The use of drones by nonstate actors

Branka Marijan Emerging Technologies, Featured, Ploughshares Monitor

Written by Rory Shiner and Branka Marijan

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 4 Winter 2019

In January of this year, armed drones owned by Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group, killed several Yemeni government officials. This was the first time, as far as we know, that a nonstate group had successfully deployed a drone to carry out a precision-targeted operation. In September, the Houthis, with alleged support from Iran, were suspected in the attack on the world’s largest oil-processing facility in Saudi Arabia.

Islamic State, Hamas, and Hezbollah are other nonstate militant groups that possess armed drones (also known as UAVs—unmanned aerial vehicles). The use of such cutting-edge technologies by these groups will result in even greater instability in some of the most conflict-ridden regions on the planet. There are also concerns that such groups will use drones in civilian spaces in countries not experiencing armed conflict.

Concern for global stability grows with the proliferation of military drones, an increasing willingness by countries such as China and Turkey to export armed drones, and the availability of commercial drones.

Now, civil-society groups and disarmament advocates are calling for multilateral action to create stronger international norms on the development and use of UAV technologies. In support of such action, more research is needed on how nonstate groups adapt technologies and how particular contexts encourage the development and use of these weapon systems. In particular, it is critical that we understand which of these groups have the capacity to adopt different types of systems, which commercial channels will be used, and the role of state sponsors in transferring the technology.

Military and commercial use of drones

At first, only the armed forces of leading military powers like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel possessed military UAVs. However, in the last decade, 95 countries have introduced UAVs into their military operations. Currently, military drones are largely restricted to intelligence-gathering, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations; however, it has been documented that the militaries of 30 countries own armed drones and almost as many are developing them or have plans to acquire them. The deployment of armed drones on the battlefield is expected to increase with the steady shift toward network-centric warfare.

As commercial drones have become smaller, faster, more adaptable, and cheaper to produce, the market for them has grown exponentially. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States, there are already 450,000 commercial drones in service. Barclays analysts project that the commercial drone market will grow from 4-billion USD in 2018 to 40-billion USD in the next five years. Easily accessible and adaptable, commercial drones create opportunities for nonstate actors to leverage this technology in conflict zones.

Nonstate use: The case of Islamic State

Islamic State made groundbreaking use of commercial drones in waging an aerial bombardment campaign against U.S.-led forces in their defence of Mosul in 2016 and 2017. By modifying these drones, IS constructed a novel weapons system that was identified by a top U.S. commander as the “most daunting threat” faced by U.S. forces in 2016. In the following year, IS conducted between 60 and 100 aerial drone bombing attacks a month.

The IS weapons system employed cheap quadcopter drones and fixed-wing drone platforms. As well, the group assembled fixed-wing drone platforms from wood and from stock fixed-wing airframes that they acquired through a global supply chain. When various low-tech components were added, the drones gained bomb-dropping capabilities.

These drones killed more than a dozen people and injured scores more. A surgeon in Mosul estimated that they supplied his hospital with 10 patients every day in February 2017. These casualties were not fighters, but innocent civilians.

Besides delivering bombs, the modified drones played an integral role in IS ISTAR operations. Adopting a tactic that was also embraced by the Houthis, Islamic State used drones to improve the accuracy of mortar and rocket strikes.

Unique to Islamic State has been their systems-based targeting approach, in which drone operators and vehicle-borne suicide bombers work in unison. This strategy proved deadly during the Mosul campaign.

One reason for the success of IS in 2016 and 2017 was their access to military production facilities in key cities across the vast territory they controlled. Controlling factories that manufactured equipment and explosives allowed them to rapidly scale their drone program.

Another factor in their success was their vast and complex supply network that facilitated the procurement of commercial drones. Beginning in 2014, IS repeatedly purchased drone-related components from nine companies in Canada and the United States through an extensive commercial network of five subsidiaries based in Wales. Among the items purchased were drone antennas, micro turbines, flight simulators, and rocket flight computer kits.

When this first network was dismantled, Islamic State established a new operation that prioritized the acquisition of commercial drones and other related components from companies in India, Turkey, and China.

Controlling the use of armed drones

No one treaty addresses all concerns about armed UAVs; instead, a variety of treaties are called into play. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) established in 1987 is an informal export control regime with 35 “partners” that seeks to restrain the sale of technologies that can be employed to deliver weapons of mass destruction. But experts agree that its regulatory scope doesn’t cover the emerging small military UAVs that will play an essential role in future conflicts.

Commercial off-the-shelf small UAVs are currently poorly regulated, although they can be used in armed systems. UAVs with more than 500-kilogram payloads are the greatest threat.

So, what is being done and what needs to happen?

Many states already have “no drone zones” in and around important infrastructure and airports. To enforce such zones, states have started to develop anti-drone technology, but a perfect system has yet to emerge.

Clearly needed are regulations that cover a variety of circumstances, including the transfer or diversion of technology and platforms from state actors to nonstate groups.

But the fact is that the incentives that encourage official governments to adhere to global norms often don’t apply to nonstate actors. If incentives don’t work, then cutting off the supply might. To do this, law enforcement and other agencies must learn more about how different nonstate actors acquire the necessary technologies.

Photo: This satellite image from NASA Worldview shows fires following the drone attack in Saudi Arabia. 

Rory Shiner, a Wilfrid Laurier University M.A. graduate, was a Ploughshares-Laurier Intern from April to August 2019.

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