Drones and Terrorism

Combat drones are much in the news these days. Such weapons constitute the major current focus of effort against organized jihadi terrorism, with nearly weekly strikes carried out in the unassimilated areas of northern Pakistan and the Taliban-occupied districts of Afghanistan, along with less frequent strikes elsewhere.

Drones have compiled an impressive record, taking out a number of high-ranking al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, many of whom likely believed that they were perfectly safe until that persistent whining sound started getting louder. The MQ-1 Predator has achieved the status of legend, with the MQ-9 Reaper not far behind. New models, such as the so-called Beast of Kandahar, evidently a high-speed stealth model, are beginning to enter combat.

The armed drone is peculiarly suited to the purposes of the Obama administration. Liberals like military gimmicks (does anyone recall the McNamara Line?), particularly if they allow for a standoff form of fighting that can be presented as the lowest level of involvement. In this sense, the combat drone campaign is the millennial version of Rolling Thunder, the limited air campaign against North Vietnam during the mid-'60s. Though considerably more successful, the drone strikes (notice there's no catchy name that can provide a hanger for criticism) fill the same purpose of acting as a replacement for more decisive action.

Public debate over the strikes has settled around synthetic controversies as to whether drone attacks are "legal" (in the sense that they may be a form of assassination) and the question of collateral damage. The legal aspects fit the standard liberal philosophy that there's nothing worth doing that isn't worth interfering with at the same time. It is adequately answered by the ancient Roman dictum, inter arma silent leges -- "in wartime, law is silent." There are a lot of things that are legal in wartime that are not under other circumstances. Assassination fits that category. Snipers do it all the time, being instructed to target officers above all other enemy personnel. Drone attacks can and should be viewed as a technologically sophisticated form of sniping.

As for civilian casualties, this sudden outburst of concern overlooks the fact that the U.S. Air Force has over the past fifty years made incredible efforts to perfect weapons capable of carrying out surgical strikes -- attacks in which as little collateral damage as possible is incurred. Drone attacks can be considered the ultimate payoff of this effort. Putting aside the question of what kind of "civilians" are to be found in close proximity with terrorists, it's undeniable that drone attacks cause far less in the way of collateral casualties than any other form of military attack. Since 2003, adversary types in this country have been involved in a Quixotic attempt to assure that wars cost not only minimal friendly casualties, but also a similar level of enemy casualties. We should be inclined to listen -- as soon as these people demonstrate that they've done more than the U.S. military to decrease the horrific aspects of modern warfare.

One question that has not arisen is the possibility of drones being used against us. An ad feed that appeared with my last piece here on the F-22 was placed on behalf of Nitroplanes.com, an outfit that specializes in radio-controlled aircraft models. Nitro advertises flying scale-model versions of current and historical aircraft, including the F/A-18, the F-16, and the F-35. (I didn't see an F-22 Raptor in there, but maybe I didn't look hard enough.) These models are of a good size, some over three feet long, and relatively cheap, too.

No, I'm not suggesting that Al Qaeda is going to overthrow the West with model airplanes. What I'm saying is that the technology is out there. Along with full models, Nitro (and a dozen more similar companies) sells engines, receivers and transmitters, and everything else you need to build or repair a working drone. Designing and building your own mini-aircraft might work even better for a potential terrorist. A couple of engines, a guidance system, a mini-video camera, and a stick or two of dynamite, and you've got yourself your own personal combat drone. (Anyone doubting the terrorist's technical ability to pull this off need only recall last year's revelation that al-Qaeda in Iraq were hacking in to the Predator's visual feed.) 

What would you target with these? Keep in mind that the purpose of terrorism is to generate terror. The jihadis wouldn't be knocking down buildings with these things, nor is that necessary. Consider the jihadi airliner problem. Since 9/11, their attempts on airliners have proven futile despite almost open cooperation from the State Department and the Transportation Security Administration. With Umar Abdulmutallab's Christmas attempt, the campaign degenerated into something close to black comedy -- Monty Python's Guide to Airline Terror. Recent tests utilizing a superannuated 747 have conclusively demonstrated that Abdulmutallab's undie-bomb would scarcely have damaged the airplane. The same goes for the fearsome rectal and vaginal bombs. It's doubtful that enough bang could be created to cause the fatal damage the jihadis hope for.

But a radio-controlled drone is something else. For best results, you simply ram it straight into an engine intake, preferably an inboard engine nearest the fuselage. The engine turbine, spinning at several hundred rpm, will then disintegrate, spraying turbine blades like shrapnel, piercing the fuel tanks and the passenger compartment, possibly causing a fire or massive wing failure. At best, a badly damaged aircraft limping back home for an emergency landing. At worst, a catastrophe, with bodies scattered across the landscape. An alternative target would be the cockpit, with your drone bursting through the windscreens at several hundred mph closing speed before exploding inside. (Though, as with the engines, explosives would not be strictly necessary -- kinetic energy would do the job nicely.)

