This article will focus on the current and future use of UAS by states and groups hostile to NATO and Western allied nations and the Strategic Communications (STRATCOM). There are two salient facts that NATO forces have to take into account:
Firstly, UAS technology, primarily provided by Russia and Iran, is supplied to proxy nationalist and militant groups, thus, the employment of UAS against NATO and allied nations will become a standard feature in future operations.
Secondly, the Russians, Iranians and other states, as well as the assorted nationalist and militant groups allied with those powers, will employ disinformation about their UAS (and all other) operations in order to gain political support and confuse and dishearten their enemies.
Countering disinformation and providing a full range of information support for the operations of NATO and Western allies is an essential mission for NATO STRATCOM leaders and planners. This article will propose some means by which an increasingly capable NATO STRATCOM programme can deal with the current threat. It will also look forward to understanding how the disinformation threat will likely evolve. Understanding the nature of the threat is an essential step in shaping an effective STRATCOM response.
Strategic Communications and Disinformation – An Overview
Disinformation, that is using various media to deliberately spread false accounts of events in order to defame and discredit one’s enemies and gain and support and influence for one’s own cause, is an ancient and very effective tactic within a broader strategy of conflict. Propaganda and disinformation are as old as warfare. However, thanks to mass media, modern means of communications and social media, spreading disinformation is an easy task. When carefully crafted for a target audience and used as part of a broader strategy of STRATCOM, disinformation can be highly effective as a political weapon. A careful study of disinformation shows different approaches used by nations and militant groups. The Russians, for example, have long employed a broad spectrum of STRATCOM methods from traditional media to social media and use of influencers and the use of ‘troll factories’ to flood social media and crowd out commentary. The Russian states use disinformation routinely more to seed confusion in the minds of the public and their adversaries rather than to convince anyone. A common approach is to employ the media and influencers to encourage sometimes outlandish conspiracy theories and to provide alternative interpretations of Russian actions. A blitz of false information was an integral part of Russia’s first push into the Ukraine.1
Not only hostile states, but even large terrorist movements have the talent and media resources to mount a STRATCOM effort that uses various media-newspapers and magazines, videos, pamphlets, films, and social media and internet sites to spread a message. The Islamic State (IS) has shown a genuine sophistication in using a wide variety of media to disseminate an array of messages to targeted audiences. At one level there is a campaign to encourage its followers and to assure them of eventual victory. At another level different media campaigns were developed to recruit targeted audiences. Finally, media was developed to discredit the Western and hostile regional powers that opposed the IS. Disinformation was part of all these campaigns and standard themes developed. Over time the IS honed and evolved its message.2 Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East have demonstrated a real talent for putting together crafted messages geared to specific audiences. Both groups represent a large, popular party and they have used every form of media in a sophisticated manner to spread their message. Both have proven to be experts in working sympathisers in the international media and Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) to support their narrative.3 These groups develop their own video and photo media and are skilled in using the internet and social media to reach their own members and to put their case to a large, international audience. Their anti-Israel stance wins them broad support in the Middle East as well the support of many factions and groups in the West, usually the hard left of the European and American political spectrum. Both factions have shown they can use sympathetic NGOs in the west to spread their version of the news and to accept their press releases and claims with little critique.
In short, some states and militant groups hostile to the West have demonstrated a sophisticated and multifaceted approach towards influencing the local and international public and media. Such states and groups have made strategic communications a major component of their conflict strategy. Adversary groups and nations do not hesitate to use disinformation as one of their major tactics. In many cases disinformation has proven to be an effective means to confuse their opponents, camouflage their true intent, and win support locally and among Western sympathisers. Information operations provide a militarily weak opponent the means to gain significant political advantages. However, disinformation themes also fall into common patterns and can be predictable to Western STRATCOM specialists who have studied the adversary’s information operations. Armed with an in-depth knowledge of how adversaries promote their narratives, NATO and Western STRATCOM staffs can employ strategies that effectively counter adversary campaigns and expose their credibility and legitimacy as a sham.
