The State of the Art of War
The world has entered the ‘second drone age’.1 Defined by the global proliferation of military Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and weaponised commercial drones, this new era of drone warfare has seen, and will continue to see, both state and non-state actors competing for power in the skies above (and beyond) designated zones of conflict. Hostile actors, with threatening remotely operated air power components, now vie for command of the air against NATO and al- lied forces. Civilian populations are at increased risk in this adjusted state of war. Ethical controversies from the first drone age have been exacerbated by the widespread use of distant lethal robotics, making it difficult to distinguish between the perpetrators of drone atrocities and attacks or accidents. This ‘deniability’ has important political, legal, and strategic implications. Holding actors to account, or retaliating against belligerents, is difficult in this deniable, multi-user context, where similar, if not identical systems, are deployed by myriad disparate actors. The second drone age also poses broader implications for international security, stability, and Great Power politics. Decisions about who joins the ‘global drone club’ are not made by accident, especially where the transfer of military UAS is concerned. The unrestricted supply of armed UAS to surrogate, partner, and proxy actors by state suppliers – of which China is one of the most prolific – will influence the fate of nations. As recent ‘State versus State’ drone wars in the Caucasus and Libya show, the politically motivated supply of military UAS has contributed to international instability and conflict escalation. The supply of both commercial and military-grade remote technologies to non-state actors, allegedly by countries like Iran or through commercial shell companies, exacerbate the manifest threats present in this altered security environment. The relaxation of commercial drone regulations in reaction to COVID-19 will only exacerbate this problem as belligerents seek to move against perceived weak-points. Put simply, new ‘Drone Powers’, and the ‘new drone world’, present fundamentally different challenges to those faced during the first drone age.
The First Drone Age
The American monopoly over the use of military UAS defined the first drone age, with Western powers deploying remote aerial technologies in largely uncontested airspace. Operated by the United States (US) military, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the militaries of select allies, these systems were used to hunt and kill those defined as terrorists and insurgents inside and outside designated regions of active conflict. They were (and are) also used to provide close air support and over-watch for friendly forces deployed as part of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). UAS like the Predator, Reaper and unarmed Global Hawk became symbolic of a post-9/11 period where military robotics surged forward to become the spearhead of American and allied force deployment. There can be little doubt that these systems were deemed to be both politically and militarily effective. By the time President Obama came to power in January 2009, the US had lost at least 625 soldiers in Afghanistan and 4,221 personnel in Iraq.2 In 2010, the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was responsible for 60 per cent of American casualties in Afghanistan alone.3 In this high-risk and dangerous context of Asymmetric Warfare, UAS provided the ability to transcend the threats on the battlefield, whilst simultaneously extend- ing the operational reach of American military power to regions previously deemed too hostile or too difficult to operate in with large deployments of American personnel. As part of a broader ‘Remote Warfare’,4 or as Thomas Waldman has termed it a ‘Vicarious Warfare’ modus operandi, UAS were used in tandem with small detachments of Special Operations Forces (SOF), military training units, manned air power assets, and larger groups of local forces who bore the brunt of the risk.5 In this context, UAS played a central role as a ‘panacea weapon’ for President Obama, who was faced with a mounting fatality count and growing public unease about the wars America was committed to.6
The rise of UAS, went hand in hand with – or as Clausewitz may have put it, ‘was a continuation of’ – the casualty-fatigued politics of the 2010s.7 Yet, whilst these unmanned systems remained popular with the American people and many political leaders,8 concerns were raised by human rights groups who argued that the increasing use of UAS made killing too easy.9 This ‘easiness’ was mostly due to concerns over lowering the threshold in the use of force, as raised by organisations like PAX.10 Alongside this, NGOs concerned with civilian protection claimed that UAS had broader gendered, traumatic, and economic effects on the populations they operated high above; well beyond those of the initial kinetic precision strike.11 Claims of statistical inaccuracy were also made. When it came to the counting of the dead, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), such as AirWars and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), asserted that American and allied UAS strikes were responsible for killing thousands more civilians than officials would admit.12 Even senior administration staff worried about the growing reliance on UAS. Former US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates noted that US defence leaders had the