The perceptive student will have already noticed that such tactics would totally negate the years of development and billions in funding that have been put into developing airport-based security measures. That's quite an accomplishment for a weapon costing only a few thousand bucks at most.

The targets need not be limited to airliners (lacking enthusiasm for encounters with grim-faced government types in dark suits, I will allude only to the airliner that operates under the blue and white "United States of America" livery.) Hitting a speeding eighteen-wheeler on a city expressway at rush hour would cause interesting complications. The IRS office attack two weeks ago revealed new vulnerabilities in government offices. Electrical substations are an obvious and overlooked target. The possibilities are virtually endless -- once you get the weapon in hand, more will suggest themselves, such as assassinations of individuals who have annoyed the jihadis in one way or another.

Strategic strikes are also a possibility. The most advanced aircraft in the world, the B-2 Spirit, operates out of a single airbase: Whiteman AFB in Missouri. A half-dozen of these drones unleashed against the base could possibly cripple or destroy a B-2, at the cost of up to a billion dollars each. The same tactic could be unleashed against our limited and valuable F-22 fleet, which is deployed at only a handful of bases.

Countermeasures do exist. Radio jamming will certainly work to impede drone activity of the type we're discussing, along with patrols around fixed sites such as airports. (Something just now occurred to me -- airports are surrounded by hotels, often of a dozen stories or more. Has any thought been given to putting observation stations atop hotels to watch for suspicious activity?) But that doesn't mean that we can dismiss the threat. Advanced drone technology is spreading worldwide. At least forty-four nations apart from the U.S. are working on combat drones. Eventually, an unscrupulous corporation or arms dealer will fill an order out of Waziristan, and then things will get interesting.

The success of combat drones has clearly been demonstrated. We can't interdict the supply of such weapons forever, nor can we adequately track sales of related technology. Drones are another terror-related problem that require considerably more thought than they've yet been given. Otherwise, we may find ourselves sooner than we wish in the same predicament as today's black-turbaned jihadi leaders: constantly casting nervous glances at the sky, fearful that the next breath will be our last.  

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and will be editor of the forthcoming Military Thinker.
Combat drones are much in the news these days. Such weapons constitute the major current focus of effort against organized jihadi terrorism, with nearly weekly strikes carried out in the unassimilated areas of northern Pakistan and the Taliban-occupied districts of Afghanistan, along with less frequent strikes elsewhere.

Drones have compiled an impressive record, taking out a number of high-ranking al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, many of whom likely believed that they were perfectly safe until that persistent whining sound started getting louder. The MQ-1 Predator has achieved the status of legend, with the MQ-9 Reaper not far behind. New models, such as the so-called Beast of Kandahar, evidently a high-speed stealth model, are beginning to enter combat.

The armed drone is peculiarly suited to the purposes of the Obama administration. Liberals like military gimmicks (does anyone recall the McNamara Line?), particularly if they allow for a standoff form of fighting that can be presented as the lowest level of involvement. In this sense, the combat drone campaign is the millennial version of Rolling Thunder, the limited air campaign against North Vietnam during the mid-'60s. Though considerably more successful, the drone strikes (notice there's no catchy name that can provide a hanger for criticism) fill the same purpose of acting as a replacement for more decisive action.

Public debate over the strikes has settled around synthetic controversies as to whether drone attacks are "legal" (in the sense that they may be a form of assassination) and the question of collateral damage. The legal aspects fit the standard liberal philosophy that there's nothing worth doing that isn't worth interfering with at the same time. It is adequately answered by the ancient Roman dictum, inter arma silent leges -- "in wartime, law is silent." There are a lot of things that are legal in wartime that are not under other circumstances. Assassination fits that category. Snipers do it all the time, being instructed to target officers above all other enemy personnel. Drone attacks can and should be viewed as a technologically sophisticated form of sniping.

As for civilian casualties, this sudden outburst of concern overlooks the fact that the U.S. Air Force has over the past fifty years made incredible efforts to perfect weapons capable of carrying out surgical strikes -- attacks in which as little collateral damage as possible is incurred. Drone attacks can be considered the ultimate payoff of this effort. Putting aside the question of what kind of "civilians" are to be found in close proximity with terrorists, it's undeniable that drone attacks cause far less in the way of collateral casualties than any other form of military attack. Since 2003, adversary types in this country have been involved in a Quixotic attempt to assure that wars cost not only minimal friendly casualties, but also a similar level of enemy casualties. We should be inclined to listen -- as soon as these people demonstrate that they've done more than the U.S. military to decrease the horrific aspects of modern warfare.

