from foreign nations, as well as non-state actors. At the strategic level, the small wars in the Middle East and North Africa serve as theaters where the three major regional powers, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, contend with one another for geopolitical influence. The greater powers of Russia, China, and the United States have a hand in the game as well, as do other influencers, including Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.     

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union frequently exercised control over their proxies by metering supplies of weapons and intelligence; Turkey, Iran and the Saudis now emulate this practice in the Middle East and in North Africa. Although, the decision to accept outside support necessarily will affect the autonomy of the receiving groups, having access to military grade drone weaponry and surveillance systems usually seems worth the price for the recipients.

The interplay between small war combatants and regional powers is best seen in Yemen where the influence of Iran in the design of Houthi-Movement rebel drones is unmistakable. The best-known Houthi drone, the Qasef 2K, is essentially a clone of the Iranian Ababil single-engine, tactical drone. When people hear of drones in the news, their minds’ eyes usually imagine the small recreation quadcopters they see in stores or on television but a Qasef is quite a large fixed-wing aircraft. It has a wingspan of over 10 ft. and is almost 10 ft. in length. While a Qasef can takeoff from a runway, in Yemen the Houthis launch them from large mechanical catapults. 

The current Yemen Civil War began in 2015 between the Yemeni government and the Houthi-Movement and once it began, the Houthi’s quickly stood-up their drone air force using Iranian support to do so. In 2017, the Houthi’s unveiled their rapidly growing capability in a public show in Sana’a.[xiii] The drones displayed at the show included the Rased, reconnaissance and forward observation drone (range 35 km and duration 2 hrs.), Qasef‑1, attack drone (range 150 km and endurance 2 hrs.), Hudhud-1, reconnaissance drone (range 30 km and duration 90 min.), and the Raqeeb, reconnaissance drone (range 15 km and duration 98 min.).[xiv]

Of the four aircraft types, the Rased and Qasef-1 became the most widely used by the Houthis. The Rased is made from EPO foam with a delta-wing design. They are frequently recovered by Yemeni government forces. The Rased is not an innovative design but instead, it is a knockoff of the Skywalker X-8 first person view, flying wing UAV. The X‑8 is very popular in the RC airplane hobbyist community. X-8 airframes, minus their components (i.e. motor, propeller and LiPo batteries), are currently available online for under three hundred dollars.  

The suggestion that the Houthi-Movement’s drones are indigenously made is countered by a number of substantive reports. In 2017, Conflict Armament Research, Ltd. (CAR), produced a report detailing Iranian technology transfers evident in Qasef-1 UAVs recovered by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen. CAR was allowed to study seven Qasef-1 UAVs provided to them the U.A.E. and concluded the Houthis did not produce the aircraft for two reason. First, the Qasefs appeared to share nearly identical design features with the Iranian Ababil including, identical serial number prefixes. Secondly, six of the studied Qasefs were confiscated outside Yemen, along a known smuggling route for Iranian material in Oman, indicating clearly the aircraft were being illicitly exported to Yemen.[xv]

When the Houthis first began flying Qasef-1 drones the aircraft had a limited capability and were used primarily in conjunction with Houthi missile attacks against Saudi targets. One technique was for Houthis to aim the maneuverable Qasaf-1s at Saudi air defense radars in direct strikes designed to destroy the radars and thereby, blind the Saudis defenses. But, on January 10, 2019, the Houthis revealed a far more capable design, the Qasef 2K, when they used one to attack a military parade at Al Anad airbase in Southern Yemen. In video posted online of the attack, the Qasef 2K is clearly heard as it loudly approaches the parade field. It sounds almost like a lawn mower in the sky before it is detonated directly above a VIP viewing stand about 20 meters below. The explosive weapon drove fragments into the target area and the effects were immediate. The attack injured dozens and killed at least seven people including two Yemeni general officers. The Al Anad attack demonstrated the Houthis were now able to synchronize the timing and location of its attacks against high value targets with precision.

After the Al Anad attack, the Houthis continued to grow their capability and increased the tempo of their attacks against the Saudis. In July this year, the Houthi’s previewed their drone and missile capabilities at a second exhibition in Sana’a. There they displayed several new and upgraded aircraft to include a Sammad-1 UAV, Sammad-3 UCAV, Qasef-K2 loitering munition and Quds-1 cruise missile on display.