NATO established the principles of STRATCOM during the ideological struggles of the Cold War and those principles are still valid in today’s conflicts. Democratic societies can only conduct military operations with the support of their people and a healthy civil/military relationship can only function if the military is open and transparent about its operations – keeping classified only operational plans and capabilities whose release might put the military in danger. NATO will not allow disinformation as such actions would erode the legitimacy of its operations. NATO STRATCOM asserts that information about operations, even information about mistakes made and collateral damage inflicted be released to the public fully and as quickly as possible.
UAS Technology of Groups Hostile to the Western and Aligned Nations
We can look at some recent military operations in both Europe and the Middle East to examine the kind of groups that have acquired sophisticated UAS and how they employ them and factor them into their information campaigns. Russia, for decades one of the leading nations in aviation technology, has been able to field a considerable number of sophisticated UAS to support their sponsored Russian separatist forces fighting the Ukrainian government in the Donbas region since 2014. In 2018, Russia deployed 741 UAV across the 409 km front line between Ukraine and the Russian occupied east of the country. Ukrainian forces today face two to three sorties a day from Russian or Russian allied militants in the Donbas, but as many as ten sorties a day have been noted. In order to hide the Russian nature of the UAS and make them look as if they were the product of homemade Russian nationalists the UAS have been equipped with Swedish and Japanese-made video recorders and Chinese-made engine parts and even Israeli components. The Russians have shown considerable sophistication in providing these very capable hybrid UAS equipped with a wide variety of foreign-made avionics and parts, but such efforts enable the Russian denial that they are actively arming and supporting Russian nationalists in a civil war in the Ukraine.4
The Iranian aviation industry, which has long supplied rockets and missiles of increasing range, firepower and sophistication to client factions in the Middle East that include Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, has designed some large UAS capable of long-range strike missions.5 The Qatef, or ‘Striker’ drone used by the Houthis was examined by Western experts in 2018 and found to be ‘virtually identical in design, dimensions and capability to that of the Ababil-T, manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries’. The Ababil-T can deliver up to a 45-kilogram warhead up to 150 km away. Apparently the Iranian UAS was brought into Yemen and assembled there. In this manner, much like the Russian UAS supplied to the Ukrainians, the Iranians could deny that its drones had fired on targets in Saudi Arabia. In 2017 and in 2019, models of this UAS were fired at Saudi oil infrastructure targets from Houthi territory, while the Iranians denied any responsibility for the attacks. However, parts from the one largely intact drone that had failed to explode in Saudi Arabia proved to be Iranian -made parts identical to Iranian UAS recovered in Afghanistan and Iraq.6 As the Iranian Quds Force, Iran’s combination of intelligence agency and special forces, is heavily involved in Yemen and given the very limited Yemeni technical capabilities, it is likely that the Iranians are fully behind the use of UAS against their Saudi enemies.
For decades Iran has been the sponsor, financier, military supporter, and supplier of arms to the Hezbollah Party in Lebanon. Since its founding in 1982, Hezbollah has been closely linked with Iran as both countries are Shia and Hezbollah sees the Iranian Revolution as a model for its own ideology. Hezbollah has always had a large supply of rockets and missiles because the friendly Syrian regime has allied with Hezbollah and Syria offers an easy transit route for Iranian weapons and supplies. Although rockets have always been the primary weapon for Hezbollah, since 2004 Hezbollah has employed UAS against Israeli targets. During the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, a small Hezbollah UAS packed with explosives struck an Israeli gunboat off the Lebanese coast and caused extensive damage. Given this success, the Hezbollah/Iranian UAS programmes proceeded and soon Hamas, also an Iranian client, was equipped with UAS. In late 2010, Head of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau in Israel, Brigadier-General Nitzan Nuriel said that both Hezbollah and Hamas were in possession of a number of drones with a range of over 300 km.7 In 2013 the Israeli Air Force intercepted a Hamas UAS inside Israeli airspace. Since then the Israelis have shot down a number of Hamas drones but the Hamas UAS programme, working with Iranian components, has progressed to field more capable models. By 2014 Hamas was beginning to employ the Ababil UAS which is essentially the Iranian Sarir H-110 UAS.8
It should be noted that the forces employing UAS in increasing numbers – from the Ukraine to Yemen, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip – all try to hide the direct involvement of their suppliers Russia and Iran by claiming the UAS fielded are their own manufacture. Indeed, the Houthis and Hezbollah and Hamas have claimed great successes for their UAS, and they have certainly had some successes, and they use their possession of UAS as a major propaganda weapon-claiming that they have the capability to strike deep into Israeli or Saudi territory.9 Thus, possession of UAS, especially those capable of carrying a warhead has become an important propaganda method for Middle Eastern factions. However, the groups also assert that these UAS are indigenously produced and attempt to maintain that they are independent forces and not serving as mere proxies for another power. Russia and Iran, for their part, work hard to hide their role as supplying and effectively controlling the factions aligned with them.
