Words By: Colonel (Retd) Barry Jenkins
The Royal Air Force has celebrated its formation in 1918 with a series of superb displays and parades that show off their professionalism, panache and pride and demonstrate their global status as a leader in air and space power. The RAF’s creation lies in part with the threat posed by the manned Zeppelin raids on the UK mainland of World War One. The last attack off Great Yarmouth was unintentionally marked a hundred years ago to the day, by the drone attack wreaking a similar terror from the skies on the President of Venezuela. For air forces around the world and their political masters, there is now a new kid on the urban block. The £30K air force is available now with minimal running costs, no infrastructure requirements and comes pre-loaded with the mother of all irony bombs; soon it could be delivered to you straight from the warehouse, by drone.
So, the new kid on and above the block is an illegally modified drone. However, they have been around for decades, but the Venezuelan attack has now dramatically put them centre stage. Having designed force protection solutions against this type of small hybrid threat in both Iraq and Afghanistan, this attack came as no surprise to me. As recently as December 2017, drones were described as an ‘emerging threat’ in the MOD Doctrinal Publication ‘UK and Air and Space Power’. One crashed onto the lawn of the White House two and a half years earlier and one crashed as a protest in front of Angela Merkel in 2013. Killer drones have now emerged with all the justifiable concern posed by those other sci-fi hybrid threats - cyber warfare and cyber terrorism, drone warfare’s geekier cousins. But drones are about as Sci-Fi now as Wi-Fi. It’s scary, real and is a game changer for terrorists, criminals and governments alike. When not if, it will strike the UK mainland it will bring disproportionate fear and how that fear is mitigated let alone the drone menace defeated, will require debate, more rigorous policy and perhaps some very unpalatable decisions. The “See it, say it, sorted” and “Run, hide, tell” advice are two extremely successful counterterrorist public information campaigns that prepare an increasingly resilient public for what has been thus far, attacks on or around ground level. It’s time to metaphorically and physically lift our sights.
History does indeed repeat itself and with air threats, most acutely. New air threats are designed to shock and expose vulnerabilities by being low cost and potentially high payoff as was the case with a hybrid air threat in Venezuela. These threats can come out of the blue and in the case of the V2 rocket of World War 2, quite literally, out of thin air.
The first V1 Doodlebug that hit London on 13 June 1944 was met by a news blackout. The public was only told of the threat 3 weeks later, but Churchill had intimated in November 1943 that we “We cannot exclude the possibility of new forms of attack on this island”. 3 months later the first V2 smashed through the atmosphere to hit Chiswick. In a bizarre twist of historical repetition, it too, like the Caracas explosion, was attributed to a ‘gas explosion’. The V2 ruse worked well enough until the next day when several bowler-hatted officials stepped from a marked Air Ministry car to inspect the crater. Not a gas fitter was to be seen and only Bletchley Park and a select few were aware of the implications. Great Britain was under attack from an unmanned air threat. 4 years after the blitz, the public was once again terrified, demanded assurances of safety and solutions were elusive. Only the rapid Allied advance across Europe overrunning the V2 launch sites and RAF bombing halted the menace. Even the continental United States wasn’t free from unmanned air threats. The first ever effective unmanned intercontinental bombing raid was on 5 May 1945, on the west coast in Oregon. A group of Sunday school children stumbled upon a strange looking weather balloon. The Japanese device detonated as planned and killed five of them. This shocked the nation and was quickly covered up and buried in the joy of VE Day, 3 days later. Social media would now report and speculate on this threat as fast as any Government source could whiteboard the response.
So, what exactly is the threat from a £30,000 drone air force and how can it be stopped? A threat is made up of capability and intent. The capability can be bought online. The DJI M600 Chinese made high-performance drone allegedly used in the Caracas attack costs less than £5200 and is designed as a commercial professional photography drone and was modified to deliver the explosive device. The drone carried a 1kg of C4 military grade explosive and moved at speeds approaching 40mph. The M600 can hover, and easily and illegally modified to detonate, deliver a spray in reasonable weather from 5 kilometres. They have GPS and are easy to fly with simulation training and practise. But can this provide a cheap, capable and credible terrorist air force? Perhaps. Drones can swarm together (hundreds at a time) they can avoid each other, keep tight formation and pass information to each other. In the parlance of air forces, they can acquire, track and strike a target with a standoff capability and at range. However, they can’t carry troops (yet) or underslung artillery (yet) but existing top of the range commercial drones can carry 70kg. Ukraine had an armoured brigade destroyed by artillery having been spotted by a commercial photography drone flown by Russian separatists. The Ukrainians reacted and have quickly created an effective 21st-century drone unit to bypass the trench warfare below. ISIS have dropped both anti-personnel and anti-tank grenades across Syria and Iraq with reasonable success and in Mosul last year, this hybrid air attack caused significant panic amongst elite Iraqi security forces. The order was eventually restored with anti-drone tactics combining AK 47s firing a wall of lead and US Army mobile anti-jamming equipment.
