Written by: Adrian Douglas Arcoleo
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro claims to have survived an assassination attempt by two explosive unmanned aerial systems. The alleged attempt occurred during a speech at a military event where government officials claimed two drones armed with explosives detonating in the air.
Video of the speech shows the president and his wife looking up, startled as explosions go off and guards rushing over to protect the president with soft armor shields. Additional footage shows army personnel scattering after the explosions are heard.
Many details relating to the event remain shrouded in controversy, such as who exactly is to blame for the attack. Instead of focusing on these details, this article will instead put focus onto the implications if the claims are true.
This would be the first serious attempt to assassinate a political leader using a drone, or, in this case, two drones. Once a tactic that was confined to warzones like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, weaponized commercial drones have now left that arena and moved into the Western world.
So what does this mean for the future of terrorism in Western countries where many of these commercial drones remain prevalent? In the short term, the effect will most likely be minimal.
For many aspiring Jihadi Johns looking to weaponize drones in a similar manner to how they are used in the Middle East, the problem will still come from the ability to conjure sufficient explosives for the drone to carry or drop. The actual planning of any attack or the acquiring these drones would be easy as most drones are commercially available and drone countermeasures are seldom employed in the west. However, the ability to create an explosive that is both lightweight enough for the drone to carry and deadly enough to cause serious harm would be difficult. What enabled the success of terror organizations in the Middle East was an ease of access to military ordinance that is completely absent in developed countries like the US and the members of the European Union.
That does not mean that drone technology cannot still be used for other illicit activities. Already, it has been used in such creative activities as smuggling and even drug dealing. As drone technology advances and the capabilities of these commercially available systems increase within parameters such as range, endurance, and swarm technology, we can expect for these illegal activities associated with drones to increase as well. It is only a matter of time before a similar attack occurs in the West. There have been many close calls already such as the Jan. 2015 event where a drone crashed onto the White House lawn or in 2013 when a drone flew near German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
All is not doom and gloom in the rise of drone technology, as many counter-drone systems exist. One of the drones that exploded near the Venezuelan President was reportedly stopped by such a system, interrupting the link between the controller and the drone. Many militaries, including the US military, have implemented a plethora of anti-drone systems. The upcoming Defense Authorization Act has even allotted the most amount of money to developing counter-drone technology in the history of drones.
Current laws in the US, however, hamper the ability of local law enforcement and even federal authorities to counter the drones. Two top officials with the US. Department of Homeland Security, David Glawe and Hayley Chang, wrote in testimony to Congress in June on this limitation. “Today we are unable to effectively counter malicious use of drones because we are hampered by federal laws enacted years before UAS technology was available for commercial and consumer use.”
Even if laws were to change to grant more powers to law enforcement, there is still the concern for overreach. Mass employment of counter-drone systems in the domestic sphere would likely interfere with many of the signals that citizens and commercial activities have come to depend on like GPS, Wi-Fi, and many electromagnetic (EM) frequencies. Jamming those EM signals can interfere with the communications cations of law enforcement or commercial aircraft according to Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.
Additionally, the increase in funding for counter-drone technology implies that there is no silver bullet to defeat drones. As commercial drone technology matures, so will the counter-measures developed by terror and criminal organizations to resist traditional counter-drone technology and jammers. The military is currently throwing money at many different systems to find out exactly which ones work and which ones do not.
As with most war technology someone creates a system, someone else creates a counter to that systems then someone creates an upgrade that negates the counter and so-on. Ian Morris points out in his book “War! What is it Good For?” that technological advancement works just like Alice in the Looking Glass, no matter how fast Alice and the Red Queen run, they always stay in the same place. As drone countermeasures advance, so too will the technology to defeat those countermeasures.