How Drones Could Transform Conflicts and Spark Terrorism

The conventional wisdom is that nuclear weapons, cyber warfare, or traditional terrorism are the greatest threats we face today.

I think it is long past time that drones be put high on that list.

The attacks on the Saudi oil facilities that disrupted world markets are just the latest example of the danger drones pose. The threat is multi-faceted, extending from US Air Force Reapers that carry Hellfire missiles and Paveway II bombs to the drones you can buy on Amazon or at Best Buy.

I don’t like being an alarmist, but, at times, the line between that and being a realist can be awfully thin.

The attack against the Saudis proved that even a nation with a sophisticated military and a huge defense budget is still vulnerable to drone strikes.

On that bigger, military scale, Northrup Grumman’s newest models of the Global Hawk drone can travel 14,000 miles. That’s more than halfway around the world at the equator and more than double the distance between Tehran and Washington DC. Sure, one costs $130 million and it’s doubtful the Iranians have that kind of technology, at least not yet.

But the Russians and Chinese are quickly advancing their development of unmanned combat aerial vehicles, the fancy name for military drones. Russia just unveiled the Hunter-B stealth drone, that, theoretically, could penetrate an enemy’s defenses and deliver deadly ordnance.

China is reportedly planning to deploy the Sharp Sword stealth drone on its first home-grown aircraft carrier. Photos seem to show it during rehearsals for the National Day military parade. Other pictures from the rehearsal show a new supersonic spy drone.

We are seeing rapid evolution of military technologies that expand drones’ offensive capabilities. Not only are they flying faster, higher, and farther while being less detectable, they can fire missiles and hit their targets from longer distances.

The threat posed by even consumer drones can be serious. They are becoming ubiquitous. Just this year, the Consumer Technology Association estimates 3.4 million units will be sold in the US and tens of thousands are believed to be flying at any given time.

Already, drones have been used by smugglers to transport drugs across the Mexican border; they have caused chaos at Newark Airport and London’s Gatwick; hundreds of planes have reported near misses with them; one crashed into the grounds of the White House; another flew over Michigan Stadium, the largest in the US, during a football game; yet another crashed into one of the US Open stadiums during a match; the Venezuelan government claims drones were used to try and assassinate the country’s dictator; a drone dropped drugs into a prison in Ohio; and another tried to drop drugs and hacksaw blades into a prison in Oklahoma.

The list of incidents is already long and the FBI is warning it expects terrorists to use drones to carry out attacks in the US. Bernard Hudson, a Harvard University security analyst put it in stark terms to the Washington Post, saying “It used to be that only governments had air forces, but drones have democratized violence from the sky.”

Major US military contractors are adjusting their air defense systems to try and detect and defend against drones. Radar, jamming, lasers, infrared technology, and even Patriot Missiles are under consideration, but how do you deploy most of that in an urban setting? How do you protect against small but deadly bombs delivered by small drones? Or the chaos that would ensue if a drone simply dropped white powder over a public gathering?

Of course, drones aren’t all bad. In fact, they are already a force for good, with many beneficial uses beyond their utility in national security and defense. They’re used to assist emergency responders; deliver humanitarian aid after natural disasters; help rescue operations; monitor endangered species; forecast the weather; and in a litany of commercial and entertainment activities.

But, for too long, the drone industry tried disingenuously to pass them off as just another version of model planes. They’re not. The threats they pose are great and need to be taken seriously by national and local authorities.