What this means for NATO STRATCOM is significant. One can look at a likely scenario. Should Iran supply any of its UAS to a militant group fighting the government of Afghanistan, a country that NATO supports with military aid and a training mission, then it should be a STRATCOM priority to expose and publicise the Iranian connection to the militants. Exposure of the Iranian connection would not only be a blow to the militants, undermining their message that they are independent actors, but also win international support from the Arab states and encourage political action to further sanction the militant groups. One can also see a similar STRATCOM strategy playing out in the Ukraine, where exposure of Russian high-tech military support would help build political support for sanctions.
Human Shields Protecting Adversary UAS Assets and NATO’s Response
In conflicts since the 1980s, the use of human shields to protect military targets and to create a propaganda message has become a common tactic in fighting Western powers. Indeed, the use of human shields has become one of the most effective weapons in limiting Western Air Power. Although highly illegal, the use of human shields is more effective – and much cheaper – than a sophisticated anti-aircraft system. The use of human shields is a tactic used by both state military forces and by non-state militant groups. The practice is widespread enough that planning to deal with it and to deal with the STRATCOM effects of this tactic should be part of NATO air doctrine and planning. The use of human shields is a key part of an adversary STRATCOM strategy that seeks to maximize civilian casualties whenever a vital military asset is targeted during an air campaign. If a valid military target is attacked and civilian casualties occur, the story will be presented to the international media that Western nations are deliberately targeting civilians. If air forces are deterred from attacking valid military targets for fear of the media effect, then the adversary state or group has effectively protected its important weapons. Adversary groups see this brutal use of civilians as a ’win-win’ strategy.
In Middle Eastern conflicts first the PLO, then Hezbollah and Hamas employed human shields to protect their military forces and assets and to serve as an important disinformation tactic as well. They know their opponents take great care to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage in air operations. Placing command centres, arms depots, drone workshops and UAS ground stations next to clearly civilian institutions, such as schools or hospitals, are likely to deter Western air forces from attacking the targets for fear of killing civilians. If Western air forces strike such targets – even taking exceptional precautions and using only precision munitions to minimize collateral damage – the militants will show sympathetic journalists the civilian damage and casualties as ‘proof’ that their Western enemies are war criminals attacking civilians as they ensure that no mention of the actual military target is made. Even if military forces and equipment are lost by means of an airstrike, the political/media effect can be of equal or greater worth than the military loss.
UAS have become valuable prestige weapons for militant non-state groups. The possession of large rockets and weaponised UAS demonstrate to their followers and their enemies that they have a genuine conventional military capability to strike targets deep in their enemies’ homeland. The possession of UAS gives non-state groups considerably more political leverage and credibility. Proliferation and rapid technical development of UAS means they will be acquired and used in ever-increasing numbers. Absent highly sophisticated and expensive anti-aircraft systems, military items beyond the financial and technical expertise of non-state groups, NATO and Western nations can expect that non-state movements in possession of UAS will routinely employ human shields to defend their prestigious weapons that are important for both military and information operations. In operations against non-state groups NATO and Western nations can expect that the UAS and larger rocket will be assembled and stored, and likely controlled, from prominent civilian targets (schools, mosques, hospitals). It is probable that they will be launched in the close proximity to prominent civilian facilities. This will place any Western forces trying to destroy hostile UAS before they are fully assembled or launched in the difficult position of either allowing the enemy full use to employ long-range weapons with no retaliation, or face negative media coverage for striking such weapons. Indeed, such ‘human shield’ actions by authoritarian states and militant groups are common enough that NATO headquarters and staffs need to train to deal with this tactic and also plan to conduct an information campaign to educate the media and the public.
