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Reach for the Sky: Drone Use by Sub-State Actors in Conflict

As the battle for Mosul began, the so-called Islamic State (IS) unleashed its full military power. Suicide vehicle-borne IED’s (SVBIED) hit advancing columns of Iraqi forces, Inghimasi assaulted positions, blowing themselves up to breach Iraqi lines, and the air buzzed with the sound of IS drones. These drones were so numerous, and used to such effect, that US officials later stated that this was the first time since the Vietnam War that the US military were powerless against enemy aircraft.

On a recent post on this website, Dr Patrick Bury explored the future character of war in his piece “Multi Domain Battle: Welcome to the jungle”. He noted that the use of Artificial Intelligence, algorithms and robotics will play a huge role in future conflict. The Battle for Mosul demonstrated that one aspect of this is already happening in the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria: the use of off-the-shelf (OTS) commercial drones by Asymmetrical actors.

Drones, including their armed variants, have become a common tool in Western armies. However OTS drones have also been used by sub-state actors for over a decade, most notably Hezbollah, who used armed suicide drones during the 2006 Lebanon War. IS have taken this to a new level, employing OTS drones not only as ISTAR platforms or suicide bombs, but also modifying them to drop small munitions with a surprising degree of accuracy, even apparently utilising swarm tactics. This capability would not be difficult to replicate by sub-state actors. UK Forces (UKFOR) must recognise that it signals a step-change in adversary capability and react appropriately to this, updating doctrine and tactics to confront the threat.

The primary role of the drones used by all actors in the Syrian conflict has been for ISTAR purposes. The ability to have a live-feed of a battle from an aerial perspective provides a vital information flow to a commander, allowing tactical decisions to be made with a greater degree of situational awareness. These same platforms can also be used for reconnaissance, adjusting fires or even dropping propaganda leaflets. Footage of all of these tasks can later be edited and used for propaganda purposes. Although inherently limited by range and battery life, both of which can be upgraded, these OTS drones provide a relatively cheap and effective capability.

However, OTS drones can also supply direct kinetic effects on the battlefield. IS has been the leader in this field, manufacturing and modifying hundreds of drones to carry munitions. These munitions are usually quite small, typically one or two modified 40mm grenades or other similar munitions. However, the effect they can have is out of proportion to their apparent lack of firepower. Examples of this include an IS drone dropping a bomb as a distraction seconds before an SVBIED strikes, the use of drones to attack vital kit and infrastructure, such as bulldozers and communication masts, and attacking groups of infantry. All of these targets have been hit with a surprising degree of accuracy, including bombs dropped into armoured vehicles through their open hatches.  Their mobility and accuracy is such that they can even be used to create strategic effects. IS demonstrated this ability in early October 2017 when they used two small drones to destroy a large Syrian Army ammunition dump in Deir Ezzor.

These attacks strike fear into those who are subjected them, as victims are virtually defenceless against this capability. This results in large numbers of troops seeking cover or fleeing when they understand they are under drone attack. Macabre games of cat-and-mouse have been recorded by both sides, showing SDF fighters running and hiding as IS drones actively hunt them down. The reality is that even US special operations forces have difficulty countering this kind of threat on the ground. All of these examples, and others, have been documented and stored by the author in an open source database since IS began publishing large numbers of drone strikes from early 2017.

So, how will this affect how the UKFOR operates? As Dr Bury describes is his piece, it re-emphasises the need for dispersed and slimmed-down vital infrastructure, such as HQs, as well as the need for constant movement. At a more granular level, it will require a greater focus on basic skills such as camouflage and concealment, patrolling and tactical awareness. Slumping by the side of the road wearing 60kg of equipment won’t be good enough if the enemy can rapidly and accurately direct fires or drop a 40mm grenade accurately at a moment’s notice. Anti-air tactics and skills left dormant from the last two decades of counter-insurgency and peacekeeping must be updated and employed again. UKFOR must face up to the fact that it is currently overmatched at a tactical level by sub-state groups such as Hezbollah and IS when it comes to use of small drones. What is worse, incidents appear to indicate that this threat is not being taken seriously.

The proliferation of armed drones by states-level actors will present the same issues during conflict between states. Advanced Israeli-designed suicide drones were observed being used by Azerbaijani forces in the 2016 Armenian-Azerbaijani border conflict. China has marketed military-grade armed drones to overseas customers. Almost 30 countries have been noted to be using or developing armed drones. UKFOR could face capabilities ranging from strategic strikes using multi-million dollar stealthy UAVs, to a single person with a $200 quadcopter spying on British assets.

Drones, whether OTS or military-grade, will be a constant in future conflicts. UKFOR must train as it fights, and the effects that drones can have must be modelled and built into CT2 training and above. Drone countermeasures for both OTS and military-grade drones must be conceptualised, tested and put into practice. Although the IDF appears to judge Hezbollah drones enough of a threat to shoot them down using Patriot missiles, smaller and more agile alternatives should be considered and fielded, ideally before UKFOR engage in the next conflict. UKFOR must update its doctrine, tactics and strategic outlook when it comes to drones, both OTS and military-grade, otherwise it risks being left behind and receiving a nasty shock the next time it is called to operate at scale against actors with drone capability.

Some militaries across the world have grasped the nettle and are embracing the opportunities small drones offer, such as the USMC experimenting with 3D printing cheap drones or the US Department of Defence funding drone concept events. The Iraqi Federal Police have taken the IS drone concept and updated it with thermal cameras. UKFOR should also seek to exploit the opportunity that small drones present too. They must recognise that the capability to use small, cheap and disposable drones does not need to be concentrated within specialised branches such as Royal Artillery. British soldiers and officers are more familiar with technology than ever before, and the military should grasp this familiarity and use it to their advantage. Organic drone assets should be given to combat arms at battalion or even company level. Recognise and accept that drones will be destroyed or lost and have a supply chain to replace them as cheaply and as rapidly as possible. Training estates must support the military in this move, creating a simple process to enable training using small drones.

Dr Bury helped to outline the future character of conflict, and hopefully this piece has provided colour to a section of it. UKFOR must learn to deal with the threat, and grasp the opportunities presented by drones of all sizes, otherwise the next major conflict will be an extremely steep learning curve.

You can follow Nick on Twitter @N_Waters89. His other articles on this subject include:

Death From Above: The Drone Bombs of the Caliphate
Types of Islamic State Drone Bombs and Where to Find Them
Iraqi Federal Police Using Weaponised Drones

The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to the wavellroom through the contact form

Nick Waters
Conflict Analyst

Nick Waters is an open source conflict analyst, a member of the Bellingcat Investigation Team and a former Rifles officer. He curates the Drone Proliferation Database, which tracks Islamic State drone strikes, and has written on the subject for both Bellingcat and War Is Boring.

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