tendency to view the use of force by UAS as ‘bloodless, painless, and odourless’,13 mean- ing deadly strikes may be used more frequently and as a first resort.14 Despite these concerns, however, during the first drone age, the prevailing wisdom was that UAS fulfilled an effective military and political role for the US. This role continued into the Trump administration, where UAS were consolidated in their position as the go-to military assets when facing America’s foes. Most notably, during the Trump era, new regions of active armed conflict were defined and there were re-interpretations of those designated as a terrorist.15 The Trump Administration also loosened the restrictions on the use of drone strikes, decentralizing command over strike decisions. One consequence of these changes was an increase in UAS strikes in places like Somalia and the first targeted killing of a state actor – General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).16 In the second drone age, such precedents will lead to new norms in the deployment of UAS by other state and non-state actors, ones which are likely to travel full circle and challenge the security of NATO states, state representatives, and civilian populations. These are the first of many worrying trends that will emerge with the global spread of UAS.17
The Global Spread of UAS
Power, Proliferation, and Escalation
It will come as no surprise that the perceived successes and sheer scale of the US and allied UAS deployments have combined to make UAS systems an attractive military investment. If the first drone age was defined by the US and its allies setting broad standards and norms for UAS use, then the second drone age will be defined by a diverse mix of new UAS actors – some friendly and some hostile – copying established forms of deployment and pushing those very same standards and norms to their limits. Whole new practices – some troubling and some improved – will also be formed, altering the character of conflict. As this section explains, the second drone age will see nation-states capitalizing on the global proliferation of military UAS, providing state militaries with a viable, and often far too easy capacity to deliver death from above. This will challenge traditional notions of Asymmetric Warfare and the effectiveness of a NATO-allied deterrence posture.18
To be specific, 102 nation-states now operate a various assortment of military UAS.19 In 2010, just 60 nations possessed these unmanned aerial technologies.20 To put these figures into perspective, this equates to a 70 percent increase in the number of state militaries operating armed or unarmed UAS capabilities. When we drill down a little deeper into these statistics, provided by the Centre for the Study of the Drone, it can be seen that out of these 102 states, around 40 possess, or are in the process of purchasing, large UAS with the capacity to launch deadly attacks.21 These include, but are not limited to, Israel, Iraq, Iran, the United Kingdom, the US, Turkey, France, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nige- ria, and Pakistan, all of whom have, according to the United Nations (UN), operated UAS for targeted killings or close air support.22 Such figures are useful, as they help highlight the extent to which the skies above contested regions have become more congested in recent years. For example, in June 2020, Azerbaijan was added to the select list of nations who have deployed armed UAS in anger as the Caucasus descended into a novel state of warfare where all actors deployed and shot down each other’s UAS. Armenia and Azerbaijan re-ignited old border clashes, fighting in close proximity to Nagorno-Karabakh.23 In the second drone age, the choice to resort to military UAS as a low-cost, and seemingly low-risk, option is becoming an increasingly common decision. Yet, any precision UAS strike has broader political implications, unintended consequences, and unforeseen ‘costs’. No matter how kinetically precise and ‘surgical’ a UAS strike may be, it always generates ripples that can exacerbate conflict or spark broader hostilities in the longer term. This is something to keep in mind as we examine the motivations behind the supply of military UAS.
Supply and Demand
In this new epoch of UAS proliferation, the old interconnected issues of state power projection and the supply of military technologies have re-emerged. As with any international arms deals, especially those concerned with high-tech weapons systems, strategic considerations and state power interests combine to influence the procurement process. It just so happens that China, a Great Power known for playing politics with technology, is one of the world’s top three suppliers of military UAS and with each sale comes an attempt at Chinese power projection.24 According to data from September 2019, ‘[t]hirty-two countries operate at least one drone made in China’.25 These include Egypt which operates 60 UAS, Saudi Arabia which has 70, and the UAE which owns 40.26 This group of states has been specifically selected for analysis within this chapter as they are all involved in the Libyan Civil War. Combined, they provide considerable operational or air power support to the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) fight against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).27 As this conflict has raged on, it has become clear that visions of the second drone age are being played out in front of an international audience of concerned states, NGOs, and Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs).