Another key part of the information/disinformation campaigns carried out by militant groups is their ability to control the media coverage and present a united front to support their message. Adversary non-state groups could also enforce their will and their message upon the population they control with brute force.10 Many militant groups admit Western journalists to their territory, but only under strict conditions and controls and their coverage is carefully edited and censored by media minders.11
This theme of civilians killed by Western Air Power plays well with the local population and has played well with much of the European public in the past, so this theme and variations on it can be expected as a pillar of any future adversary information campaign. Another key theme played in the information campaigns of militant groups is their ability to carry out strikes into enemy territory. This theme is directed to both internal audiences as well as international audiences. A poor military situation can be played as a military/political victory as long as the adversary maintains the ability to fire rockets and fly UAS into their enemy’s territory.12 One can easily imagine a conflict in the near future where a NATO airstrike on a drone storage facility surrounded by civilian human shields would be presented to the international media and cause a severe political backlash for NATO. On the other hand, if NATO refrained from targeting the UAS storage facility, the ability to continue long-range attacks by UAS would give the adversary state or group an enhanced level of military/ political credibility.
Evolution of NATO STRATCOM Policy and Doctrine in the Last Decade
STRATCOM has taken an increasingly prominent role in NATO planning and operations in the last decade. By 2010, NATO began publishing more detailed guidance on STRATCOM that included improved coordination among friendly actors, more use of social media, market research to better understand the audience, and developing civilian channels of communication.13 The Russian invasion of the Ukraine in 2014 added further emphasis to NATO’s effort to improve its STRATCOM capabilities. The STRATCOM doctrine has evolved considerably and, thanks to the Afghanistan experience, today NATO moves more quickly and efficiently in declassifying imagery information and in responding to adversary propaganda and charges. Indeed, rapid declassification and information response was a primary lesson from Afghanistan where NATO had to contend with a constant onslaught of Taliban disinformation. All of these changes and the new emphasis on STRATCOM remains firmly within the democratic principles of NATO: truthfulness is paramount. STRATCOM must maintain the credibility of the organization as democratic institutions require credibility, communication remains a collective effort, the information environment must be understood, and words and actions must be aligned.14
To effectively understand the information environment and to counter disinformation and adversary narratives NATO took a big step forward in establishing the NATO Centre of Excellence (CoE) for STRATCOM in Riga, Latvia in 2014. The STRATCOM CoE directs and publishes detailed research on adversary information operations. The Riga CoE is a key resource for understanding adversary states and groups and their disinformation methods, media use, influencing operations and narratives. The NATO STRATCOM CoE studies provide the essential background for the STRATCOM and operational planner to organise and conduct information operations prepared with information about adversary information methods, most common themes, and methods of disseminating disinformation.15
Ensuring that the message and actions are aligned, requires training and doctrine. The Strategic Communications Principles on NATO Joint Air Power of November 2017 provides guidance on building STRATCOM capability and better training and coordination. The accompanying document, The NATO Joint Air Power Capability and Capacity Needs (9 November 2017), specifically mentioned the importance of countering disinformation and lays out a concept of improved STRATCOM training to meet the threat.
