We should fear the use of killer drones like in Venezuela – all you need is £5000 and some tinfoil

For some of us, incidents such as the drone attack on the Venezuelan president can bring back memories of dark days. 

The last Zeppelin attack off Great Yarmouth during the First World War was unintentionally marked a hundred years ago to the day by the drone attack wreaking similar terror from the skies on Nicolas Maduro. But we are long past the days of manned Zeppelin raids. The new kid above the block is an illegally modified drone. They have been around for decades, but the Venezuelan attack has now dramatically put them centre stage. 

And having designed force protection solutions against this type of small hybrid threat in both Iraq and Afghanistan, this attack came as no surprise to me. 

As recently as December 2017, drones were described as an “emerging threat” by the Ministry of Defence. One dived onto the lawn of the White House two and a half years earlier and one crashed as a protest in front of Angela Merkel in 2013. Killer drones have now emerged with all the justifiable concerns posed by other sci-fi hybrid threats – cyber warfare and cyber terrorism, drone warfare’s geekier cousins. It’s scary, it’s real and it’s a game changer for terrorists, criminals and governments alike. It’s a case of when, not if, such a drone will strike the UK mainland.

How we mitigate that fear, let alone defeat the menace of such a drone, will require debate, more rigorous policy and perhaps some very unpalatable decisions. The “See it, say it, sorted” and “Run, hide, tell” are two extremely successful counter-terrorist public information campaigns that prepare an increasingly resilient public for what have been, thus far, attacks on or around ground level.  

But history does indeed repeat itself and with air threats, most acutely. New air threats are designed to shock and expose vulnerabilities by being low cost and potentially high payoff as was the case with a hybrid air attack in Venezuela. These threats can come out of the blue and in the case of the V2 rocket of the Second World War, it can come, quite literally, out of thin air. It’s time to metaphorically and physically lift our sights.

So, what exactly is the threat from a drone air force – which can be assembled for around £30,000 – and how can it be stopped? 

A threat is made up of capability and intent. The capability can be bought online. The DJI M600 Chinese-made high-performance drone allegedly used in the Caracas attack costs less than £5,200. It was designed as a commercial professional photography drone and was modified to deliver the explosive device. The drone carried 1kg of C4 military grade explosive and moved at speeds approaching 40mph. The M600 can hover and can be easily and illegally modified to detonate, as well as deliver a spray in reasonable weather, from five kilometres. They have GPS and are easy to fly with simulation training and practise.  

But can this provide a cheap, capable and credible terrorist air force? 

Perhaps. Drones can swarm together (hundreds at a time) they can avoid each other, keep tight formation and pass information to each other. In the parlance of air forces, they can acquire, track and strike a target with a standoff capability and at range. 

However, they can’t carry troops or underslung artillery (yet) but existing top-of-the-range commercial drones can carry 70kg. Ukraine had an armoured brigade destroyed by artillery after they were spotted by a commercial photography drone flown by Russian separatists. The Ukrainians quickly created an effective 21st-century drone unit to bypass the trench warfare below. Isis has dropped both anti-personnel and anti-tank grenades across Syria and Iraq with reasonable success and in Mosul last year, this hybrid air attack caused significant panic among elite Iraqi security forces. Order was eventually restored by using AK-47s to fire a wall of lead into the sky and US army mobile anti-jamming equipment, which includes cutting the link between the drone and its Xbox style controller.  

So, what downed the Venezuelan drone earlier this month? The answer remains unclear. But there are several options.

One anti-drone defence is geofencing, which prevents drones from flying into so-called red zones. Several websites show where airspace is controlled and how to apply for a geofencing area to prevent paparazzi from interrupting your wedding or illegally livestreaming a festival or a Premier League match. Prisons and critical infrastructure, the government zone in London and airports are all permanent red “no entry’’ zones. If a terrorist, intent on attack, sent an M600 inside a red zone, it would be stopped by the drone’s internal software and forced to hover. Without clearance you cannot operate within a red zone as the GPS factory settings prevent it from physically flying through or within it. 

Problem solved? 

No. Not all drone manufacturers have signed up to this protocol. However, if a drone gets through a barrier defence, there are myriad methods of hard- and soft-kill defence capabilities on the market, ranging from the medieval to Star Wars, all being developed at pace in the dynamic arms race to stay one step ahead of the drone manufacturers. Defensive measures include specially trained drone-catching birds of prey, shotgun fired nets, dogfighting drones with launchable drone capture nets, command link jamming equipment, machine guns and radar-controlled laser canons. All enjoy varying degrees of success and are tailored to the environment be it a battlefield, an oil refinery or Davos. We may yet witness another unmanned and unchivalrous Battle of Britain above our cities.

But as with all air defence matters, the airspace and electromagnetic bandwidth is full of friendly aircraft, drones and millions of mobile phone users, so blue on blue is a real issue. As an air defender, the holy grail is to adopt a policy along the lines of “if it flies, it dies” for anything that enters a designated airspace. Anything that goes up has to come down, and that can include kestrels, thousands of bullets and the signal for your mobile phone. It is a risk-reward conundrum as old as the RAF. Hollywood accurately portrays the political dithering and the tactical military frustration as a non-compliant airliner enters restricted airspace and flies for five minutes with its identity transponder switched off. Drones are different as you can’t negotiate with a drone cockpit and they don’t want asylum.

The intent and capability of the drone threat is also unintentionally unmasked by social media. A YouTube video of a teenager innocently showing how to modify and shield a drone’s GPS function with tinfoil – which would allow it to even penetrate a red zone – has been watched over 60,000 times. The same aluminium foil – codenamed “Window” – was dropped by the RAF in the Second World War to spoof enemy radars. Like cyberterrorism, this threat could emerge from an urban tower block or a roadside in Syria. So, a weapon system has been identified and not from the ledger of a dark web quartermaster but from a mail order catalogue.  

The threat of a killer drone is not just a problem in the UK. The US Federal Aviation Authority predicts that by 2020 there will be 3.4 million drones in the US. Recalling them would probably be only slightly less emotive than forced gun control, but we need to have this debate sooner rather than later.

At the moment, drone operators need not fear being monitored by the security services nor should the population run for the hills when they see a drone at a music festival. Attacking a drone in the air could be perceived by the CAA as an offence of recklessly endangering an aircraft. However, I suspect that after the incident in Venezuela, the descendants of the citizens who suffered the Zeppelins, V1 and V2 attacks, might ask for some reassurance. Successful drone attacks won’t have gone unnoticed by those who wish to use cheap, unmanned and remarkably risk-free air power to conduct criminal or terrorist activity.  

History does repeat itself and the attack in Venezuela just showed us how. Chin up and look up. 

Colonel Barry Jenkins is a former British Army air defence commander


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