One question that has not arisen is the possibility of drones being used against us. An ad feed that appeared with my last piece here on the F-22 was placed on behalf of Nitroplanes.com, an outfit that specializes in radio-controlled aircraft models. Nitro advertises flying scale-model versions of current and historical aircraft, including the F/A-18, the F-16, and the F-35. (I didn't see an F-22 Raptor in there, but maybe I didn't look hard enough.) These models are of a good size, some over three feet long, and relatively cheap, too.

No, I'm not suggesting that Al Qaeda is going to overthrow the West with model airplanes. What I'm saying is that the technology is out there. Along with full models, Nitro (and a dozen more similar companies) sells engines, receivers and transmitters, and everything else you need to build or repair a working drone. Designing and building your own mini-aircraft might work even better for a potential terrorist. A couple of engines, a guidance system, a mini-video camera, and a stick or two of dynamite, and you've got yourself your own personal combat drone. (Anyone doubting the terrorist's technical ability to pull this off need only recall last year's revelation that al-Qaeda in Iraq were hacking in to the Predator's visual feed.) 

What would you target with these? Keep in mind that the purpose of terrorism is to generate terror. The jihadis wouldn't be knocking down buildings with these things, nor is that necessary. Consider the jihadi airliner problem. Since 9/11, their attempts on airliners have proven futile despite almost open cooperation from the State Department and the Transportation Security Administration. With Umar Abdulmutallab's Christmas attempt, the campaign degenerated into something close to black comedy -- Monty Python's Guide to Airline Terror. Recent tests utilizing a superannuated 747 have conclusively demonstrated that Abdulmutallab's undie-bomb would scarcely have damaged the airplane. The same goes for the fearsome rectal and vaginal bombs. It's doubtful that enough bang could be created to cause the fatal damage the jihadis hope for.

But a radio-controlled drone is something else. For best results, you simply ram it straight into an engine intake, preferably an inboard engine nearest the fuselage. The engine turbine, spinning at several hundred rpm, will then disintegrate, spraying turbine blades like shrapnel, piercing the fuel tanks and the passenger compartment, possibly causing a fire or massive wing failure. At best, a badly damaged aircraft limping back home for an emergency landing. At worst, a catastrophe, with bodies scattered across the landscape. An alternative target would be the cockpit, with your drone bursting through the windscreens at several hundred mph closing speed before exploding inside. (Though, as with the engines, explosives would not be strictly necessary -- kinetic energy would do the job nicely.)

The perceptive student will have already noticed that such tactics would totally negate the years of development and billions in funding that have been put into developing airport-based security measures. That's quite an accomplishment for a weapon costing only a few thousand bucks at most.

The targets need not be limited to airliners (lacking enthusiasm for encounters with grim-faced government types in dark suits, I will allude only to the airliner that operates under the blue and white "United States of America" livery.) Hitting a speeding eighteen-wheeler on a city expressway at rush hour would cause interesting complications. The IRS office attack two weeks ago revealed new vulnerabilities in government offices. Electrical substations are an obvious and overlooked target. The possibilities are virtually endless -- once you get the weapon in hand, more will suggest themselves, such as assassinations of individuals who have annoyed the jihadis in one way or another.

Strategic strikes are also a possibility. The most advanced aircraft in the world, the B-2 Spirit, operates out of a single airbase: Whiteman AFB in Missouri. A half-dozen of these drones unleashed against the base could possibly cripple or destroy a B-2, at the cost of up to a billion dollars each. The same tactic could be unleashed against our limited and valuable F-22 fleet, which is deployed at only a handful of bases.

Countermeasures do exist. Radio jamming will certainly work to impede drone activity of the type we're discussing, along with patrols around fixed sites such as airports. (Something just now occurred to me -- airports are surrounded by hotels, often of a dozen stories or more. Has any thought been given to putting observation stations atop hotels to watch for suspicious activity?) But that doesn't mean that we can dismiss the threat. Advanced drone technology is spreading worldwide. At least forty-four nations apart from the U.S. are working on combat drones. Eventually, an unscrupulous corporation or arms dealer will fill an order out of Waziristan, and then things will get interesting.

The success of combat drones has clearly been demonstrated. We can't interdict the supply of such weapons forever, nor can we adequately track sales of related technology. Drones are another terror-related problem that require considerably more thought than they've yet been given. Otherwise, we may find ourselves sooner than we wish in the same predicament as today's black-turbaned jihadi leaders: constantly casting nervous glances at the sky, fearful that the next breath will be our last.  

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and will be editor of the forthcoming Military Thinker.