Islamic State Fighters Are Using Drones in New and Terrifying Ways

“The Pentagon has announced a new $20 million program to develop innovative technologies for defeating the drone threat.”

Fighting between coalition forces and Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq and Syria has brought about some frightening developments in the use of drones. As we have seen here in the United States, the popularity of drones among amateur operators has risen dramatically in recent years as they have become more widely produced and easily operated. Off-the-shelf drones are often cheap, easy to acquire, and simple to fly.

Their use in warfare has traditionally been for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes, with the exception of larger unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) used by the United States that can fire Hellfire missiles. Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria are increasingly using drones to attack coalition forces as they continue to roll back the area controlled by ISIL since 2014. In October 2016, two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and two French commandos were killed in northern Iraq by a drone outfitted with an improvised explosive device.

The most incredibly innovative method that ISIL has used with some effect against coalition forces has been to attach feathered tails, similar to the ones used in badminton, to 40mm grenades. The grenades are attached to the bottom of a drone, flown over their intended target, and then dropped. ISIL has been able to do this with some degree of accuracy. These drones are equipped with a camera which allows the operator controlling the drone to maneuver it over Iraqi, Syrian, and even American troops operating on the ground in Iraq and Syria.

Anti-drone equipment, operated primarily by American forces, is present on the ground in Iraq. Anti-unmanned aerial vehicle devices, or AUDS, use radio waves to jam the signals connecting the drone in the air with its operator on the ground. This equipment can make American forces operating it vulnerable to attacks by Islamic State fighters and is not currently in use in Syria.

American troops advising and assisting friendly Syrian forces must rely on small arms fire to bring down ISIL drones, sometimes facing swarms of them at a time. Small drones can be difficult to detect due to their size and lack of noise. Troops gathered on the ground may have no idea that one is overhead dropping grenades on them until it is too late.

Drones have also been targeted and brought down by US aircraft operating in the skies above Iraq and Syria. Last month, an American F-15E Strike Eagle shot down an Iranian-made drone being operated by Islamic State fighters and attempting to drop ordinance on US troops on the ground in Syria.

The Islamic State has recorded and released footage of one of these successful drone strikes.

The implications of this innovative method of delivering munitions with drones is concerning for both military and counterterrorism reasons. It’s easy to imagine this tactic being adopted and improved upon by both future insurgencies and potential terrorists.

The United States Military takes this new tactic seriously enough. The Pentagon has announced a new $20 million program to develop innovative technologies for defeating the drone threat. Future anti-drone technology may focus on both signal jamming and destroying drones with lasers.

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