Op-Ed: ISIS drone bombers in Mosul: Big mistake

Posted Jan 17, 2017 by Paul Wallis
ISIS has started using quadcopters as grenade dropping bombers. While not a major innovation, it does raise a lot of issues for conventional military forces. It also creates a new weapon against terror.
Iraqi special forces advance through Mosul's Al-Zahraa neighbourhood during an ongoing military...
Iraqi special forces advance through Mosul's Al-Zahraa neighbourhood during an ongoing military operation against the Islamic State (IS) group on January 7, 2017
The new drone bombers are being used in the Mosul fighting. A large city isn’t necessarily the best place for them; it looks like ISIS is simply using what’s available, in the absence of other options. Like other terrorist groups, they have a long history of using radio controlled weapons and remotely detonated explosives. Nothing new, you’d think, except they fly.
Ironically, ISIS may well have found the cure for itself. These weapons could be far more useful to the conventional forces fighting them than to ISIS The usual story in firefights with ISIS and the Taliban is long, turgid and time wasting battles in complex terrain which favors the defenders. Tactical drones, particularly organic, built-in drones, might be an effective weapon for military forces in these scenarios.
The commercial quadcopter, however, isn’t the ideal option. It’s flimsy, not likely to withstand hits or near misses, and not very maneuverable. A more agile, hardened, dedicated drone with added capacity could be a game changer in the war on terror.
Drones with the right specifications are pretty efficient in terms of organic firepower and as reconnaissance assets. Drone swarms, in fact, are predicted to be the next tier of modern weaponry in the air. It makes sense, and could save a lot of casualties for conventional forces, if they’re incorporated in to the core arsenals of those fighting terrorists.
It’s now possible to build micro-weaponry and air-mount it. A drone with a combat laser, for example, could be a sort of strobe machine gun in combat. If it gets knocked out, you just replace it, not the trained soldiers and operators. This is cheap kill with a vengeance.
A lot of functions, like blocking RPGs, can be fully automated. No time or loss of human assets to manage the systems. An effective anti-RPG system on the ground would basically decimate terrorist firepower.
Drones can hunt snipers, take out car bomb attacks, and neutralise hard infantry targets with things like suppression weapons. Drones can mount any targeting system imaginable, too, another very useful capability for supports like artillery, cruise missiles, and other large bang-making systems.
Drones can also be excellent surveillance systems. In theory, if not yet entirely in practice, they can map an enemy position. Think of it as like a video game; the more scouting you do, the more you reveal. This would also save a hell of a lot of deployment problems and hideous levels of fatigue for conventional forces in tough country.
As combat systems, drones can also act as self-contained sniper systems, able to stand off and deliver high values on targets. A .50 cal. steel jacket, at a range of say 2-4000 metres, could simply hang around and take out anything. They could find and destroy weapons like mobile mortars and other out of line of sight targets, too, at a cost of roughly a round per target system. (2-4000 metres is out of range of most infantry direct fire weapons; not much risk to drones at this range.)
The other, critical issue to recognise here is that drones can also be lousy target locks for advanced systems, if they’re “stealth configured”. Something as simple as a splitter configuration (this splits targeting signals) and absorbent materials could make a drone as hard to spot with targeting systems as a bit of driftwood on the ocean. That’s 40 year old technology, and modern materials can do more.
Tactically, your infantry force, properly equipped with attack drones, could hit targets many miles away from its own position. Movement would be suicidal for the enemy. A good option for infantry would be to target multiple enemy groups and create some real chaos. This confuses the tactical situation for the enemy and adds a level of uncertainty to their command options. If all their assets are under attack from something they can’t combat, command is stuck with an insoluble problem. They can’t even be sure where the drones are coming from; and with a bit of good field security, they’ll never know.
Any ad hoc communications network can operate drones. It’s easy for modern militaries, and almost impossible for technically unsupported groups. In theory, attack drone swarms could be operated from somewhere in another country as easily as the big attack drones used for surgical strikes.
The countermeasure to attack drones is basically hunter drones, not expensive air assets which could be targeted by very cheap onboard things like Grail, Redeye, or other old but effective weapons. SAMs won’t work on small drones, either, because it’s a stupid use of missiles as well as giving away SAM positions.
Hunter drones are the theoretical “fighter” drones, an expected evolution of drone technology in the near future. That’s well outside the technical scope of terrorist groups, and creates a technological supply chain which is basically unsupportable in the field for any terrorist organisation. Any sizable combat-affected supply of these rather demanding systems can’t be produced in “Whereverstan” or in the field.
Don’t be too surprised to see a sudden boom in combat drones in an even wider range of types, classes, and operational forms in the near future. The good news is that terror may have just put itself out of business.