ISIS Drone Dropping Bomblet On Abrams Tank Is A Sign Of What’s To Come

This is a threat that has been building for years—and it’s just the beginning.

Youtube Screencap

One of the major tactical developments during the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq has been the deployment of hobbyist and even homemade remote controlled aircraft—often referred to as “drones”—armed with small explosive charges. During the Battle of Mosul especially, Iraqi forces have experienced a threat from aerial bombardment by low-end drones on a level never seen before in combat. Meanwhile US forces in Iraq and Syria have also scrambled to adapt to and counter this growing capability. 

Yet the hard truth is that the Department of Defense has had plenty of time and warning to do just that. In fact, they spent many millions of dollars looking at the problem, but no hard action was really taken to develop countermeasures, which makes their scramble for countermeasures now all that more frustrating. 

The weaponizing of these increasingly prevalent and cheap hobbyist drones has been warned about for years by many of us outside the Pentagon’s five walls, and likely by some on the inside as well. Meanwhile, the DoD seemed focused on countering the problem with very high-end systems, such as emerging solid-state laser capabilities, which are more suited for the protection of extremely high-value targets than for providing a shield for soldiers on the battlefield. Some counter-rocket and mortar (C-RAM) systems, which use kinetic means to kill, with cannon shells or missiles, have also been adapted for this use to a limited degree, but these are also geared to defending fixed positions and can be horrifically expensive to use. 

Videos like the ones below, from various militant groups in the Middle East, have become increasingly common, although taking on a M1 Abrams main battle tank, and the tanker standing in its hatch, certainly is one of the most sensational we have seen.

Warning, this is graphic video. The tanker supposedly died in the attack. The second video is a compilation of many similar strikes:

Photo of drones captured in Iraq—Presumably the same type that drops the bomblets in the videos above (photos via defense-blog.com):

Now, the industry is rushing to develop “squad level” solutions for the hobby-drone threat. These largely include directional jamming systems that cut off a drone’s radio control and GPS signal, and thus hopefully defeat it entirely. This concept is being advanced, and even deployed to a limited degree, in a couple forms. The first as a rifle-like system, where the user visually acquires the drone, and then aims the emitter at it just as if they would a long gun. The other type is more cumbersome, and uses high-frequency radar, infrared and/or electronic surveillance to detect and track the drone. A turreted directional jammer then cues on the target. This type of setup is more of an area solution than the shouldered version which has no automated detection and targeting capability. 

Eventually versions of this more elaborate system will likely be deployed on moving vehicles, just as other medium and heavy weapons would be. 

On the higher end, directed energy systems (solid state lasers) have taken small unmanned aircraft up as their primary intended targets as they still lack the power and range to take on larger targets at range effectively. These systems can provide other functions than just anti-drone capabilities and are becoming more powerful and less cumbersome as years go by. Eventually they will find themselves on the front lines, but even their utility is limited against large quantities of small, cheap drones attacking at one time.

Still, these countermeasures don't take into account that in the future, these cheap, highly available tool/toys turned into weapons will be used in greater numbers and, eventually, will feature autonomous flight coordination, also known as swarm technology. As such, solutions need to migrate from taking down one enemy drone at a time, to denying their use, even in large quantities, seamlessly over an entire area. 

Omnidirectional broadband jamming is an issue because the US military uses a wide range of the same frequencies. Not only that, but small hobby-like drones are increasingly used by the America’s own land forces, including suicidal ones that work just as well as guided missiles than as surveillance systems. Jamming yourself and neutering your own drone capability doesn’t help the situation for allied troops fighting on the ground. 

One possible solution for what will be one of the most pressing tactical issues of the near future is countering low-end drone swarms with low-end drone swarms. Basically sicking one flock on another, with the ability to work as a team to home in on an enemy swarm and to knock it out of the sky.  

Clearly this is going to become a much more complicated business than anyone would like imagine, especially as these “over-the-counter” drone systems become smaller and more autonomous. Even here at home, as time passes, murder by drone is likely to become a very real thing. The police have already killed a suspect using a robotic system, and criminals may find that the drone is far better tool for taking out one’s enemies from afar than a gun’s bullet, especially consider that said bullet cannot turn corners. 

As our lives become more encompassed by these buzzing craft, distinguishing friend from foe will be all but impossible. Washington DC and its surroundings is already a drone free zone, as are other sensitive areas. Expect many others to follow especially if the technology cannot be regulated to the point where it can’t be so easily abused. This is a problem pro-drone industries should confront head-on as the future of the technology and its applications likely depends on it. 

The thing is that we have rapidly moved from small but deadly and expensive suicide drones capable of inflicting lethal force, to even simpler and cheaper ones that drop expendable munitions and can be quickly reused again. What’s most concerning is that the majority of the innovation in this field has been achieved by the enemy in a warzone. This is both an amazing achievement and a horrific one that is a harbinger of things to come. Meanwhile it seems as if the exploding low-end drone industry, the US government—including the Pentagon—are in denial of just what this all means for the future of warfare and quite frankly, humanity.

Contact the author at Tyler@thedrive.com