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Infographic of Houthi-Movement Aircraft Exposition (Islamic World News)[xvi]

After the exposition in Sana’a, the Houthi’s almost immediately began to attack targets hundreds of miles inside Saudi territory which was well beyond the range of their previously known capabilities. In the three months of June through August, Red Six monitored at least twenty-nine separate Houthi attacks against Saudi targets with some of the attacks including multiple aircraft. The primary targets of these attacks were airports, civilian as well as military, and oil facilities. Unlike the September fourteen attacks on the Khurais oilfield and Abqaiq refinery, open source reporting indicated all these attacks were launched from Houthi controlled territory.

Decision making in Tehran seems to control the rate of technology transfer from Iran to its three proxies in the Middle East: the Houthis, Hamas in Israel, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In Yemen, the increase in Houthi drone capabilities is coincident with the increasing bellicosity of Iran towards the United States related to the American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement and subsequent sanctions. The drone war in Yemen is very much different from what is being seen with Iranian proxies on the other side of the Middle East. There drone activity by Hamas and Hezbollah is episodic. In Gaza, Hamas has twice recently hit Israeli military vehicles with IEDs dropped from UAVs, hitting Merkava tank at the end of May and an armored HMMWV in September. Both of these incidents appear to be simple attacks using small commercial multirotor UAVs and would not require outside help. In Lebanon in August, Israel destroyed a Hezbollah compound in Syria which was being used as a launch site for drone attacks against Israel. Following the event, the Israel Defense Force released imagery showing an Iranian fixed‑wing drone being carried by Quds Force trained Hezbollah personnel which was to be used against them. This incident and a few others show Hezbollah does receive drone assistance from Iran; however, it is little compared to what the Houthis receive.

Moving to North Africa, there is significant use of military grade drones in Libya, where despite there being an arms embargo, imposed by the United Nations Security Council, both sides in the ongoing fighting rely heavily on military grade drones provided by external forces. For most of the year, the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the control of Khalifa Haftar has largely encircled the United Nations supported forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The LNA receives varying degrees of support from Russia, Egypt, France, and the U.A.E., while the GNA receives support from Turkey.

The support provided to the LNA appears to be a mix of foreign military aid and mercenaries. U.A.E. provided aircraft includes the large Chinese made Wing Loong unmanned combat aerial vehicle and smaller fixed wing surveillance aircraft. Mercenary support is evidenced by Russian made, export versions of the Orlan‑10 reconnaissance drone. One Orlan‑10 was recovered by the GNA at the end of April (see below). What is interesting about the Orlan-10 is its ISR capability which provides real-time intelligence and 3D maps using a gyro-stabilized camera pod. The intelligence production of the imagery produced by the aircraft requires a support team on the ground, with training and expertise beyond what would be expected within the ranks of the LNA. This intelligence production could be accomplished by foreign military contractors on the LNA’s payroll.

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Aircraft Wreckage of Orlan-10 Variant Recovered by the GNA[xvii]

The Chinese-made Wing Loong flown in support of the LNA is a serious threat to the GNA. These medium-altitude long-endurance aircraft can be equipped with air-to-ground precision weapons and the LNA has repeatedly used them to strike GNA targets in Tripoli and Misrata. As a counterweight to this threat, Turkey began providing the LNA with its Bayraktar TB2 Tactical UAS which like the Wing Loong has an air-to-ground capability.

In looking at Yemen and Libya, as compared to Syria and Ukraine, its notable that the Houthis, GNA, and LNA all bypassed using CoTS or developing any sort of organic UAS technology capability and moved directly to a military grade option. The difference in approaches is partially explainable by the easier access the Houthis, LNA, and GNA had to military technology. Things were different in Ukraine and Syria. In the immediate aftermath of the Russian incursion in Ukraine, there were a number of international policies which denied Ukraine access to Western weaponry, while in Syria, the international community worked to deny the Islamic State access to war materials. In the Ukraine, a mix of IT enthusiasts and entrepreneurial small businesses took it upon themselves to bootstrap a capability for the country.[xviii] While in Syria, the Islamic State took it upon themselves to build drones from scratch.[xix]

Leap Ahead

The attractiveness of military grade drones to irregular militaries does, however, has limits.  Besides the monetary cost and the risk of becoming dependent on outside actors, military technology is oftentimes dated. Ukraine provides example of the limitations of legacy military technology. In 2016, the United States provided Ukraine hand launched Raven drones to support tactical surveillance operations in the Donbass. Unfortunately, the Ravens used a legacy, analogue communications system which was easily jammed and exploited by Russian-backed separatists using sophisticated electronic warfare equipment.[xx]

