Within five years, any terrorist will be able to shop online for the latest commercial drone, weaponize it, launch it from the west coast of Africa, and fly it more than 4,000 miles across the Atlantic to attack the U.S. mainland.
This dystopian nightmare scenario is brought to you by Owen West, a former Marine later dubbed “the most badass banker on Wall Street,” who President Donald Trump recently hired to advise Secretary of Defense James Mattis on special operations. West explained his dire five-year security outlook to lawmakers during his confirmation hearing in mid-June, and his comments were immediately dismissed by experts as outlandish.
“The timeline for it is not realistic,” Peter Singer, a specialist on 21st century warfare, told VICE News.
But West’s doomsday vision touched on a grim reality that’s already stoking fear throughout the Pentagon. The military doesn’t need to look into the future to find a world where commercial drones pose a serious threat — the off-the-shelf machines are already wreaking havoc on the battlefield.
According to Gen. Raymond Thomas of the U.S. Special Operations Command, commercial drones posed the “most daunting problem” for his troops in 2016. Security analysts are concerned the threat from commercial drones will soon extend far beyond the battlefield. Likely targets can include military bases, power plants and nuclear facilities, as well as spaces of large outdoor gathering, such as sports stadiums, shopping malls and skyscrapers.
“We’ve not had policy in the past because we’ve not had drones in the past.”
The Department of Defense is actively working on developing the tools to counter these threats. It has awarded tens of millions of dollars in contracts to drone defense companies and is partnering with companies like Droneshield, which developed the signal-jamming DroneGun.
In early July, the DOD issued a classified policy to all 133 U.S. military bases giving them the green light to shoot down any “unmanned aircraft systems” they see as a threat to personnel, vital facilities, or critical assets.
A Defense Department spokesperson told VICE News he could not discuss intelligence in relation to threats the Pentagon may have already encountered, but he said the new directive was not a response to any one specific incident. “This order isn’t being introduced now as a result of anything in particular; it’s been in the works for some time,” Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said. “We’ve not had policy in the past because we’ve not had drones in the past.”
When asked what specific actions military personnel would be taking, Davis confirmed the Pentagon’s order but offered few details, saying they would take “certain actions with respect to unmanned aircraft systems, including using reasonable force to disable, damage, or destroy them.”
On the battlefield, weaponized commercial drones are fast becoming a staple weapon for terrorists and militant groups because they offer a cheaper alternative to suicide bombings and an efficient way to conduct surveillance. The Islamic State group uses them to devastating effect, Hamas and Hezbollah fly them into Israeli airspace, and Houthi rebel groups have used them to fight Saudi air defenses in Yemen.
Gen. Thomas revealed in May that ISIS’ use of commercial drones had become such a problem that at one point they almost stopped the assault on Mosul. “About five or six months ago, there was a day when the Iraqi effort nearly came to a screeching halt, where literally over 24 hours there were 70 drones in the air,” Thomas said.
The terror group has been using drones in some form since 2013, but ISIS only formally announced its drone program — dubbed the “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen” — in January 2017, together with a video showing a small drone carrying grenade-sized munitions and dropping them on Iraqi forces in Mosul.
Last year the Department of Defense sought an extra $20 million in funding specifically to counter the threat of weaponized drones.
In an effort to combat this growing threat, the U.S. government is turning to private companies to solve the problem of drone attacks. Oleg Vornik, CEO of DroneShield, told VICE News that “the U.S. military is actively exploring counter drone technologies across various parts of the military, and they understand you need to have the ability to both detect and provide countermeasures.”
Countermeasures typically range from “soft kill” options like jammers to “hard kill” options including the use of lasers or bullets. The problem for those seeking to defend military bases is that the barrier to entry for someone looking to carry out such an attack is very low. “We don’t consider it to be overly difficult, unfortunately, for a skilled person to create an improvised explosive device and of course strapping it onto a drone is trivial,” Vornik said.
Commercial drone attacks are increasingly popular among terrorists because they are easier to carry out than traditional attacks like suicide bombings, according to a report by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. Some coalition allies have deployed commercial drones on the battlefield for the same reason — they’re cheap and effective — but the U.S. Army has taken a cautious approach thus far. In early August, the U.S. Army ordered troops to stop using drones made by Chinese manufacturer DJI due to “increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products” according to a memo seen by Defense One.
“Autonomy, which is accelerating exponentially and is rapidly advancing in hobbyist drones, will allow terrorists to deploy drones at large scales.”
To date there has been no recorded terror attack on U.S. soil using commercial drones, but many believe it is only a matter of time. Last year, a report by the Oxford Research Group, a U.K. think tank, concluded that “Islamic State is reportedly obsessed with launching a synchronized multi-drone attack on large numbers of people in order to recreate the horrors of 9/11.”
Singer said that a drone-based terror attack against a U.S. target is a possibility, given how easy it is to weaponize one of these devices. “We have seen ISIS pull it off and these guys are not rocket scientists.”
Paul Scharre, director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, took a broader look at drone technology, insisting that the technology the White House should be worried about is the ability to fly these aircrafts without the need for human direction.
“Autonomy, which is accelerating exponentially and is rapidly advancing in hobbyist drones, will allow terrorists to deploy drones at large scales,” Scharre said. “I think the most significant technological development we are likely to see in these drone attacks isn’t their range, but greater autonomy enabling more precision attacks and swarming attacks.”
Analysts fear that ISIS, using the the knowledge it built up in deploying drone attacks in Mosul, will expand this tactic to its believers across the globe. Like-minded terror groups are also poised to follow suit. In January Al Qaeda chiefs encouraged extremists to launch a terror attack on Donald Trump’s inauguration parade using drones.
“In this day and age, it is hard to contain information and this is a tactic and technology that does not require a lot of secret sauce,” Singer said.