25 May 2006

When Drones Attack

Star Wars notwithstanding, clones don't worry me. This probably has something to do with the fact that I don't bet on competitive mule racing (They are pretty, if you're into farm animals.)

Drones are another story. In movies, like the 2005 Columbia Pictures release "Stealth" drones look like jet fighters with a few less windows, and in the movies, and in most of the Pentagon, are expensive systems built and operated by the big budget United States Department of Defense. The real world equivalent, the Navy's experimental X-47, doesn't look all that different:

But, the terrorists who keep me up at night are not the ones trying to buy nuclear weapons from China or North Korea or Iran, or the one's with aircraft purchased from multi-national defense contractors. Their drones are not the multi-million dolar efforts in the pictures above. The terrorists that I'm worried about stock up at Radio Shack and Walmart.

The incidents I'm worried about will look more like this:

The weapons I'm really worried about will look something like this:

The picture above comes with a caption that reads:

Imagine an enemy sniper hearing something behind him and turning around to see a 12-gauge about to send him to his reward. Imagine dozens of these little devils swarming over a battlefield, loaded with FRAG-12 grenade rounds.

Change the caption, and the nightmares begin:

Imagine a secret service agent in Idaho guarding the President giving a speech about his new public lands policy turning around to see a 12-gauge about hold him to his oath to sacrifice himself to save the President. Imagine the shot going through and around him, twenty times in a row, killing the President, the Governor of Idaho, and the Mayor of Boise.

[Note, this is a bipartisan issue. Armed drone technology is a potential threat to any public official or prominent private individual anywhere in the world. Like terrorists flying planes into buildings, it isn't pleasant to consider, but it is better to plan a response than to ignore the threat. I most certainly do not advocate harm to any of the good men and women who serve in the secret service, and please wring the neck of anyone who would commit the vile act that would leave Dick Cheney in charge our country.]

Unlike rogue nuclear bombers, who so far exist only in action movies, there is ample precedent for snipers terrorizing entire metropolitan areas, in recent times, in the United States, and in the not so distant past, one need look back only the John F. Kennedy. Consider men like Ohio freeway sniper Charles McCoy, who was sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison last summer, in exchange for dropping an insanity defense that left a first jury hung, fired on a dozen people over five months, killing one woman, leaving greater Columbus, Ohio is fear for the duration. And, greater Washington DC will not soon forget the Beltway Sniper Attacks over three weeks of October in 2002, that killed ten and injured three more people, committed by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo with a semi-automatic rifle fired through a hole in the trunk of a Chevy Caprice (and I'm sure they didn't pay full MSRP for a new one).

Real terrorists, for the most part, don't have multi-million budgets. The 9-11 attacks, the largest scale, more elaborate successful terrorist attack in U.S. history cost less than $770,000, a budget that wouldn't buy a single ballistic missile (the going rate is $29 million each), even at a dramatic discount. The London subway bombings cost less than $15,000 to mount. Federal prosecutors in the Timothy McVeigh trial estimated that the cost of mounting that attack was about $5,000 and the training was provided at U.S. government expense by the United States Army.

The era of drone missiles that began when the first Predator reconnaissance UAV was outfitted with a Hellfire missile and used to blow up a car full of alleged terrorist in Yemen on November 4, 2002, has not limited itself to sovereign military forces for long.

Armed militant groups have already tried to use unmanned aircraft, according to a number of studies by institutions including the Center for Nonproliferation studies in Monterey, California, and the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies in Moscow.

In August 2002, for example, the Colombian military reported finding nine small remote-controlled planes at a base it had taken from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

On April 11, 2005 the Lebanese Shiite militia group, Hezbollah, flew a pilotless drone over Israeli territory, on what it called a "surveillance" mission.

The "good guys" do not have a monopoly on electronics skill or wireless interfaces. Iraqi insurgents are already using improved explosive devices triggered by $100 cell phones. The remote controls necessary for a flying drone are, if anything, less sophisticated. And, not all remote controls can be easily jammed. An infrared remote control for a computer that operates on a line of sight with light waves, making it largely impervious to traditional radio jamming technology, is something an interested hobbiest can build with widely available raw electronics parts can build in a garage.

Of course, infrared remote controls can be jammed too, but you have to be prepared to jam everything that is out there, and a jamming device that works in an airport or living room isn't always useful in open air settings. While the remote controls used in television remotes have a short range of about 100 feet, the laser pointers your biology professor used in a 600 person survey class can reach aircraft in flight implying a much longer range.

We've been lucky so far. McCoy was a borderline crazy with no real agenda. Muhummad and Malvo just wanted a few million of cash. McVeigh had a grudge, not an agenda. But, a small group of determined terrorists domestic or foreign, with a more elaborate agenda and a modicum of technical expertise (certainly not much more than is required to rig up a suicide car bomb, and with less hard to obtain parts) could easily use small airborne drones, armed with conventional firearms to target random or high profile individuals with sniper fire in ways that could require months or years to catch them. And, if those individuals widely disseminated schematics and instructions, via the Internet, or perhaps more low technology approaches like mailing lists (recall the mimograph and mail box method used by the protagnoist in the 1997 movie "Conspiracy Theory"), capturing the perpetrator would not necessarily end the threat.

There isn't an easy solution to this problem. The technology has grown faster than responses to it can be developed. Banning all model airplanes is not the answer (building one from scratch with raw materials is a time honored tradition for serious hobbiests), and banning all firearms is not politically viable. The Beltway sniper attacks and Ohio Freeway sniper incidents illustrate just how difficult it is to take any sort of meaningful defensive measures against this kind of attack. For most residents of Columbus and Washington D.C. respectively, the only choice was to hope that of the millions of people in the area that you wouldn't be a target. Flying drones make traditional secret service tactics, like clearing the roofs of area buildings within firearms range and establishing protective perimeters of only limited value. Even individuals within buildings aren't safe. A drone can fly right up to a top floor office window, even if a desk is well out of sight lines from street level, secure visual contact with a target, and fire. A small drone with a pistol sized weapon might even destroy a window and enter the building, going up and down hallways. A plot like that would be audacious and unprecedented, but it wouldn't be terribly expensive or technologically untenable.

There are solutions. But, political leaders, for example, can't really be effective if they must cower in underground bunkers or heavily fortified compounds with anti-aircraft devices equipped to handle bird of prey sized targets twenty-four hours a day. Yes, public officials can wear flak jackets in public appearances.

But, ultimately, technological defenses to this kind of threat are futile. The first line of defense has to be to create a political environment where no one makes a deliberate effort to make this kind of attack, or at least, where anyone who does is quickly apprehended because there is no silent majority looking the other way in the face of suspicious activity, because while they are not willing to carry out attacks themselves, they don't care enough to stick out their necks to stop them.

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