Warplanes: Tiny Hobby Aircraft Rigged To Explode

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October 30, 2016: On October 2nd ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) used a commercial UAV to take pictures of Kurdish military facilities near Irbil in northern Iraq. This was not unusual as ISIL frequently does this, especially before an attack. In this case the UAV crashed near where some Kurdish troops were. As the Kurds and two French military advisors went to investigate the downed UAV. The small, lightweight (the body was made of Styrofoam) aircraft was largely intact and appeared to be a modified hobby RC (radio controlled) aircraft. So the two Kurdish troops picked up the UAV to carry it back to their base for examination. These UAVs often use GPS navigation and automatically fly a preprogrammed route, taking high resolution pictures (or lower res video) and storing the images on a SIM card. Sending the images back via radio would add too much weight (and demand too much additional power) to these small UAVs. So the Kurds have learned that it is important to retrieve any ISIL UAVs that crash or are shot down. This particular UAV was rigged with an explosive charge that was set off when anyone handled certain portions of the battery and electronics. The explosion killed the two Kurds and wounded the two French soldiers. The Kurds report that they have been spotting, and shooting down ISIL UAVs (all commercial models) since late 2015 and there were reports of ISIL planning to rig some of these with explosives and send them on one way missions against Kurdish troops. So far none of that had been seen and it is still unclear if the October 2 nd UAV incident near Irbil have succeeded. The use of commercial UAVs, especially the quad-copter types, by criminals and terrorists has been going on since at least 2010.

In 2014 South Korea found two North Korean UAVs that had crashed on the South Korean side of the border. It later turned out that these UAVs were repainted Chinese SKY-09P commercial models. These are 12 kg (26 pound) delta wing aircraft with a wingspan of 1.92 meters (6.25 feet), propeller in the front and a payload of three kg (6.6 pounds). It is launched via a catapult and lands via a parachute. Endurance is 90 minutes and cruising speed is 90 kilometers an hour. When controlled from the ground it can go no farther than 40 kilometers from the controller. But when placed on automatic it can go about 60 kilometers into South Korea and return with photos. These things cost the North Koreans a few thousand dollars each.

The first documented frequent use of commercial UAVs for criminal activities occurred on the American border with Mexico. Since at least 2011 Mexican drug smugglers used these commercial UAVs to get cocaine across the border. These UAVs are small enough, slow enough and fly low enough to avoid radar. Operating on automatic pilot, they can fly over a hundred kilometers into the U.S. at night, drop several kilograms (apparently up to six pounds or so) and return to Mexico. Others, like the quad-copter types, have been known to make shorter, one-way trips. The larger commercial UAVs, that can be reused, cost under $10,000 and are good for at least a few trips.

Drugs are one thing, Islamic terrorists using them for bomb attacks is another matter. In late 2013 Palestinian police in the West Bank arrested three pro-Hamas university students and accused them of plotting to use a small, consumer grade UAV to carry explosives into Israel. In this case Hamas wanted to smuggle the explosives into Israel so other Hamas operatives could carry out a more conventional bomb attack.

Then in mid-2014 there were several reports of the Iran backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon using Iranian UAVs as cruise missiles, rather than for reconnaissance. The targets were not Israel but Sunni al Qaeda Islamic terrorists. Shia and Sunni have been fighting each other in Lebanon for centuries and this conflict was the major cause of the 1975-90 civil war there. Now that fighting has renewed as a side effect of the Syrian civil war (another Sunni-Shia affair).

Iran has supplied both Hezbollah and Hamas (in Gaza) with UAVs, most of them Ababils . The Iranians have been developing UAVs since the 1980s. One of their most successful designs was the Ababil, which was introduced in 2006. Over 500 Ababils have been produced so far. This is an 82 kg (183 pound) UAV with a 2.9 meter (9.5 foot) wing span, a payload of about 35 kg (77 pounds), a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour, and an endurance of 90 minutes for the first model. Current models (Ababil 3) can stay up for about four hours. The Ababil is known to operate as far as 240 kilometers from its ground controller. But it also has a GPS guidance system that allows it to fly a pre-programmed route and then return to its ground controllers for a landing (which is by parachute). This GPS guidance could also be used for one way flights with the UAV carrying explosives and a trigger to detonate them on impact. The guidance system would also have to be modified for use as a cruise missile but since the Iranians built Ababil this would not be a problem. Normally the Ababil carries a variety of day and night still and video cameras. There are many inexpensive and very capable cameras available on the open market, as well as the equipment needed to transmit video and pictures back to the ground.

The Ababil has been seen in Gaza, Sudan and Lebanon, where Iranian backed Hezbollah has received at least a dozen of them. The Israelis feared that the low flying Ababils could come south, carrying a load of nerve gas or even just explosives. Using GPS guidance such a UAV could hit targets very accurately. That has never happened and Israel tweaked its air defense radars to detect small targets like Ababil.

Ababil should not come as a surprise. There's nothing exotic about UAV technology, at least for something like Ababil. By 2012 Hamas, in Gaza, had obtained some Ababils, but these were not seen in the air until the July 2014 war with Israel. Hamas claims to have used Ababil frequently to spy on Israel but there is no evidence for this (like recent photos taken of Israeli facilities).

Twice in July 2014 Israeli Patriot anti-aircraft missiles were used to shoot down Hamas Ababil UAVs sent to seek out or attack Israeli military targets. This was the first time Israeli Patriots had something to shoot down since the 1990s. Hamas admitted that it used its Ababil UAVs both for reconnaissance and, with the cameras replaced with explosives, as cruise missiles. Hamas also released pictures of an Ababil carrying four unguided rockets. This may have just been a propaganda photo because firing small, unguided rockets from an Ababil would not be very practical or effective.

Hezbollah has been using its Ababils mostly inside Lebanon, as Israel greatly improved their aircraft detection systems in the north after several Hezbollah attempts to get Ababils into Israel itself. Now there appears to be proof that Hezbollah has “weaponized” Ababils (or something similar) for use against al Qaeda. Israel fears they could be next on that target list but since 2014 Hezbollah has been kept busy in Syria.

With all this it is clear that it’s not a matter of if Islamic terrorists can used small commercial UAVs as mini-cruise missiles, but when. There are many existing weapons that can reliably knock down these UAVs, including sniper rifles or large (12.7mm and larger) machine-guns. The U.S. is spending a lot of money developing laser or electronic weapons to bring down these small UAVs of any type. The main problem is detecting the small UAVs in time, especially at night.

 


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