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Other Peoples’ Air Power: Islamic State’s Unmanned Air Force — Peter Layton

Much ink has been spilled on the challenge posed to Western militaries’ traditional control of the air domain. In this post, Peter Layton poses a number of questions about the impact of other people’s air power.

Only states have air forces and only states apply air power.  Or so we mostly think, even if it’s not actually completely true. There was a Biafran air force during the Nigerian civil war and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam staged air strikes in the Sri Lankan civil war.  Nevertheless these were arguably oddities across our 100 years or so of air power history. Times have now changed. The sudden emergence of low-cost, small, commercial-off-the-shelf drones has empowered armed non-state actors. They can now operate their own miniature air forces and apply air power in some roles as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has convincingly demonstrated.

For an armed non-state group, ISIS is particularly bureaucratic. Unsurprisingly then its adoption of air power has followed a path seemingly familiar to how most air forces have embraced new technology.  ISIS first became interested in drones in 2013 (so before ISIS’s formal establishment), then acquired various types of rotary and fixed wing drones, trialed these to determine the most useful kinds, and finally formed a specialist drone unit.  ISIS then bought in bulk (mainly DJI Phantom quadcopters) and begun modifying these in mass – and the weapons they carried – to optimise them so as to best meet ISIS’s operational requirements.  Given all this, its then no shock to learn that ISIS’s drone operators have to submit standardised drone usage reports after every mission for post-flight analysis by superior headquarters.

With the group facing annihilation across Iraq and Syria, the recent battle of Mosul is probably the high water mark of ISIS drone operations with its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and ground attack missions particularly worthy of note.

Surveillance quadcopters reportedly captured by Iraqi forces in Mosul in Januaury 2017 [Image credit: Defense One]
Surveillance quadcopters reportedly captured by Iraqi forces in Mosul in January 2017. [Image credit: Defense One]

ISIS makes great use of Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIED): a vehicle loaded with explosives detonated when the driver runs the vehicle into a designated target such as tanks, Humvees, and static checkpoints.  ISIS developed effective tactics that integrated these SVBIEDs with drone missions.  The drones provided real-time reconnaissance video that was used to guide the SVBIEDs through narrow side streets that avoided checkpoints and defensive roadblocks ensuring they survived long enough to attack their selected targets. The quadcopter high-definition video imagery of the attack was then quickly uploaded to the Internet for propaganda purposes. Friendly forces responded to these tactics by launching air strikes against the on-ground ISIS drone controllers. To counter this, ISIS then began using mobile drone controllers who moved around the city using motorcycles.

ISIS’s major drone innovation during the Mosul battle, however, was its use of weaponised drones.  ISIS customized Phantom quadcopter drones to carry and drop small munitions such as grenades or mortar shells, themselves also modified by adding fins to stabilize their fall.  The drones, in being designed to use high-definition cameras, can be hovered overhead a stationary target and provide a fully stabilized platform for accurate weapons delivery albeit freefall. To gain an appreciation of this it is useful to see video of it in action.

Armed drone attacks began in late 2016. By February 2017 some 70 drones were reported airborne in one 24-hour period with 12 armed drones counted overhead simultaneously at one time.  While each attack caused only limited damage, the persistent harassment day and night by the so-called ‘killer bees’ adversely impacted morale. At one point the offensive to retake Mosul almost stalled.  With his units advising and supporting Iraqi forces at this time, United States Special Operations Command’s General Raymond Thomas, noted of this period that the: “most daunting problem was [that ISIS]…for a time, enjoyed tactical superiority in the airspace under our conventional air superiority in the form of commercially available drones and…our only available response was small arms fire.”

There are some implications from all this.

Firstly, ISIS has now proved the use of consumer drones in combat. In future irregular wars, it would be wise to assume the armed non-state groups will try to emulate ISIS.  Western forces have not faced a hostile air environment since Korea but they might soon albeit not in the kind of wars or ways they might have expected.

Secondly, ISIS attacked tactical targets. In-theatre air force bases may in future be subjected to surveillance by drones and possibly strikes. Such surveillance could make hostile ground force attacks much more effective (as ISIS did in capturing a Syrian airbase in Raqqah) while strikes even if using fairly minuscule weapons could disable parked aircraft.

Thirdly, don’t be dismayed – perhaps. Consumer drones can be readily countered and there is a growing industry devising new and exotic ways of doing just that ranging from laser cannons to trained eagles. Trouble is these defensive systems are short range and so considerable numbers may need deploying to provide coverage across an operational area.  Moreover, some are warning that drones are becoming more autonomous – making defensive jamming less effective – and using multi-vehicle control, allowing swarming attacks.  Massed attacks using autonomous drones would be readily detectable but hard to defeat, an airbase under attack might be overwhelmed.

Eagles are being trained to swoop on drones as though they were smaller birds. [Image Credit: Reuters]
Eagles are being trained to swoop on drones as though they were smaller birds. [Image Credit: Reuters]

Fourthly, there are important capability development lessons here. The fifth generation air force supporting Mosul operations could not deny the air to pop-up drones.  An unexpected threat arose that undercut the splendidly high-technology air forces orbiting overhead – well not quite, the United States Air Force’s (USAF) Reaper drones were useful and forced ISIS to institute its motorcyle countermeasures.

This has resonances with a current internal debate about whether USAF should force structure for likely or unlikely wars (also see here). People knew ISIS’s drones were coming but the focus was on other longer-term issues until Mosul reached a crisis point.  Judgments on whether to win today’s wars or worry about tomorrow’s can have important consequences.

Lastly, the age of hostile consumer drones has arrived raising questions about how our fifth generation air force should respond.  Some see an Air Force role in killing drones while others might argue it’s solely a matter for Army.  Is control of the air in future irregular wars a new single service responsibility or are there more efficacious joint ways to counter this emerging threat?  Over to you.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University. An alternative version of this post appeared on The Interpreter.


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