Drone warfare: it should be all about facts, not opinions

Yesterday’s post about a jihadist drone attack on a Russian base in Syria has produced just as much handwavium as last years’ articles on the same subject.  There are those who simply, flatly refuse to believe that small hobbyist UAV’s can pose a threat.  There are others – including myself – who point out that they have already become a threat, with multiple attacks in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq to their credit.

I’ve been following the unfolding of the story about the drone attacks on Russians in Syria.  Last night the Telegraph in London had this to say about another, even larger one.

Thirteen attack drones were launched against the Khmeimim air base and a naval facility in the city of Tartus on Syria’s western coast, the Russian defence ministry said.

Russian forces shot down seven of the drones with anti-aircraft missiles while the other six were hacked by a cyberware unit and taken under Russian control, the ministry said. No damage or casualties at the two military bases were reported.

The attack appears to be the largest example to date of insurgents using a mass of primitive drones in combat and Russia said it had never before faced such an attack.

“It was the first time when terrorists applied a massed drone aircraft attack launched at a range of more than 50 km using modern GPS guidance systems,” a defence ministry spokesman said.

Defence experts have long predicted that drones will become an increasingly common feature of the modern battlefield, employed by both sophisticated nation state militaries and by low-tech rebel groups.

Three of the drones were recovered by Russian forces, the ministry said, and photographs showed a small aircraft made partly of wood and held together with masking tape. Another picture showed a row of small explosive.

There’s more at the link, including photographs.

This attack does not appear to have succeeded:  but it’s a new and dangerous landmark.  Thirteen drones, bigger than hobbyist size (images appear to show home-made aircraft types), launched at least 30 miles away from the target (so that the operators could get away cleanly before they could be targeted), and equipped with GPS so that they were at least semi-autonomous, and could reach their target without a human operator constantly guiding them.  The next step will be to make them fully autonomous, perhaps with some sort of heat-seeking target sensor, to enable them to go to a position, then seek out anything giving off heat (a stove chimney, a vehicle engine, an aircraft, whatever) and automatically home in on it.

The fact that all thirteen attacking drones were disabled or destroyed in this attack speaks well of Russian defenses.  I’m not sure the USA would have been able to do as well, since we don’t have sophisticated mobile point-defense missile and gun systems like the Russians do.  There’s also the issue that such attacks can be launched from anywhere, against anywhere.  If jihadists were to do so inside the USA, or from a cargo ship sailing in international waters, they could home on any suitable target (say, a coastal city stadium housing a football or baseball game, or a military base such as a port or airfield, or a row of tanks at a refinery containing petroleum products) and do their thing with no opposition to stop them at all.

Those who decry that as being a pipe dream, a ridiculous shibboleth, are ignoring reality.  They’re not confined to the Middle East.  Ukraine lost two ammunition dumps to such drone attacks last year.  Here’s the first attack, at Balakliya in July.

And here’s the second attack, at Vinnytsya in September.

If it can happen to them, it can – and probably will – happen to us.  It’s just a matter of time.  This genie is well and truly out of the bottle.



  1. Back in the '80s at the advent of the ultralight aircraft fad, I was amazed that no one in Florida had hit on the idea of weaponizing a crude powered hang glider with a radio direction finder tuned to Radio Cuba. The things would have been pretty much radar invisible and launched at night with a slow dispersion of small incendiaries would have wreaked havoc on the island as the craft slowly circled the transmitter tower pooping out "quarter pounders" every 30 seconds or so.
    Improvised drones are easy and the controllers are available on Amazon.

  2. Theyr'e already in operation in Mexico.

    It's not difficult. A few ounces of plastic explosive and a detonator could be carried by many of the larger drones. It's the shrapnel that would really add weight to the vehicle. Instead, add a touch of thermite and drop it on a tank farm, or on a gas tanker rolling down the highway. Think of what a couple of these would do to a busy filling station.

  3. More fake news. The model airplanes are constrained by the same issues facing hobby drones – lift, range, practicality, etc. Hmmmmm – looking at the pic, I see no FPV cameras or antennas. That engine could be anything up to one of the better Saito four cycles but even so – it would carry about 15 minutes of fuel tops.

    No offense, but that plane and the "bombs" look like the handiwork of Scotty The Retard out at my RC club – scratch that, even Scotty does better work than that.

    No, the model pictured did not blow up an ammo dump. Handwavium? None here, my friend. You and the boys seem to be the ones getting their panties in a twist about toys.

