ISIS drones impact battlefield“We should have been ready for this, and we weren’t…”

Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State on the battlefield in northern Iraq last week shot down a small drone the size of a model airplane. They believed it was like the dozens of drones the terrorist organization had been flying for reconnaissance in the area, and they transported it back to their outpost to examine it.

But as they were taking it apart, it blew up, killing two Kurdish fighters in what is believed to be one of the first times the Islamic State has successfully used a drone with explosives to kill troops on the battlefield.

In the last month, the Islamic State has tried to use small drones to launch attacks at least two other times, prompting American commanders in Iraq to issue a warning to forces fighting the group to treat any type of small flying aircraft as a potential explosive device.

For some American military analysts and drone experts, the episodes confirmed their view that the Pentagon – which is still struggling to come up with ways to bring down drones – was slow to anticipate that militants would turn drones
into weapons.

“We should have been ready for this, and we weren’t,” said P.W. Singer, a specialist on robotic weaponry at New America, a think tank in Washington.

The Islamic State is using simple, commercially available drones such as the DJI Phantom, which can be purchased on Amazon. The group attaches small explosive devices to them, essentially making them remotely piloted bombs.

“This is an enemy that learns as it goes along,” said Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top American military commander in Iraq until August.

In March, General MacFarland and American military commanders in Baghdad received an intelligence report that the Islamic State had posted surveillance video online that had been taken by a small drone. The video footage showed a newly created series of bases in northern Iraq where American and Iraqi forces were stationed.

Just days after the video was put up, a Katyusha rocket landed in the middle of an outpost of more than 100 American Marines, killing one who was rushing to get others to shelter in a nearby bunker. The strike was so accurate that military officials described it as a “golden shot,” and there was speculation that a drone was used in the targeting of the battlefield.

Military analysts believe that drones will continue to be a problem in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. A new report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point says that in the future, off-the-shelf drones used by terrorist groups will be able to carry heavier payloads, fly and loiter longer, venture farther from their controller and employ secure communications links. The center provided an advance copy of the report to The New York Times.

“The number and sophistication of drones used is also likely to enhance the scope and seriousness of the threat,” said Don Rassler, the center’s director of
strategic initiatives.

I edited out the part where General MacFarland said “oh no” that drone footage was useless… uh huh. I can remember some other wars that have been lost because of that kind of thinking. Let’s hope that he knows better and was spinning.
Otherwise, this is an incredibly naive statement. Just because the video did not display the coordinates, does not mean that they were not collected. We know for a fact (because they told us,) that DJI gathers GPS information on every single flight. And we know because we’ve done it, that it can be extracted by commonly available open source tools.
More detail is emerging:

“There’s nothing very high-tech about them. Some are just quadcopters.”

The deaths of the two Kurdish fighters were believed to be the first for anti-ISIS forces as a result of the use of drones on the battlefield by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. official said U.S. and coalition forces, and the Iraqi Security Forces, have been warned to treat the drones and model airplanes as “UXO,” or unexploded ordnance. “Call in EOD,” or explosive ordnance disposal, personnel upon encountering the devices, the official said troops have been told.

In a phone briefing to the Pentagon from Baghdad, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said that Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of CJTF-OIR, has made countering the drones a priority.

Townsend “has made clear we’re going to move out smartly against them,” Dorrian said.

The Pentagon’s Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization has deployed systems to either shoot down the drones or bring them down electronically, Dorrian said. He declined to describe the systems or say where they were deployed.

No U.S. or coalition troops have been killed or injured by drones, and “this threat is not new to the area. The coalition has been working this issue for some time,” Dorrian said.

ISIS has deployed numerous small drones, mostly for surveillance, he said. “We have seen them over coalition bases. We have shot some of them down.”

ISIS has used a variety of small drones and model airplanes in an effort to gain intelligence and harass Iraqi forces as the offensive against Mosul approaches, Dorrian said.

Both Dorrian and the U.S. official stressed that ISIS’ use of drones would not be a game-changer in the push to drive the militants from Mosul. “It’s not going to have any strategic impact at all,” Dorrian said. “It’s not going to stop anything.”

Graphic posted by Homeland Security in May 2016
Graphic posted by Homeland Security in May 2016
UPDATE A lot of us laughed when in 2015 the Department of Homeland Security did a threat assessment after the White House lawn landing. Dan Gettinger at Bard did a great analysis.  Much was made of the idea that “A DJI Phantom, for example, has a payload capacity of around 1.8 lbs. Off-the-shelf drones generally cannot fly for more than 20 to 30 minutes, and they have a limited range, so an attacker would need to be close to the target.”
Recent events suggest that’s not much of a limitation.
For a threat assessment, let’s consider the new DJI Mavic. It flies 45mph and can transmit video over 4 miles. It costs a grand. Probably half that much in bulk on a palette to your armory. Makes for a hard to see, even harder to hit scout unit. About the size of a canteen.
The piece de resistance in the Bard piece was AirMap’s very own Dr. Greg McNeal who “Cautioned against overstating the risks posed by drones and encouraged federal agencies to undertake comprehensive risk assessments before embarking on developing countermeasures.” So Greg. Are we done now?
This would be a good time to stop kidding ourselves.  There is no shortage of parts or know-how to build  bigger drones that fly farther, faster, carrying more. There are plenty of them out there, they just haven’t made it to the bazaar in Baghdad yet – or the front page of the New York Times.
This is a technology that is a tremendous force equalizer.
General MacFarland may be pretending to be a little late getting the message, but the US military leadership seems to understand exactly what the threat is.

No one cares about Part 107 when you want to win.

UPDATE DJI has issued a statementStatement on Media Reports of IED Incident in Iraq.”

Media have reported in recent days that a drone launched by the Islamic State with an improvised explosive device attached to it claimed the lives of two Kurdish fighters and injured two French Special Forces soldiers in Iraq.

Though the make, model and provenance of the drone have not been shared by authorities, as the global market leader in consumer drones, DJI feels obliged to speak up about this situation and the use of consumer-drone technology.

First, the use of consumer-drone technology to harm anyone is deplorable. Any loss of life or injury in such a manner is tragic. Those who carry out such acts should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. When governments come to us with lawful requests, DJI is ready to provide whatever technical assistance we can to those investigating this and other attacks.

DJI makes consumer drones for creative and peaceful purposes. We’ve produced and sold consumer drones worldwide, point customers to resources that educate them on how and where to fly safely and responsibly, and the overwhelming majority of them do.


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