In terms of manpower, military grade systems are resource intensive. Operating larger drones like those being flown in Yemen and Libya requires a lot of logistics and an extensive support architecture. In the United States Air Force, the ratio of people to aircraft in manned aviation is roughly 1.5 to 1 but it takes about 10 people to operate one large UAV.[xxi]  The people to aircraft ratios for irregular forces are probably more favorable for irregular militaries but they most likely have the same trouble finding and recruiting technology savvy personnel as Western militaries do. Given the sometime disadvantages of using military grade drones, irregular forces will look to the commercial market in hopes of identifying leap ahead technological capabilities to provide them advantages against their adversaries and there are a number of areas of concern.

Very fast, small jet-turbine driven, fixed-wing drones are one such concern. These drones can fly at close to 200 mph and are difficult for counter UAS systems to stop. A turbine drone, using its fuel as an incendiary, could be used as a flying bomb. Maybe more worrisome, a turbine drone could be configured with an actual explosive payload and a point detonator to trigger an explosion when the aircraft drove into its target.

It is possible to setup commercial drones so they do not emit RF signals. Dark drones like these can counter, counter UAS systems which rely solely on RF detection. Likewise, the introduction of autonomous tracking and navigation systems could make drones harder to detect. Commercially available drones now have features to enable users to track subjects of interest. Improvements could eventually allow these drones to independently identify and track subjects without receiving commands from the pilot. Moreover, machine learning and AI portends the time when drones will work and react like humans. An AI capable drone could be programmed to recognize individuals and act autonomously. This could enable a drone to fly into an area and target a very specific high value target.

Likewise, improvements might enable drones to emulate the performance of terrain contour matching systems used in cruise missiles and enable drones to self-navigate. Disrupting the command link between an aircraft and its ground station controller is a common approach used in counter UAS systems. Autonomous tracking and navigation remove this potentially exploitable vulnerability by creating a closed decision loop in the aircraft between its onboard camera and the autopilot.

Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOLS) drones are already available in the commercial market on have been scene in conflict zones. The Indian Army uses small VTOLs for surveillance in Kashmir. The benefit of the VTOL design is that it enables a heavier load to be lifted by an aircraft which is then able to conserve resources by flying vertically. A medium size VTOL aircraft could be easily built, using commercially available components, which would enable irregular forces to use heavy payloads (e.g. 30 to 40 lbs.) over longer ranges than conventional multirotor UAVs.

Implications

Drones will undoubtedly remain a feature of small wars for some time to come. This will be specially so in Yemen, the Levant, Libya, and the Donbass. Looking farther afield, there are a number of areas in the world where militarized drones may become significant. These include Iraq, the Kashmir region of India, the Horn of Africa, and West Africa’s Sahel region.

In Iraq, both the Islamic State and remaining elements of the Iraqi Ba’athist regime remain active in the country’s western provinces. Their previous experience with the use of drones will naturally lead them to consider them again. In South Asia, Kashmir remains volatile and both Pakistan and India have made considerable use of small UAVs for reconnaissance and surveillance along the Line-of-Control (LoC). The risk of terrorists using drones in Kashmir is real. Indian police in Punjab report at least eight drone sorties occurred this month, carrying a total of 80 kg of weapons across the LoC, by a Pakistan-based terror group.[xxii]

On the Horn of Africa, the Al Qaeda aligned jihadi organization, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, commonly known as Al-Shabaab, continues to fight against Western influence from Somalia. Al-Shabaab has always been innovative in applying technology to its terrorist plans and has repeatedly conducted terrorist attacks against Kenya. The use of drones as part of a terror attack against a target in Kenya might help attract news coverage which is always an objective in their operations. In Western Africa, the jihadist organization, Boko Haram, has reportedly used drones for surveillance operations in Nigeria but aside from a few photos of DJI Phantoms, there is little reporting on their capabilities. Even so, small UAVs could be used by the group to attack targets currently being protected by the Nigerian military, such as refugee camps. Similarly, other Al Qaeda aligned groups in the region like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb might use drones for terror attacks.

The small war conflict zones mentioned above share many things in common with the operational environments in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. They all involve long, seemingly intractable problems, where local causes for conflict are aggravated by externalities. In addition, the terrain is these regions a conducive to drone operations, while the disposition of the combatants might necessitate them.