This is not to say that China wishes to push a particular outcome in the Libyan Civil War, in a traditional proxy fashion, by supplying UAS to these allied states. Instead, it comes back to economics and the correlating factor that each state supplied by China is a member of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As one re- cent study by the London School of Economics (LSE) found ‘[…] the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has gradually come to assume the status as China’s flagship global development strategy […] UAVs have been part of an attempt to develop and consolidate diplomatic relationships with recipient states’.28 In fact, when it comes to the Middle East and North Africa most specifically, the LSE study found that the key drivers of Chinese UAS sales relate to Beijing’s ‘overseas investments in potentially volatile markets, and [are used to] potentially consolidate diplomatic relationships’.29 The key takeaway here for NATO countries is that in future conflict, where there are Chinese economic interests or Chinese BRI partners, Chinese UAS will be present. Another point worth noting here is that these UAS are not entirely separate from Chinese personnel upon their sale to the recipient state. As interviews with US military officers deployed in Iraq reveal, it is possible to have Chinese contractors helping to support Chinese-supplied UAS.30 This was evident in Iraq, where the Iraqi military purchased, and deployed, Chinese made CH-4B armed UAS in the fight against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This led to a situation where Chinese personnel were cohabiting on-base with US personnel and allied assets as both missile defence and offensive UAS systems were deployed against a common enemy.31 At a time when there are concerns about US government-owned Chinese commercial drones and the communications provider Huawei sending information back to Beijing – as well as hacking and state espionage – this process of UAS providing a gateway to on base Great Power cohabitation may wish to be reviewed and limited.32 In essence, the Chinese sales of UAS are a continuation of the economic ambition, military nouse, and shrewd political manoeuvring that defines Chinese power projection. If we return to the analysis of the Libyan Civil War, it can be seen how these elements combine to fuel tension and pose serious threats to NATO member states.
The Libyan Crucible33
The Libyan Civil War can be recognized as one of the first few conflicts where a UAS armed state has faced another UAS armed state in conflict. As such, it presents a window into the future of how UAS will be supplied, deployed, and countered by state militaries. As the UN’s Special Representative to Libya, Ghassan Sala- me, stated, the conflict has grown to become ‘the largest drone war in the world’.34 UAS have played a major role in the conflict. It was no coincidence that up until December 2019 Field Marshal Haftar’s forces were making considerable gains against the GNA thanks to support from Chinese-manufactured, Chinese-supplied, yet UAE and Saudi-operated armed Wing Loong-IIs with a range of 4,000 km.35 Haftar’s fate, nevertheless, changed as of mid-2020, with the increasing impact of Turkey in the conflict on the side of the GNA.36 Indigenously manufactured Turkish UAS have had a major influence on the conflict. UAS, like the armed Bayraktar TB2, have helped the GNA push to take back major airfields, strike supply lines, and target opposing forces.37 There are, however, some technical limitations to the Turkish deployment of TB2 UAS.
Turkish manufactured TB2s have a shorter signal connection range when compared to Chinese manufactured Wing Loong-II systems. The Bayraktar TB2 may have an impressive flight time of up to 27 hours and can carry a 150 kg payload (according to the manufacturer), yet its range is limited to 150 km.38 This is because these indigenously made Turkish UAS are reported to have a ‘line-of-sight datalink’.39 Ground Data Terminals (GDT), which act as a communication relay between a Ground Control Station (GCS) and the TB2 UAS, have been used in the field to extend the operational range and reliability of the system.40 Nevertheless, here lies a serious vulnerability, one that is worth noting by all NATO members in the second drone age. In a conflict where all actors have UAS precision strike capability, UAS that rely on GDT or GCS situated close to the region of active hostilities are detectable, in range, and vulnerable to attack. Iranian precision missile strikes on US and allied military targets at Ain Al Assad Airbase in Iraq in January 2020 highlighted this threat to UAS operators from hostile precision air power.41 The attacks on NATO forces, in Libya and Iraq, illustrate the need to consider questions about where best to locate airbases, the protection of airbases, and air defence. Until recently, such considerations were confined to the hottest days of the Cold War, but with the air power threat now faced by NATO states, they are once again relevant.42
In fact, since Turkey has entered the fray in Libya and increased its number of deployed UAS, there has been a back and forth battle for ever more advanced air defence systems. The UAE’s Wing Loong-IIs have been especially effective at striking Turkish UAS infrastructure.43 The downing of at least sixteen Turkish UAS occurred alongside strikes on Misurata Airbase (East of Tripoli) where Turk- ish UAS were operated from.44, 45 According to the conflict monitoring, assessment, and transparency NGO (AirWars) after these strikes, Turkey attempted to move UAS operations to ‘Zuwara in Libya’s far east, or to Ghardabiya airbase south of Sirte’.46 Turkey’s aim was to reposition its UAS, affording the GNA ‘the capability of striking targets deeper into Libya’s Haftar-occupied east’.47 Nevertheless, the sites in Zuwara and Ghardabiya were struck by forces backing the LNA, making it difficult for Turkish UAS to move there and provide effective support.48 This being said, in July 2020 the tide appeared to turn back again in Turkey’s favour, prior to UN talks due to be held in October and November 2020.
