Turkey Is on the Front Lines against ISIS's Bomber Drones

Commercial drone at sunset. Flickr/Greg Clarke

They're already making a difference on the battlefield.

Plowshares into Flying Swords

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—better known as drones—are great things. Their commercially available versions are really fun to play with, they shoot beautiful aerial videos, they help with environmental protection and scientific research, and they even deliver packages.

They also deliver bombs sometimes, as the Turkish armed forces (TSK) recently found out.

On 27 September, a ISIS-controlled drone dropped a bomb on Turkish soldiers in Syria’s Wuquf region, south of al-Rai, wounding three—one critically. The soldiers were part of the TSK-led “Operation Euphrates Shield,” which aims to bolster the Free Syrian Army against ISIS and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD), an ally of Turkey’s bête noire, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

That ISIS used a drone to attack the Turkish military in Syria was not surprising; commercial drones have made their mark on military conflicts for some time. For example, the PKK used commercial drones for reconnaissance purposes in urban environments against Turkish security forces during the government’s anti-PKK operations in southeast Turkey in 2015–16.

Earlier in 2014–15, during the most intense phase of the fighting in Ukraine, commercial drones helped with aerial reconnaissance, finding targets and directing fire. And just last August, the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, which is fighting on the Assad regime’s side in Syria, used a weaponized commercial drone against antiregime forces outside Aleppo.

It is clear that, with the right explosive and drone (some of which cost as little as a few hundred dollars), militant groups could hurt opposing forces, ruin morale and damage equipment worth millions of dollars.

Shooting the Messenger

Is there an effective way to counter these perfect poor man’s spies and antiarmor/antipersonnel weapon? The United States, Turkey’s NATO ally, thinks so.

For the past few years, the U.S. Army has been conducting research into fielding defensive measures against consumer drones. According to Military.com’s Matthew Cox, this has been no easy task. Conventional small arms—be they shotguns or high-powered machine guns—could not shoot down explosive-laden drones. Not only are the small, fast-moving drones hard to hit, but they are also durable, and detecting them before they get too close is a serious challenge.

The U.S. military’s return to Iraq in 2014, along with threats from commercial drones in asymmetric warfare, has given urgency to the search for effective countermeasures. A photo taken on July 22 at Fire Base Bell outside Makhmour shows one such countermeasure, “DroneDefender,” developed by Batelle. The Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff describes how it works:

The system has the ability to disrupt the user’s control link to their drone as well as its ability to sync with a GPS network. It is unclear what type of frequency the rifle uses to attack its target, but the size of the dual front-mounted antennas suggest that the disruption pulse is distributed across multiple radio frequency bands. The rifle has a range of roughly 400 yards, will hit a drone in a 30-degree cone and can be ready to use and fire in less than a second, according to the site. Aside from the antennas and the attached battery pack, the anti-drone rifle appears to be very similar to the M-16/M-4 series of rifles carried by U.S. troops, including a similar stock and attachment system for accessories such as scopes and flashlights. . . . The rifle takes “no extensive training.”

Given the difficulty of detecting small, low-flying targets, DroneDefender teams are paired with a specially designed portable radar that can detect drones several kilometers away.

The aforementioned Hezbollah attack against Syrian rebels on August 17 has justified the U.S. Army’s concerns. The Lebanese Shia group armed multi-propeller drones with artillery submunitions (possibly the Chinese-made MZD-2, a shaped-charge, dual-purpose ammunition) and used them against opposition forces near Aleppo.

That drones could be customized into “bomber drones” and airborne improvised explosive devices represents a dangerous milestone in asymmetric warfare—the innovative use of an increasingly popular and best-selling civilian technology in a (para)military context.

As the Daily Beast’s David Axe notes, drones are “cheap, easy to procure, and simple to operate. For all but the most impoverished military force, a $200 quadcopter is disposable. And that means the type could crop up again not only in Syria, but also on battlefields all over the world—as a bomber... or as a bomb itself, rigged to explode on command.” For that price tag, Axe points out, commercial UAVs are a sort of poor man’s precision-guided munition: “Hovering, commercial-style drones can fly only a short distance away from their operators and, under the best of circumstances, can haul only a few pounds of payload. But what the drone-copters lack in sheer power, they make up for in stability—hence their ability to accurately drop an unguided submunition.”

Talking Turkey

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