The rate of cost and performance improvements by the commercial UAS market cannot be matched by conventional military UAS or counter UAS systems. The continuous improvement cycle of the industry, driven by consumer demand, is just too fast for government acquisition processes to keep apace. This means developers of counter UAS systems will always face the challenge of playing catchup. While advanced research centers will discover technologies applicable to countering the threat, their discoveries will have little impact on small wars where irregular forces will continue to use available commercial technology to exploit the weaknesses and overcome the strengths of their opponents.

End Notes


[i] Patrick Lancaster, Ukraine Using Drones to “Eliminate” OSCE Members [Twitter] <http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/church-investment-unethical-unbiblical/> [accessed 26 Mar 2019]

[ii] Note: Technical information contained in this report was developed by Archie Stafford and Matt Carruthers. “Arch” is Red Six’s Director of Unmanned Systems and Matt is a Senior UAS Operational Specialist. Both Arch and Matt are RC pilots par excellence. 

[iii] Eydar Peralta, ‘span style="color:#333333">100 Years Ago, World's First Aerial Bomb Dropped Over Libya,’ The Two Way: National Public Radio (online), 11 March 2011, <https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2011/03/21/134735395/100-years-ago-the-first-aerial-bomb-fell-over-libya> [24 September 2019]

[iv] Note: The four capability spheres (commercial adoption, organic growth, external state sources, and leap ahead), can happen in any order. For instance, in civil wars the combatants could start with military grade drone technology but over time find their prospects reduced to the point of having to rely on CoTS systems.   

[v] Don Rassler, The Islamic State and Drones: Supply, Scale, and Future Threats, United States Military Academy, July 2018, page IV, <https://ctc.usma.edu/islamic-state-drones-supply-scale-future-threats/> [17 September 2019]

[vi] Joint Forces Operation, ‘Self-made Enemy UAV Strike [Facebook], 11 March 2019 <https://www.facebook.com/pressjfo.news/posts/558133528012601> [September 17, 2019]

[vii] ODN News, ‘Islamic State drone footage purports to show suicide bombings in Kobani’ [YouTube], 11 December 2014, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zdyfPj4yQw> [24 September 2019]

[viii] Vesti News, ‘Ukrainian Army Films Drone Strikes in Donbass and Sets It to Catchy Russian Tune’ [YouTube], 6 November 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLkk-3mxGCo> [24 September 2019]

[ix] SMM Syria, [Twitter], 6 September 2019, <https://twitter.com/smmsyria/status/1169935522942324737> [22 September 2019]

[x] SouthFront (pro-Russia media outlet), ‘Syrian Army drops a drone with high bombs in Hama,’ 22 June 2019, <https://southfront.org/syrian-army-shoots-down-armed-drone-near-hama-airbase-photos/> [22 September 2019]

[xi] Judah Gross, ‘GPS Jamming Disrupting Israeli Airspace from Russian Airbase,’ The Times of Israel (online), 28 June 2019, <https://www.timesofisrael.com/gps-jamming-affecting-israel-comes-from-russian-base-in-syria-us-researcher/> [22 September 2019]

[xii] Arthur Michel, ‘Counter Drone Systems,’ page 2, Bard College, Center for the Study of Drones, 8 February 2018, <https://dronecenter.bard.edu/files/2018/02/CSD-Counter-Drone-Systems-Report.pdf> [22 September 2019]

[xiii] Tony Toh, ‘Four new locally made Yemeni drones unveiled today’ [Twitter], 26 February 2017 <https://twitter.com/tonytohcy/status/835830632366256132> [24 September 2019]

[xiv] Michael Segall, ‘Yemen Has Become Iran’s Testing Ground for New Weapons,’ The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2 March 2017, <http://jcpa.org/article/yemen-has-become-irans-testing-ground-for-new-weapons/> [September 22, 2019]

[xv] The Center for Arms Research, Ltd., ‘Iranian Technology Transfers to Yemen, 2017,’ Frontline Perspective, March 2017, < https://www.conflictarm.com/perspectives/iranian-technology-transfers-to-yemen/> [22 September 2019]

[xvi] Islamic World News, ‘Infographic of Houthi-Movement Aircraft Exposition,’ 8 July 2019, < http://www.english.iswnews.com/6330/infographic-martyr-saleh-al-sammad-missile-and-drone-exhibition/> [September 17, 2019]