In a practice which is likely to feature in all future UAS conflicts, Turkey has reportedly bolstered its air defence systems with ‘medium-range US-made MIM-23 Hawk missile systems, Hisar short-range SAMs, and Korkut antiaircraft guns’ to create a ‘layered de- fence’.49 On top of this, Turkey has deployed its KORAL Electronic Warfare System (EWS) which is alleged to have the ability to jam the UAE’s Russian made Pantsir-S1 missile radars and ‘the datalink frequencies of Wing Loong drones’.50 According to Ben Fishman and Conor Hiney at the Washington Institute, ‘[t]his dual jamming capability could account for the increased survivability of the GNA drone force and recent disruptions to LNA drone operations’.51 Not only this, but in reaction to their drone deficits, Turkey has also begun advanced testing of long-range, beyond-line-of-sight satellite-guided drones like the Akinci and Aksungur.52 Overall, therefore, the Libyan Civil War can be seen as possessing key characteristics that are indicative of future UAS conflicts. Where all major actors possess military UAS, there will be escalatory battles over air defence, electronic warfare, and UAS hardware. Yet, these battles are not merely confined to the actors engaged in active hostilities. As the supply of Chinese, US, and Russian offensive and defensive technologies into the Libya conflict demonstrate, future ‘UAS Proxy Wars’ are also likely to become test grounds for rival Great Power technologies that seek to gain the advantage-edge over each other’s UAS and Counter-UAS systems. The simple truth is that the ability to effectively counter and disable an enemy’s UAS will help decide who wins or who loses future battles, be they during proxy or peer on peer conflicts.
The Rise and Fall of Drone Powers
The deployment of military UAS, by competing states, to regions deemed strategic chokepoints or politically important to NATO, further exemplifies the role UAS will play in future tensions. With this in mind, NATO members should look with concern at the Chinese supply of CH-92A ‘Rainbow’ armed UAS to Serbia.53 Supplied with six UAS in total and operated by a Mobile Ground Control Station (MGCS), this sale further signifies Chinese power projection through the sale of UAS.54 As NATO Secretary General Jens Stolten- berg stated in June 2020, ‘this is […] about taking into account that China’s coming closer to us’.55 The fact that Serbia, a NATO partner country, is the first European nation to deploy armed Chinese UAS is of considerable concern. According to Sebastien Roblin (Forbes), the Chinese supply of UAS reflects ‘Belgrade’s deepening relationship with Beijing and its plans to domestically manufacture its own armed drones’.56 It is no coincidence that Serbia is seen by China as a major hub for its BRI in the Balkans, once again high- lighting the relationship between BRI states and UAS sales.57 With Serbia in the process of applying for European Union (EU) membership as a candidate country, there are worries in Brussels that ‘Beijing could turn countries in the region into Trojan horses that would one day be European Union members’.58 As Sten Rynning has argued more broadly, ‘China is more than just business, it’s geopolitics’.59 One final concern here should be that as part of the agreement with China, Serbia will be open to selling its own indigenously produced, yet Chinese assisted, UAS weapons technologies upon manufacture, thus further exacerbating the proliferation of Chinese UAS technologies. Significant questions need to be ad- dressed about to whom these Chinese-Serbian made UAS will be sold, where they will fly, and how the intelligence information they collect, likely from the skies around European nations, will be used.
