Who can forget the images of 9/11? Huge jumbo jet aircrafts slamming into the World Trade Center. It is an image indelibly etched into the collective psyche of America. And as tragic as those events were… what if a larger threat loomed?
The National Airspace System (NAS) is a highly integrated and complex network designed to provide safe and reliable air transportation throughout the United States. It tracks and monitors over 50,000 manned air flights every single day. And there are very strict protocols for dealing with unresponsive aircraft.
In fact, the procedure for intercepting unresponsive aircraft has been routine in U.S. domestic airspace, even before the end of the Cold War. According to an Associated Press report, American Military fighter aircraft were scrambled 67 times between September 2000 and June 2001. Scrambling, or getting fighters in the air, is the first step in carrying out an interception, which consists of catching up with and examining an unresponsive (or off course) aircraft.
The distribution of military air bases with available interceptor aircraft, combined with short scramble times and the high speeds of these interceptor aircrafts, virtually guarantees that a jetliner flying anywhere in the northeast U.S. could be intercepted within less than 20 minutes.
Understand, fighter pilots, are trained to “scramble” in under five minutes. Meaning that from the time they receive the order to launch to the time they are in the air is less than five minutes.
American fighter pilots waste no time getting from the barracks to their jets, and are ready for takeoff in a matter of seconds. It’s only 10 seconds from power-up to takeoff, and twenty seconds to reach airliner cruising altitude. An American F-15 fighter jet can travel the distance between New York City and Washington D.C. in under eight minutes.
And yet our government was unable to stop four hijacked jumbo jet aircraft. How then can we expect them to stop an unmanned aerial vehicle that’s the size of a football?
Small drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAV’s, are already a military operational reality. The Raven drone used by the U.S. military weighs less than two kilograms and is hand-launched by a soldier who simply throws it into the air.
And it is these small drones that have the greatest potential to impact national security because they can be easily acquired (paid for in cash), easily transported and can be almost undetectable when they fly.
Much of the security infrastructure that exists today to limit access to sensitive locations or high-value targets has little or no effect against drones. UAVs can fly over fences and walls and can escape detection by traditional radar systems designed to track larger passenger-bearing aircraft.
Because they can be transported in the trunk of a car or in a backpack, they can be launched from any publicly accessible park, parking lot, city street, river or highway. Once airborne, a drone can arrive within minutes at any location within a few kilometers of the launch site. In short, there is no city, neighborhood or building on the planet that is beyond their reach.
In unclassified 2005 report issued by the federally-funded Institute for Defense Analysis (pdf) observed that a drone “could be fired from beyond visual range at a target while the terrorists make their escape before impact” and that there “would be little danger of detection in transportation, launch or escape.”
In the hands of a responsible military, this [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] capability is a game-changing asset; in the hands of a rogue group it is a terrifying threat.
Let us look at just one plausible scenario, and we can extrapolate the danger to our National Security from there.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “Sarin gas is 26 times more deadly than cyanide gas. Just a pinprick-sized droplet will kill a human.”
Sarin can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin; the gas kills by crippling the respiratory center of the central nervous system and paralyzes the muscles around the lungs. The combination results in death by suffocation. Heavier than air; the gas can linger in an area for up to six hours, depending on weather conditions, and sarin can contaminate food or water supplies,
In fact, in a report by U.S.A. Today; “troops were told chemical alarms that went off at U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War were false alarms, but a new study indicates that sarin gas traveled hundreds of miles.”
Now imagine a “lone-wolf” style homegrown terrorist walks into a local hobby shop. He buys a drone using cash. He then loads that drone with Sarin Gas. He then takes the drone to a local high school football game or even a college football game. He parks in the stadium parking lot. He launches the drone and sets it to hover over the game while he makes his get-a-way. Once the drone runs out of fuel, it crashes to the ground releasing the Sarin Gas.
Think this is pure speculation? Think again.
This scenario provides a glimpse into what might be possible and, in fact, was already tried. In April of 2014, the FBI foiled a terror plot involving an attack that would use toy planes loaded with explosives against a school and a Connecticut Federal Building.
In fact, according to a confidential source (former Chief of MQ-1 Training for a USAF Special Operations):
“It is a very naive approach not to worry about non-weaponized drones . . . you can put a small amount of chemical in a[n] . . . RC [remote controlled] plane, [find] coordinates with an iPhone GPS, then 24-hours later, launch an RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] from the parking lot into a full stadium using those coordinates.”
But wait, there’s more.
In September of 2011, the FBI stopped a plot by Rezwan Ferdaus to use drones to ferry explosives into the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon.
In another example, Hamas launched three drones against Israel in July 2014. According to one media report, “[this] strike against Israel introduce[d] the use of drones with an offensive capacity [by terrorist groups], which could potentially inflict significant casualties.”
And it gets even scarier. It is now widely known that the terrorists responsible for carrying out the 9/11 atrocities practiced and took test runs before their attack. So now consider this report by the New York Times:
” A White House radar system designed to detect flying objects like planes, missiles, and large drones failed to pick up a small drone that crashed into a tree on the South Lawn early Monday morning. The crash raised questions about whether the Secret Service could bring down a similar object if it endangered President Obama.”
And lastly, Rory Paul of Volt Aerial Robotics stated, “recently Hezbollah and the Iranians attempted to fly a drone over a nuclear reactor in Israel. It went for the reactor in one of the most secure airspace systems in the world.” Mr. Paul further explained, “Today, I could shut down Saint Louis Lambert International Airport from my basement; all I would have to do is fly up and down the runway. No one would know who was controlling it or from where.”
All of the above examples makes it abundantly clear that even non-military—even toy and hobby—UAV’s can pose a credible and significant threat. And the question is no longer if it will happen because the attempts have already been made. The question is what can we do to stop it. It is simply a matter of time before one of them is successful.
Rene C. Sotolongo is an OpsLens Contributor and a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer who served for over twenty years as an Information Systems official. Sotolongo also specialized in homeland security and counterterrorism.
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