Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Attack of the Flying Robts

AFP has an interesting, unsigned piece on an emerging terrorist threat: radio-controlled aircraft and small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They are readily available, relatively easy to build and operate, and extremely difficult to detect. In the hands of a terrorist organization, these "flying robots" could be used to deliver a small explosive device--or a chemical or biological payload--against "soft" targets.

As the article notes, some terrorists are already exploring this technology. Hizballah has obtained a small fleet of UAVs from Iran, and flew one over norther Israel on 11 April 2005. A videotape of the flight reportedly aired on a Hizballah TV station in Lebanon, and Israeli defense sources have reportedly confirmed a second flight as well. In both cases, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) was unaware of the intrusion until the UAV was well inside Israel's airspace, and had been sighted by ground observers. These flight(s) represented a major psychological and propaganda for Hizballah, which (until now) had no effective means of challenging the IAF's control of the Israeli skies.

With their small size (a wing span of five meters or less), use of lightweight materials, slow operating speeds and the ability to operate at low altitude, these remotely-piloted aircraft are almost impossible to detect on radar. Most of these devices have a radar cross-section that is miniscule; additionally, the "velocity gate" feature of most surveillance and target-tracking radars automatically eliminate targets operating at slow speeds, so a terrorist UAV, hang-glider or hobby aircraft would never appear on the screen--even if the radar managed to detect it.

These potential threats cover the spectrum from over-sized, radio-controlled model planes and helicopters, to hang-gliders and ultra-lights and small UAVs. Radio-controlled aircraft are inexpensive, and can be obtained on-line, or from a local hobby shop. Hang-gliders and ultra-lights are also readily available, mostly in kit forms that can be quickly assembled. UAVs are more expensive, but still within reach for a terrorist organization. And with scores of UAV manufacturers around the world (and no proliferation controls), terrorists are limited only by their financial resources and technical accumen. But even those restrictions can be easily overcome, as evidenced by Iran's transfer of UAVs to Hizballah, and the widespread use of GPS technology. GPS allows a terrorist ultralight, hang glider or UAV to navigate precisely, and reach pre-determine targets--without the use of complex data link signals that could be potentially jammed.

These types of aircraft have two limitations: a small payload, and in most cases, a relatively short range. However, these deficiencies are less important in a chemical or biological attack, where a small amount of agent, delivered to the right target by by remoted controlled ultralight or UAV, could have devastating results. The same holds true for a small, air-delivered explosive warhead, employed against such targets as oil refineries, POL storage, or power plants.

At least one expert claims that little attention has been paid to this threat. That's not entirely true. I know at least one Air Force organization that recently completed a major assessment of this threat, and the information has been presented to several high-level audiences. As for mitigation efforts, that's another story. In deployment situations, our military forces have the resources to deal with terrorist ultra-lights and UAVs (shoulder-fired SAMs, attack aircraft, helicopters), but linking them together in a viable defensive scheme remains problematic. In a homeland defense scenario, the problems are more acute, and deserve serious consideration. The potential threat from this type of technology will only grow in the years to come.

A slightly scary footnote: the article references a New Zealand engineer, Bruce Simpson, who has demonstrated how terrorists could build a crude--but effective--cruise missile for under $5,000, using off-the-shelf technology. Simpson's website recounts those efforts--and pressure from the U.S. and New Zealand governments to shut down the project.

1 comment:

Wanderlust said...


I am living in NZ now, and was living here when Mr. Simpson worked on his "DIY Cruise Missile" project in 2002-3.

While the threat of ultralight UAVs will always be with us (e.g., recall that Japan had its children build tiny balloon devices during WWII to float across the ocean to the US Pacific Northwest, and a few of them actually exploded over US soil), Mr. Simpson's case, IMO, is much more problematic.

Mr. Simpson seems to be the kind of engineer who can be found in ample supply here in NZ: someone who could care less about politics, who wants to build something solely to "see if it can be done." In Mr. Simpson's case, his claim to fame was the development of a small pulsejet turbine with very few moving parts; one that can be assembled by a competent machinist. In an agrarian society such as NZ, good machinists can be found all over the place.

As you will have read, Mr. Simpson ran into Government confusion over export rights (where the Ministry of Commerce gave him permission to export his toy for sale abroad, but then the US Government found out and leaned hard on the NZ Prime Minister - who at the time was waiting for trade negotiations for a proposed agreement for free trade between the US and NZ, which the NZ PM killed when she mouthed off in March 2003 about US prospects for victory in Iraq). The NZ response was not unlike the FBI's methods of takedown of crime figures: Mr. Simpson owed back taxes, and the NZ government (according to him) reneged on the repayment plan that they worked out with him, causing him to suddenly go bankrupt.

Now, Mr. Simpson's bankruptcy is important: he had [allegedly] entered into contract with a major US defense contractor to build his pulsejets here in NZ - which sounds plausible enough. However, a clause in his contract stated that if either of the parties declared bankruptcy, the contract terms were breached, resulting in cancellation. With Mr. Simpson's contract being cancelled in this manner, he lost what he had planned to be a major revenue stream that would have provided living expenses and funds for future development work (in this regard, if you read Mr. Simpson's story and compare/contrast with the biography of Nikola Tesla, both men were brilliant inventors, and both had very little grasp of running a company or managing money).

So, all this stuff brings me to a point: Mr. Simpson's last website post, in 2004, shows a man who is desperate to make a living, who feels that he has been failed by his country. He [naively] writes on his posting that he will "build a cruise missile for a fraction of the cost" of major defense contractors, for anyone who wants to pay him to come to their country and do the work - provided they don't intend to use the missile for terrorist purposes. When I read his post, my eyes practically rolled out of their sockets. After all, once his story got picked up by the media in 2003, he was receiving several requests daily from interested buyers of his missile, including persons in Iran.

At the time, I predicted one of two things would happen:

* either Mr. Simpson would attempt to leave NZ to go perform work abroad, only to get stopped by NZ customs and told that he could not leave because of some kind of "problem" with his passport or other travel documents; or

* Mr. Simpson would be brought to a host country (e.g., Iran), allowed to work on building a cruise missile for his hosts, only to be prevented from leaving that country unless he trained others to perform the work and delivered "as built" blueprints for his turbine, and methods used to use a consumer GPS transponder to target the missile - then quietly assassinated.

Two factors make Mr. Simpson's cruise missile work, and make it deadly to Western countries: 1) reliance on consumer-available GPS transponding devices; and 2) ease of construction by a competent machinist.

Oh, and in Mr. Simpson's case, a #3: an inventor that has no clue on the potential uses, or customers, of his work.

Thanks to Mr. Simpson, proliferation of delivery systems for NBC payloads became many orders of magnitudes worse. And as he once wrote, "technology is the slave of anyone who wishes to master it."