Helping the Public Understand Air Power and UAS
While training and doctrine are essential parts of the military response to disinformation, one must also look to the long-term need to counter disinformation and improve STRATCOM before the broader public. A main reason for disinformation being able to flourish is the lack of understanding of Air Power and UAS among the general public of the NATO countries. The mainstream media tends to have little understanding of the military and Air Power, so even when the media is given accurate information, they tend to lack the basic context needed to communicate clearly to the public. There are several long-term actions that NATO STRATCOM can employ to improve the understanding of the media and the public about Air Power and its use by NATO. The 2017 study on Air Power and Disinformation by the Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) recommended that NATO provides week-long orientation courses for media members to educate them about airpower and UAS. Such a course would let journalists visit airbases and receive an orientation on air operations and the UAS themselves. The adversary UAS threat could be outlined and, in the case of targeting adversary UAS the essential elements of UAS operations, to include the requirement for ground control stations, UAS storage and workshops, and satellite communications (SATCOM) installations as well as the UAS itself. Dealing with the UAS threat requires not only anti-air actions, but also targeting the key elements of the UAS system before the UAS is launched. Should NATO need to target adversary UAS at least some in the media will understand the basic concepts of UAS operations.16
Another recommendation of the JAPCC study on disinformation is to embed some selected journalists with air units during operations. Embedding journalists with ground units in Afghanistan proved successful as a means to educate the public about the nature of the NATO forces employed in the country and the problems they faced. Moreover, this has been done without exposing classified information. Embedding journalists into air units is possible under similar controls that would assure that current operational plans or exact technical capabilities would not be revealed. Such actions, in the long-term, can help the media report more accurately and give the public a better view of the operational challenges faced by NATO.17
Responding to Disinformation about Adversary UAS
In countering the expected disinformation that has, and will, arise from adversary use of UAS the first step is to maintain NATO STRATCOM’s current policy and doctrine of quick declassification and release of information concerning the employment of UAS. Accurate information to the public about the operating principles, effects and capabilities of UAS and the defensive response will help settle the expected hype that will originate with the states and factions that employ UAS. A first principle of STRATCOM is to be truthful and transparent. Without credibility NATO could lose the public support required in a democratic alliance.
In responding to an adversary UAS use there are two specific actions that should be emphasized by NATO and Western STRATCOM. First of all, as adversary UAS use today comes not from nation-states fighting conventional wars, but primarily from proxy groups that are not capable of designing and manufacturing capable UAS on their own and are reliant on outside powers – specifically Russia in the case of Russian factions fighting in the Ukraine and Iran in the case of non-state groups fighting in the Middle East. In both regions of conflict, large state powers go to considerable lengths to hide the origins of the UAS being supplied to the non-state groups. The non-state factions, for their part, attempt to minimize or deny their close dependence on outside powers as their own information campaigns push the popular narrative that they are fighting a valiant ’David versus Goliath’ battle against overwhelming odds. Thus, rapid exposure and analysis of imagery of adversary UAS, as well as analysis of captured or shot down UAS and determining their origin and manufacture, will go a long way to discredit the false narrative of the proxy groups that employ UAS. While local people and foreign media find the image of the resolute and independent freedom fighters attractive, the image of a proxy army doing the will of a major power is certainly not conducive to building a popular local and international image.
The second action that should be emphasized is to record, document and publish the use of human shields protecting UAS ground installations and drone workshops by adversary states and militant factions. The use of human shields is one of the most common disinformation tactics of militant groups. Given their record to date, and the positive media they have achieved from the civilian losses and collateral damage that occurs when legitimate military targets are struck, we can expect that militant factions will protect their UAS assembly, storage and launching sites by placing them in, or adjacent to, civilian homes and institutions. Such actions are a clear violation of international humanitarian law and the use of human shields to counter any NATO operation needs to be thoroughly exposed. NATO could deploy a specialized media and legal team to collect, record and document the use of human shields by adversary states and groups. Such records should be used to bring war crimes charges against the perpetrators.18 Adversary violations of international humanitarian law should always be a major theme of NATO STRATCOM.
Information operations are more important than ever. Disinformation can be expected, but it can also be effectively countered with a good understanding of likely enemies and their information operations. The last decade has seen a much more developed STRATCOM doctrine, a well-resourced STRATCOM directorate, enhanced training in information operations. This is also supported by the research and analysis of the NATO CoEs for STRATCOM and Joint Air Power. While disinformation remains a major threat against Air Power in general, training and better understanding puts NATO in a much stronger position to counter the threat of enemy information operations than a decade ago.