Looking beyond Chinese activity, the burgeoning Russian UAS market should also be of concern to NATO members. With a niche focus on both armed and unarmed military UAS that can operate in sub-zero frontiers, the growing presence of ‘remote systems in remote places’, is worthy of attention. The High North and Arctic regions are of specific interest here. Moscow has adopted an ambitious 15-year plan to rebuild Soviet infrastructure and construct new civil and military installations in the Russian Arctic.60 Over 400 infrastructure projects – including revamped military bases, airports, and ports – have been completed since 2012.61 Most notable of these – for the purposes of this chapter – are President Pu- tin’s ‘Arctic UAS Squadrons’ and a renewed set of Arctic airbases.62 There are at least four Cold War-era airfields that have been converted for military UAS deployment across the mainland coastal rim of the Russian Arctic.63 From Naryan-Mar (Nenets) in the west, ‘all the way to Anadyr (Chukotka) overlooking the Bering Sea in the east’, Russia has built a UAS capability that allows it to survey and track all passage through the economically expanding Northern Sea Route (NSR).64 The Russian Okhotnik stealth UAS has also been tested in sub-zero weather conditions. According to Defence One ‘[a] January test flight of the 20-ton Okhotnik long-range combat UAV near Novosibirsk raised eyebrows because it took place in 10-degree Fahrenheit (-12° C) weather’ signalling the likely future deployment of this armed system to the Russian Arctic.65 The hope for President Putin is that an economically stagnant Russia can benefit from the global climate crisis as regions of the Russian Arctic warm faster than most other parts of the world.66 Russia’s development of Arctic UAS is about deterring external interference, securing economic interests, and improving operational effectiveness in a region which is difficult for humans to operate in. Yet, with the Trump administration’s decision to expand military operations in the Arctic,67 the deployment of Global Hawks from Alaska,68 Iceland’s leasing of Israeli Hermes UAS,69 the Danish military’s continued deployment of surveillance UAS to secure Greenland,70 and the flexing of Russian military strength towards the Scandinavian Arctic, it is clear that broader battles over information security, jamming, kinetic UAS threats, and counter-UAS seen emerging in the second drone age will spill over into the Arctic in the years to come.71 These are not the only regions of the world where NATO powers will continue to be threatened by remotely controlled airborne technologies. The spread of hostile UAS and drones is a truly global phenomenon that will stretch from distant zones of conflict to the towns and cities of NATO members.
Hostile and Terrorist Drones
As the world trudges through a turbulent period of economic depression, increased Great Power tensions, and social unrest – much of which has been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus – it seems fitting to mention how commercial drones have risen up to take on a role of social benefit, but also social harm, in these tumultuous times.72 Much like in war, the drone can take the place of a human on the frontline of a fight. Since the emergence of the coronavirus in 2019, drones have been used to resupply the most vulnerable, help enforce lockdowns, screen people’s temperature, and deep clean a nation’s streets.73 The aim here is to remove medical workers, community workers, and patients from other contagious human beings. Drones have succeeded in these limited roles, and as a predicable consequence, policymakers and manufactures have lauded the drone, pushing for relaxed restrictions and rapid rollout so that resilient robotic societies can flourish.74
It is undeniable that there is a certain utility to the drone, which in some cases can be virtuous.75 Nevertheless, any rapid relaxation and mass roll-out of drone technologies across towns and cities should be met with caution. The dilemmas of effective drone countering in urban environments have yet to be ‘fixed’. It is not known how frequency jamming counter-drone systems will impact air traffic high above populous cities,76 or interfere with intensive care units within hospitals many miles away.77 Counter-drone technologies currently pose as much of a legal and security threat as the drone itself in civil urban environments. In addition, there is still no comprehensive and foolproof way to distinguish ‘bad drones’ from ‘good drones’ in an urban setting. With this in mind, it is important to consider what would happen if whole new modes of national logistical,78 transport,79 healthcare,80 and distribution in- frastructure81 – built around thousands of drone technologies, some identical, and others differing in size, weight, and shape – were to be quickly taken offline. Hacking, infiltration, spoofing, and nefarious use by hostile actors seeking to take advantages of the vulnerabilities of the drone age would lead to the grounding of all drones in the network, no matter how vital their role.82 How would medical supplies continue to get to the sick and infirmed, or goods move from rural distribution centres to inner-city hubs? To what extent would safe and secure drone commuter transit be compromised, and how would a disquieted public learn to put trust back into a drone infrastructure? National, regional, and local drone management structures need to be constructed and counter technologies adequately tested and invested in, so that they can keep pace with high-tech, high-cost commercial advancements.83 Until these measures are in place, the social and economic ‘costs’ of a rushed en masse embrace of drone technologies will vastly outweigh the proposed benefits.84
There are countless examples that help illustrate the above-mentioned risks and threats. The Japanese ‘atomic drones’ flown on to the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence in 2015,85 the ISIS ‘Trojan Horse drones’ used against allied forces in Iraq and Syria,86 the 2018 Venezuelan ‘assassination drones’ used against President Maduro,87 and the drone chaos that occurred at London’s Gatwick airport later that same year, all offer pertinent reminders of how the drone can violate the most secure governmental or military sites.88 Nevertheless, in more recent years commercial drone technologies, and their related control software, have advanced at a pace opening a whole new range of novel threats and further ex- acerbating drone dangers. Whereas commercial drones were once low, slow, short-range, and flown in ones and twos, they now fly faster, further, higher, and can be piloted in synchronicity with many other drone systems. Take the latest DJI Mavik 2 as a starting point. Although regarded as an easy to use and readily available commercial drone technology, it is actually far more advanced than the previous generation of commercial drones that emerged from 2013.89 The DJI Phantom-1 is a key example. This early commercial drone had a maximum flight time of 10-mins and no built-in camera.90 In contrast, the new Mavik 2 can fly for up to 31 minutes, at a maximum speed of 72 km per hour, over a range of 8-kilometers, with built-in live video transmission.91 Yet this is merely the new normal when it comes to drone capabilities. With improvements in battery technology, ever more advanced transmitters, High Definition (HD) and thermal cameras, payload, and powerful motors, today’s drones are more ‘fast and furious’ rather than ‘low and slow’.92
Illustrative of this new generation of drone threats are the recent cases of commercial drones being used as biological weapons and in hostile rudimentary swarms. In terms of the former, the ex- tended range, speed, video transmission, and payload capacity afforded by the latest commercial drone technologies allowed criminal gangs in China to help spread African Swine Flu. In January 2020, as families across China prepared for Chinese New Year and the purchase of holiday favourites – like pork dumplings, braised pork, and pork knuckles93 – a sinister drone operation exacerbated an ongoing African Swine Flu pandemic.94 In an attempt to engineer a pork scarcity, gangs in North-eastern China packed commercial drones full of tainted pork meat.95 They then flew the meat onto distant uninfected farms. It is believed that the aim was to trigger the cheap sale of infected meat by desperate farmers.96 The gangs would then resell the meat as uninfected produce to unsuspecting customers far away from the source.97 Although now largely forgotten due to COVID-19, this disquieting bio-attack rais- es concerns about how commercial drones can be used to easily spread diseases by hostile actors and how hard it is to effectively counter this threat. In this case, farmers did purchase and operate their own counter-drone technologies, only to be found in breach of the law as their system’s ‘transmitter had disrupted the GPS [Global Positioning System] signal in the area’ potentially interfering with air traffic.98 In light of these counter-drone challenges, it is worth noting that terrorist actors, such as Aum Shinrikyo and ISIS, have previously experimented with the spread of biological agents, yet the hostile use of Ebola, SARS, COVID, or Smallpox still remains a difficult to deploy weapon for malign actors.99 Swarms, on the other hand, are a novel threat that have been achieved.
