Over the past year, the US and its allies in the fight against ISIS in Iraq have had to contend with a new wrinkle to their efforts: drones. Yes, on the battlefield, America and company must now deal with the combination of ISIS and drones.
Last week, Gen. Raymond Thomas, the commander of US Special Operations Command, said during a conference that the “most daunting” problem his operators in Iraq faced in 2016 were cheap, commercially available drones. ISIS found ways to attach weapons to those drones, dropping mortars and other ordnance on US-allied forces, which has harmed Western forces.
In the last two months of 2016, in the midst of the fight to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, ISIS drones reportedly attacked US-backed forces about once a day. “About five or six months ago, there was a day when the Iraqi effort nearly came to a screeching halt, where literally over 24 hours there were 70 drones in the air,” Thomas said.
That ISIS has drones and is using them to great effect is a problem in and of itself. But this development also illustrates something remarkable about modern warfare: A group of militants can make or buy drones for just a few thousand dollars and disrupt the plans of the world’s most powerful military.
More worryingly, ISIS is not limited to using drones just in the Middle East. Dave Anthony, the former director of the Call of Duty video game franchise who now works as an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank on the future of warfare, told me in an interview that it’s only a matter of time until “soft target strikes on home soil rather than on the battlefield” start to happen.
And while it may sound like a thriller novel, the scary combo has become an all-too-real problem.
“They are creative”
ISIS in 2014 controlled a chunk of territory in Iraq and Syria the size of the UK. But now that the group has lost 60 percent of the land it held in Iraq and 45 percent in Syria, it’s finding new ways to fight back.
Drones are one way it’s doing that.
"In the past year, ISIS's use of unmanned aerial systems” — that’s military speak for drones — “for surveillance and delivery of explosives has increased, posing a new threat to civilian infrastructure and military installations," Stewart told members of the Hill.
And while Pentagon officials are fully aware of the threat ISIS drones pose to US and allied forces, there is also a begrudging acknowledgment of ISIS’s ingenuity. “They are creative,” said Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesperson. “Let’s call them what they are.”
But it’s not just creative. It’s also historic. “This is the first time any adversary has used armed drones against the US. So this is unprecedented,” Ulrike Franke, a researcher at Oxford who focuses on drones, said in an interview.
Last year, the group hit two French paratroopers with a drone. It was the first time militants not affiliated with a government harmed fighters from a Western force using drones. Now ISIS has set its sights on the United States and the groups it backs in Syria and Iraq. And it’s causing some major problems.
With an arsenal that includes grenade-dropping drones, quadcopters (drones with four propellers), kamikaze and decoy bombers, and surveillance drones, ISIS now has “a new kind of reach,” said Peter W. Singer of the New America think tank.
In February, Ben C. Solomon, a New York Times reporter embedded with Iraqi special forces on the front lines in western Mosul, captured live video of an ISIS drone dropping a grenade just 30 feet from where he was standing.
And in November, Shia fighters affiliated with the Iraqi government shot down an ISIS drone over Tal Afar airbase right outside Mosul, where Iraqi forces were stationed.
These drones don’t just pose a threat to military forces either — they can also be hazardous to the civilian population, notes Rankine-Galloway. After all, ISIS doesn’t care much about civilian casualties, and so the bombs it drops are likely to harm innocent bystanders who may be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But the drones that drop bombs, while flashy, aren’t the real game changer for ISIS. It’s the surveillance drones that have been the most useful to ISIS, allowing it to conduct reconnaissance flights to gather critical intel on enemy locations, booby traps, and so on.
That’s important to note. ISIS can certainly do damage with its bombs. But if it doesn’t know what to hit, those bombs become pretty useless. America’s overwhelming intelligence and surveillance capabilities are part of the reason it’s so successful on the battlefield. Now that ISIS has some surveillance capability of its own — even though it’s still rudimentary — it erodes some of the US’s advantage during the fight.
And that portends future problems. What happens to US military advantages when just about anybody can use drones?
Drones are proliferating among governments — and people
Let’s be clear about one thing: The US military will continue to have massive advantages in any fight for the foreseeable future. But its superiority is slowly being challenged, one drone purchase at a time.
For about three years, from 2001 to 2004, the US was the only country in the world using drones in combat. Now nine countries are doing so, and 28 other countries have drone programs, according to a New America study. Today, “the US has no drone monopoly,” Franke said, as countries like Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey have begun using drones in combat situations.
It’s not hard to see why countries would want drones. They provide the ability to see things far away on the battlefield, and they can shoot missiles at targets without putting troops in harm’s way.
And while individuals don’t have the ability to purchase the kind of big, sophisticated drones that governments can, the small ones they purchase can still wreak havoc — as ISIS is proving every day in Iraq.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s not too hard to buy a drone, affix a bomb to it, fly it to where enemy combatants are, and drop the bomb. “We're not talking rocket science here,” Singer noted.
And ISIS has begun recruiting scientists and engineers to keep the drones it currently has flying and to build new ones from scratch. Some answered the call, and now ISIS has a pretty impressive armory of drones.
The good news is that the US is fighting back. The US Air Force created an electronic weapon that zaps ISIS drones out of the sky. Think of it as a cyber rifle that messes with the drone so much it becomes ineffective.
So at least there’s a fix — which is good. But a question remains: Are militant groups going to keep finding new ways to mess with the US military?
Bad guys always seem to find new ways to cause problems
As Singer told me, “There is a long history of terrorists and weak groups making use of something commercially available,” like when “one of the early horseless carriages was used as a car bomb against the Ottoman sultan.”
So it was basically inevitable that ISIS was going to figure out how to use drones sooner or later. What might come next?
To figure that out, I asked Anthony, the Call of Duty director turned analyst. He thinks “it’s only a matter of time before a drone is used in a soft target strike on US soil.” Now that it’s harder for ISIS to operate drones on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, why not use a weaponized drone somewhere in America, like a school or airport?
It’s a scary thought, for sure. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. After all, as the Pentagon admits, ISIS is creative.