[xvii] Libya Express, ‘Photos of Drone Used by Khalifa Haftar’s Forces for surveillance in Tripoli, 28 April 2019, https://www.libyanexpress.com/photos-for-a-drone-used-by-khalifa-haftars-forces-for-surveillance-in-tripoli-the-drone-has-been-shot-down-by-gna-commanded-libyan-army-forces-on-the-ground/> [22 September 2019]

[xviii] John Wendle, ‘The Fighting [24 September 2019] Drones of Ukraine,’ Air & Space (online), February 2018, <https://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/ukraines-drones-180967708/

[xix] Kelsey Atherton, ‘What We Know about ISIS’s Scratch Built Drones,’ Popular Science (online), 7 November 2016, <https://www.popsci.com/isis-drones/> [24 September 2019]

[xx] Phil Stewart, ‘U.S. Supplied Drones Disappoint Ukraine,’ Reuters (online) 21 December 2016, <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-ukraine-drones-exclusive-idUSKBN14A26D> [22 September 2019]

[xxi] Oriana Pawlyk, ‘Air Force Wants to Decrease Manning for Its UAVs,’ Military.com (online), 22 February 2019, <https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/02/24/air-force-wants-decrease-manning-its-unmanned-vehicles.html> [24 September 2019]

[xxii] Shishir Gupta, ‘Pak terror groups use Chinese drones to airdrop 80 kg weapons in Punjab,’ Hindustan Times (online), 25 September 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/at-least-8-drone-sorties-target-j-k-as-pak-based-groups-airdrop-weapons/story [25 September 2019]

Categories: drones - UAVs - irregular warfare

About the Author(s)

Scott Crino and Andy Dreby co-founded Red Six Solutions in 2015, as a strategic advisory company providing Red Teaming services, after both completed successful careers in the U.S. Army where Scott was a combat aviator and Andy was an armor officer. Between them, they have multiple operational deployments to small war conflict areas. Red Six (https://red-6.com/) is a premier provider of small UAS threat emulation and open source small UAS reporting.

Scott Crino and Andy Dreby co-founded Red Six Solutions in 2015, as a strategic advisory company providing Red Teaming services, after both completed successful careers in the U.S. Army where Scott was a combat aviator and Andy was an armor officer. Between them, they have multiple operational deployments to small war conflict areas. Red Six (https://red-6.com/) is a premier provider of small UAS threat emulation and open source small UAS reporting.

Comments

I think the author is correct in highlighting the threat. Not that the threat cannot be defended against as you pointed out, but the cost to defend VS low entry point enabled by rapid proliferation, increased performance and lower cost to COTS materials presenting an asymmetric advantage to bad actors.   Countries cannot afford to defend, conceal or hide potential targets commensurate to the cost of attack.  It's not even close.  

Larger vehicles with increased accuracy, range and payloads are increasingly becoming attainable at a lower cost, creating an asymmetric arms race.  Saturation and "dumb" swarms will present a real challenge, as will COTS navigation sans GPS.  

GTA  OSU USRI

The authors' conclusion implies there's something inherently unstoppable in commercially-based small UAS...this overstates the threat a bit.  The successes are primarily against opponents and targets where little was done in the way of countermeasures or defenses.  Much has been made Saudi air defenses failure to stop the drone attacks against Khurais and Abqaiq, but more is owed to the fact that these  defenses were poorly oriented to defend against any air attack originating from the east, whether they were drones/cruise missiles or low-flying aircraft.  Couple that with a general U.S. (and those employing U.S. air defense systems) emphasis on anti-ballistic missile/long-range anti-aircraft systems at the expense of short-range, rapid reaction air defenses.   Close-in weapons systems designed to defend against incoming air-to-ground weapons, artillery, rocket, and mortar rounds are just as well suited to engage small UAS.  And traditional countertactics against air attack -- camouflage, dispersion, periodic relocation when able, and some basic hardening when stationary -- work against small UAS just as well as they do against any other aircraft. 

This doesn't mean small UAS are useless. The commercial proliferation of small UAV technology is a significant bonus to terrorist and insurgent groups against soft and unprepared targets, similar to the jumps in capability afforded when surplus (and state-provided) automatic weapons proliferated during the '50s and '60s, and the adaptation of commercial cell phone and wireless communications technology to IEDs (mines and booby traps) over the last 20 years.  Certainly not toothless, but not unstoppable, either.