In reader comments to yesterday’s post about terrorists planning to use UAV’s against aircraft, I feel that a few very important points are being missed.
The first is that our opinion of whether or not such low-powered, quadcopter UAV’s have any chance of success is basically irrelevant. ISIS terrorists do not share that opinion. They have already ‘weaponized’ such drones and used them against enemy ground forces in Iraq and Syria. They see no reason why they should not do so in the West as well. Furthermore, it has now been demonstrated that they intend to try to use them against aircraft. Thus, it’s irrelevant whether we think they can or will be successful in the attempt. They are going to try anyway. They just did, in Turkey.
Second, attempted attacks are perhaps even more important to terrorists than successful attacks. The mere existence of such terrorist-operated UAV’s will force airlines to suspend operations in affected areas until the threat is removed. They simply cannot afford to operate there, no matter how often airports and security authorities play down the chances of success. Let there be just one successful attack, killing a hundred or more passengers and crew, and the resultant lawsuits against the airline will probably be enough to cripple, if not bankrupt it. Just think of the legal liability it will incur if it flies its aircraft into or out of an airport where there is known to be a threat of terrorist UAV activity. It can’t plead an ‘act of God’ or an ‘act of war’ or whatever. It chose to operate there; therefore, it knowingly exposed itself to liability. That’s a legal death sentence.
In that light, consider that an attack only has to frighten off potential passengers. What if a terrorist flies a UAV, carrying a small explosive device, close to the inbound flight path of an arriving airliner, and detonates it where passengers in the air, and passersby on the ground, can see the explosion? Instantly, a huge proportion of the passengers flying into and out of that airport will cancel their flights, and cargo shippers will seek alternate facilities. They’d be fools not to do so, after all. The terrorist won’t have to actually damage or destroy an aircraft to produce an effect just as deadly to all the commerce and industry depending on that airport. In exchange for a cheap, home-built UAV and a few ounces of home-brewed explosive, the perpetrators will inflict millions of dollars in economic damage. That’s a worthwhile exchange, from their perspective – and it’s one we can’t afford.
Thirdly, a number of commenters suggested that it would be very difficult indeed to fly a UAV into the path of an incoming airliner. However, I think that’s looking at the problem from the wrong direction. Remember, flight paths approaching and departing from a runway are widely known – in fact, they’re published for all pilots (and other interested parties) to read for themselves. Courses, angles of approach, radio beacons, guide slope signals, etc. are all out there for anyone to see.
A terrorist (or a pilot who can advise and/or train terrorists) will know that he only has to put his UAV inside a narrow window of space, through which he knows an airliner must and will fly, in order to threaten it. The glide path is a known factor. If he can put his UAV within a few hundred feet of that path, vertically and/or horizontally, he’s guaranteed to pose a threat to any aircraft; and if he can position it more or less exactly on the glide path, the threat increases even more. Many aircraft now follow that glide path slavishly under computer control, not relying on pilots to do so (because computer control is more precise, and crowded airspaces require greater precision). Therefore, the odds of a collision go up exponentially.
What’s more, if a terrorist or terrorists can put multiple UAV’s into the same narrow window of space and time, the threat to aircraft using the glide path increases even further. All it will take is a few hobbyist drones, a few small packages of home-made explosives, and a few operators with remote control units, who might be a couple of miles or more from the scene of action. I suggest airport security authorities will find it extraordinarily difficult to prevent or deal with such an attack.
Some readers suggested terrorists would be better advised to fly a drone into power lines, or use an explosive-laden drone to attack critical infrastructure like airport radar systems and the like. I think such attacks are very likely. I recently mentioned the problem of, say, a series of UAV’s attacking transformer stations scattered around a city. That would lead to widespread blackouts, with predictable results. However, I don’t think that the greater ease of such attacks should blind us to the terrorists’ need for spectacle.
One crashed airliner will attract headlines and screams of panic around the world. It will only take one . . . and the airline and travel industries will be devastated. To the terrorists, that’s a result worth striving for. They can afford dozens, even hundreds, of failures. They only have to succeed once.