In the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack that took the lives of fourteen victims in San Bernardino, California last month, a raft of information has been coming out regarding the identities and histories of the perpetrators, and also the arsenal they had amassed to carry out their plans.
Amidst all the reporting, it would be easy to miss a significant item that authorities found among the weaponry, as reported by Fox News:
“...Another source said investigators discovered a dozen pipe bombs in the house, as well as small explosives strapped to remote-controlled cars - a signature of terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, according to counter-terrorism experts.”
Those advantages of the remote IED – precision, evasion, cost-effectiveness – have prompted authorities increasingly to worry that terrorists will turn next to another device to help them carry out attacks: drones.
Drones have the potential to function essentially as the aerial version of the remote-controlled car bombs found in that San Bernardino apartment. They could be rigged to carry small explosives and sent to a target as a precision-guided weapon, or could be deployed without an explosive and just flown, deliberately, into a jet engine. And even if the user in question opts not to use the drone itself as a weapon, it can still operate overhead with a camera and provide what the military calls intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) to support an attack on the ground, for example by providing intelligence on additional targets or possible escape routes for the attackers.
Non-state actors are already either deploying drones in the field or are drawing concern from security experts about their potential to do so. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have sent (for now) non-weaponized, rudimentary drones of limited capability into Middle Eastern skies, including one Hezbollah drone that made it 140 miles into Israel. Drug cartels are already attempting to use drones for smuggling narcotics, and some in law enforcement have speculated that cartels will find value in drones for surveillance purposes. The New York Police Department has been worried for some time about the potential for terrorist attacks on New York City using drones.
Given the threat posed by drones in the hands of terrorists or criminals, there is an urgent need to grapple with how to secure American skies in effective, sensible ways. Broadly speaking, policymakers should proceed on this front bearing two things in mind:
Deploy counter-drone technologies to protect U.S. airspace. Addressing the terrorist/criminal drone threat will require the deployment of counter-drone technology, sooner rather than later, that can be used to safely disable and bring down drones in non-military environments. The military has been working on fielding counter-drone technologies for some time – the Navy has already made significant advances with deployment of directed energy technology to counter threats from Iranian drones and other weapons in the Persian Gulf, and recent reporting indicates that the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) and Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) have been collaborating extensively to identify workable counter-drone options as well. While the homeland security side of the federal government appears to be catching up on this front, the question remains as to whether effective technology will be ready in time for use against this kind of bad-actor drone in the skies over American cities and infrastructure – particularly when, unlike their military counterparts, those responsible for homeland security are more constrained to avoid counter-drone measures that involve blowing one up in mid-air over lower Manhattan or knocking out electronic communications in downtown Washington, D.C.
Recognize the limitations of traceability and “geo-fencing.” In recent months, there have been numerous unauthorized drone flights in U.S. airspace – near airports, near commercial aircraft, over sporting events, and in some cases, in the path of wildfire relief efforts – the preponderance of which appear to have been the result of reckless or careless drone use, rather than a malicious intent to cause harm. These kinds of incursions have prompted the Department of Transportation to announce that it will require those who use drones to register them with the department by February of 2016. It is thought that having operators register their drones will give law enforcement an opportunity to trace drones back to their operators in certain circumstances for deterrence and accountability purposes, though there is room to debate whether this is unnecessarily burdensome for your average law-abiding user, and whether a more effective way to create deterrence and accountability would be through tracing manufacturer serial numbers, via the retailer, back to the point of sale.
Of course, having the ability to trace a drone back to its owner only matters after a drone has already flown into restricted airspace – it won’t prevent incursions from taking place. That reality has prompted drone companies to explore the option of manufacturer-installed “geo-fencing” technology that pre-programs a drone to render it incapable of flying into restricted airspace.
Policymakers should recognize that while traceability mechanisms and geo-fencing could be important public safety tools to better manage increasingly crowded airspace and mitigate irresponsible or reckless drone use, they will not solve the problem of malevolent drone use. Terrorists and criminals won’t register themselves under any system, or make themselves otherwise vulnerable to having ownership traced back to them, and a determined terrorist or criminal will be all the more inclined to disable geo-fencing features, and perhaps all the more capable of doing so.
Drones are already doing much good in American skies for law enforcement, homeland security, and a variety of industries putting them to innovative use. As is the case with all beneficial technologies, however, bad actors will find ways to use a drone’s otherwise positive qualities to cause harm. Dealing with that threat will entail understanding which counter-drone technologies can be usefully applied to preventing terrorist/criminal acts, and which ones are less likely to get that particular job done, other potential benefits notwithstanding.
Lerner is the vice president of Government Relations for the Center for Security Policy.