    The worry that bigger, faster, cheaper, smarter weapons becoming available to the bad guys is valid. But saying that guys like Scotty can take out hardened targets like an ammo dump – with toys – is bogus.

  4. @glen

    It's not bogus. Those crappy drones flew independently and reached their target.

    Only air defenses prevented them from a fully successful mission. And can I point out here that the Russians apparently field active cyber/electronic warfare units? That alone should raise eyebrows.

    All you refer to is payload. A mortar bomb is improvised, but what happens when the explosive is semtex and a copper plate? Explosively formed projectiles are damn effective from the air.

    Ammo storage facilities are not nearly as hardened as you might imagine, especially against threats that will continue to develop their navigation and payload capabilities.

  5. Yup. And the guys that wrote that article will tell you (in all seriousness) that you can blow up a car or a bus with a 9mm (Arnie and Stallone do it all the time!!!). Having an AR15 give anyone the firepower of a platoon, and full auto fire will make mince meat out of hundreds of innocent women and children and puppies every year.

    I am not an expert in high explosives. I am competent in hobby drones and RC aircraft. I build them, configure them and fly them. That model in the pic had no cameras or antennas. Ergo, no FPV and no GPS. If I were crazy enough to try a military target with a chit house plane, I would have the payload internal to the aircraft. I would not hang a dozen little bomblets off the wings to compromise the performance of the aircraft or the explosive.

    Just thought of this too – the military gets mighty tetchy about the storage of munitions because they have bad days too. Most explosives have to be deliberately and consciously armed before they become dangerous. I've heard of the squaddies using C4 as a camp fuel in place of hexane – unless it is ignited properly it is fairly harmless and a good alternative to those old vintage hexane tablets the squaddies used to use.

    Terrorists love guys like our Renaissance Man. They can be frightened by some silly lies and toys. I repeat: the threat of these things is pretty much confined to their use as surveillance tools. Other than that, they're toys.

  6. Handwaving is easier than thinking, Peter.

    There's no other way to explain someone that can look at a deadlined attack aircraft and videos of exploding munitions dumps, and quickly explain that it's silly to believe our lying eyes.

    Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

    But as Matt Hooper assured us in Jaws, some people won't believe in the existence of big sharks until they swim up and bite them in the @$$.

    The technical term for that is "psychosis".

  7. You guys are yanking my chain, arentchya?

    Maybe I am nuts but that ammo dump vid looked like a rocket attack to me.

  8. The ammo dumps were not hardened like ours. The munitions were stored in wooden crates, in stacks in the open and under metal roofed wooden sheds. The drone that was used on the first one merely started a fire in the wooden crates. The fire grew and spread, setting off munitions. In the US, munitions are stored in bunkers and in metal boxes to prevent these types of issues. There are still threats, but they are more complex than flying a road flare on a cable below a Mavic drone.

  9. Hardened or not, the attacks worked against the intended target.

    In warfare, that's called a victory.

    Last I looked, Japanese infantry on bicycles had the poor manners to approach Singapore from the landward side in WWII, on which there were no serious guns or fortifications.
    It may not be cricket to go attacking soft targets unconventionally, but the Brits still lost, and got shipped off to POW camps to build the Bridge Over The River Kwai.

    This is what people mean when they tell you "the enemy gets a vote".

    And we have an entire civilization full of such soft targets.
    We don't, for instance, harden sports stadiums, amusement parks, schoolyards, or POL storage facilities like we do military ammunition storage.

    So how's that going to play out when Hadji and his pals decide to drop 20-30 small lit molotovs and 1# bags of white powder (they could be full of flour or powdered sugar instead of ricin or anthrax at that point, b/c what matters is perception, not ability) onto the stands at the Superbowl from COTS drones at max range? With a worldwide TV audience of 1B people? And a few hundred to thousand folks get trampled to death, run over, etc. in the panicked retreat that follows? What about when a second wave starts dropping a couple of dozen more on the crowds streaming into the parking lot, and the local freeways? And then a third wave goes for the military/police/fire/EMS CP gaggle at the perimeter?

    Mohammed Imawannajihad will get free publicity worth billions, played worldwide over and over and over again.

    For the price of road flares, half a gallon of gasoline, a glass bottle, some mystery white powder in baggies, and $300 a pop for some hobby drones.

    And then, someone here will tell us why that didn't actually happen.

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