So, what downed the Venezuelan drone? This remains unclear. One anti-drone defence is geofencing. The technology that prompts you with a text to buy a coffee when passing a high street coffee shop is used to deter some drones as they approach Civil Aviation Authority controlled airspace with software generated warnings from the drone itself. Several websites show where airspace is controlled and how to apply for a geofencing area to prevent paparazzi from interrupting your wedding a or illegally live a streaming festival or Premiership match. Prisons and critical infrastructure, the Government Zone in London and airports all have permanent red “No entry’’ zones. If a terrorist, intent on a similar style of attack or a violent gang member wished to settle a score with a diving knife-wielding M600 inside a Red Zone, the drone will be physically stopped by the drone’s internal software as it hits a red zone and forced to hover. Without clearance, you cannot operate within a Red Zone as the GPS factory settings prevent it from physically flying through or within it. Impressive eh? Problem solved? No. Not all drone manufacturers have signed up to this protocol. However, if a drone gets through a barrier defence, there are myriad methods of hard and soft kill defence capabilities on the market, ranging from the mediaeval to Star Wars. All being developed at pace in the dynamic arms race to stay one step ahead of the drone manufacturers. As with cyber warfare, there is no limit to either technology or imagination as they try to outmanoeuvre each other and gain an advantage. Defensive measures include specially trained drone catching birds of prey, the shotgun fired nets, dogfighting drones with launchable drone capture nets, command link jamming equipment, machine guns and radar-controlled laser canons. All enjoy varying degrees of success and tailored to the environment be it a battlefield, oil refinery or Davos. But as with all air defence matters, the airspace and electromagnetic bandwidth are full of friendly aircraft, drones and millions of mobile phone users, so blue on blue is a real issue. As an air defender the holy grail is to have weapon systems authorised as ‘Weapons Free’; basically, ‘if it flies, it dies’ and if in a designated volume of that airspace, it is proven guilty with innocence being assessed way after the threat has passed. That’s still challenging with a drone swarm that could swamp the defence, and it has severe implications. What goes up must come down, a wall of lead, even Kestrels, and mobile phones would be jammed. It is a risk-reward conundrum as old as the RAF. Hollywood accurately portrays the political dithering and the tactical military frustration as a non-compliant airliner flying for 5 minutes with its identity transponder switched off, enters restricted airspace. Drones are different as you can’t negotiate with a drone cockpit and they don’t want asylum.
I stated above that a threat is made up of a combination of capability and intent. The capability is clear and can be easily purchased with negligible checks for a drone under certain weights. But it is an opt-in requirement to become a CAA approved Drone user, and no terrorist or criminal will. So, this sets the scene for an uncomfortable societal conversation that might inform Government policy to significantly tighten regulations up from their very recently announced new Drone Codes of Practice. Harmless pursuits with proven lifesaving and beneficial commercial capabilities or a readily available, proven terrorist and criminal weapon system? The US Federal Aviation Authority predicts that by 2020 there will be 3.4 million drones in the USA. Recalling them would probably be only slightly less emotive than forced gun control.
What about the Bacofoil? With any change leftover from buying drones, the committed terrorist or criminal will want some Bacofoil. The same aluminium foil codenamed ‘Window” dropped by the RAF in the Second World War to spoof enemy radars has been mischievously regenerated. Cover your drone with Bacofoil and you shield the GPS signal in your drone to blind its location and an M600 can then be manually flown (as opposed to a pre-programmed route) and can then penetrate even a Red Zone. It will have lost the capability of flying it at range, but it will still be able to hover and with a smartphone attached, live stream, acquire a target or drop a package or detonate – regardless of a geofencing Red Zone. That may lead to just battlefield anti-drone technology with specifically designed radars and marksmen (good game shots are ideal) to take it down. Seconds in the engagement sequence of countering the air threat posed by drones are intensively assessed, so the industry is developing autonomous capabilities to deal with the ‘emerging’ pop up 30-second threat caused by drones.
Could this cheap air force enhance terrorist and criminal activity? Was President Maduro very lucky or did he have an effective anti-drone defence? It is easy to speculate and be somewhat alarmist that this could be the catalyst for a new Hungerford, Pearl Harbour, 9/11, Manchester Arena, Dallas Grassy Knoll or inter-gang air combat for control of air delivered contraband, but it's already here. A drone over a packed crowd doesn’t need a lump of C4 explosive. Merely dropping or spraying a corrosive (let alone Novichok) substance could cause a chaotic stampede, as shown on the Venezuelan parade, with a possible slaughter achieved by the targets themselves. The intent and capability of the drone threat are also unintentionally unmasked by social media. A YouTube video of a teenager innocently showing how to modify and shield the GPS function with tin foil has been watched over 60,000 times. Like cyberterrorism, this threat could emerge from an urban tower block or a roadside in Syria. So, a weapon system has been identified and not from the ledger of a dark web quartermaster but from a mail-order catalogue.
On the 10 November 1932, the eve of the fourteenth Armistice Day and before the invention of radar and its countermeasure ‘window’, Stanley Baldwin’s premonition about air threats in a Parliamentary debate may be worthy of reflection and an updated and wider debate:
I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through. The only defence is in the offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.
However, Drone operators need not fear being monitored by the Security Services nor should the population run for the hills when sighting a drone nor lynch the operator at the summit or avoid festivals. Or even attack a drone in the air, which could be perceived by the CAA as an offence of recklessly endangering an aircraft. However, I suspect that after last Sunday, the descendants of the citizens who suffered the Zeppelins, V1 and V2 attacks might ask for some reassurance. Attack drones must surely be trending and that won’t have gone unnoticed by those who would wish to use cheap, unmanned and remarkably risk-free air power, to conduct a criminal or terrorist activity.
Venezuela wasn’t an explosive wakeup call for the Government, as significant and effective anti-drone work has been done to date, however, perhaps as a society, we have pressed the snooze button for the last time. History does repeat itself and the attack in Venezuela just showed us how. Chin up and look up.
Colonel (Retd) Barry Jenkins
Director of Counter Drone Strategy
Drone Major group