Free to download software and online tutorials now combine to make it possible for everyday drone users to launch rudimentary ‘swarms’.100 More accurately described as multi-drone deployments, between five and ten drones can be ‘hooked-up’ to a single device and flown beyond the line of visual sight. When this capacity is combined with readily available mobile apps ‘that allow drone pilots to pre-set their drones’ final destination’, it is clear to see how open-access, automated drone swarms have been born.101 In 2018, for instance, the FBI was operationally blinded when a criminal gang made ‘high-speed low passes’ at agents with multiple drones.102 The head of the FBI’s Operational Technology Law Unit, Joe Mazel, stated that the gang buzzed FBI hostage teams with multiple drones all at once and even ‘had people fly their own drones up and put the footage to YouTube’.103 Cases of multi-drone deployment have also been noted in Mexico, with drug cartels targeting the home of the public safety secretary for the Mexican state of Baja California.104 Not only this, but in Arizona, the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear plant in the United States (in terms of power produced), had a ‘drone-a-palooza’ of five or six drones hovering above its pressurized water reactor for multiple nights.105 Despite the involvement of the local police, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and counter-drone specialists, no one has been held to account.106 During their offensive against al- lied forces, ISIS was also adept at drone swarm deployments. By utilising commercial front companies and cells in the UK, Spain, Bangladesh, and Denmark – along with smuggling channels through Turkey – ISIS was able to access some of the most sophisticated drone hardware and high-tech ‘add-ons’ like thermal imaging cameras, transmitters, and motors.107 As has been documented previously in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in one series of attacks that occurred within a 24-hour period, ‘there were no less than 82 drones of all shapes and sizes’ dropping bombs at Kurdish, French, and US forces.108 Operated as part of multi-wave coordinated attacks, ISIS drones were used along with suicide bombers, vehicle-borne IEDs, and sniper fire, to cause maximum damage and chaos for coalition forces.109 Such attacks indicate that in future conflicts NATO and allied forces will face a potent challenge at the tactical air power level bringing hostile air power threats, not seen for a generation, back to the field of battle.110
To finish, it is important to mention the most impactful drone ‘swarm’ to-date. In September 2019, numerous drones and cruise missiles struck the ARAMCO oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia, taking 6 per cent of the world’s oil supply offline.111 It is still not known for certain if this attack was conducted by Houthi terrorists or directly by Iran. This is because the two actors (one state and one non-state) are able to deploy almost identical systems, thus raising an important and timely issue. It is believed that Iran supplies the Houthi’s in Yemen with its military UAS hardware, and in doing so, Iran has surrounded its own UAS activities with a certain level of deniability. NATO actors should note that in future conflict, there will be numerous duplicate state and non-state technologies in the air, making attribution, accountability, and retaliation difficult to correctly and effectively ascertain or achieve. Nevertheless, the Iran-Houthi supply of drones also raises a second important emerging trend in drone warfare; namely how non-state actors can now harness military UAS capabilities and combine them with commercial capacity, creating adaptable and easy to manufacture hybrid systems. As the 2019 inspections of captured Houthi drones revealed, these weapons technologies were a mix of state-supplied military UAS hardware, state-designed yet locally produced fibreglass chassis, and additional smuggled commercial elements that expand the drone’s technical capabilities.112 These include high-power and longer- range petrol motors, information and connection transmitters, HD cameras, electrical wiring, tail wings, and wing flaps.113 The ability to combine these commercial elements with state systems and to indigenously reproduce state designs, means that non-state actors will be able to continue weaponized drone manufacture, even when states supplies are cut off. These non-state actors will also be able to share their drone knowledge with aligned groups, leading to an uncontrolled drone proliferation at a non-state level.
To conclude, therefore, in future warfare it will be difficult to tell a state drone strike and swarm from a terrorist drone strike and swarm as states engage in a deliberate attempt to ‘muddy the waters’ and create an air of deniability by supplying identical systems to non-state actors. Non-state actors will make up for lapses in state supply by combining military hardware with easy to obtain and ever more advanced commercial drone elements that they will in turn supply to other terrorist actors. This trend will also make it difficult to delineate between commercial drones and state military UAS, especially as state actors also begin to harness their own commercially inspired technologies and incorporate them into their ranks.114 Put simply, in future drone wars, the landscape will become increasingly complex, congested, and dangerous for all as both allied forces and urban settings face a difficult to counter and ever-evolving hostile threat from the skies.