Drones, Cyber and IED Threats

By Roger Davies / 5 June 2016 / Ikarus, Insights, Intel Analysis, TechInt, Technology, Terrorism

In the 14th and 15th century the invention and broadening of the use of gunpowder revolutionised warfare.  Prior to the use of gunpowder a siege of a castle would take typically 12 months – afterwards it would typically take 3 weeks.   War-changing technology was the provenance of the state. It took national levels of commitment to make quantities of gunpowder, to build Dreadnought battleships, to manufacture Spitfires, Messerschmidt 109s, P51 Mustangs and tanks, or to build U-boat, polaris submarines or ICBMs.  The threats took time to emerge.

A Dreadnought battleship

A Dreadnought battleship

Today there is something new in terms of the technology of conflict.  Several things, in fact. There is a fundamental change that has taken place imperceptibly but nonetheless radically.  Today we are faced with three technologies that are changing the way warfare and crime (against the state or otherwise) can be prosecuted.  These technologies are related to Drones, Cyber and IEDs.

There are a series of vitally important common factors for all of these technologies that perhaps have not been fully recognised, and it important to understand.  These key factors relate not to the technology themselves but to application of them – and it makes them even more radical.

The first of these is that these technologies are in the hands of individuals and small groups who can apply them almost at will.  These technologies are cheap and freely available just about to anyone in the world.  That is a game changer and multiplies the threat.

The second is that they are unconstrained by the rules of war.   Until now, nation states had a degree of informal agreement on what was legal to employ in war. Furthermore, most democratic nation states were further constrained in the way in which they applied the will of the people in the manner in which they supported their nation.  With the radical technologies of drones, cyberattacks and IEDs, no such constraints apply. An individual or a small group can apply any one of these technologies to dramatic effect, allowing lunatics, extremists and criminals a greater say in the manner in which human culture develops. They can reach targets that frankly were once invulnerable, facilitate criminal activity that will take national level efforts to counter and all with less and less accountability and cost and risk to the criminal or evil actor. These threats provide the undeserving with power.

The next factor is that each can, in theory, be deployed somewhat anonymously. In the 17th century your enemy might sap your castle walls but you knew who was doing it and could take action against them.   In the early 20th century the Dreadnought that sank your ship was hiding whose flag it sailed under.  if you were strafed by a P51 Mustang you could be pretty sure who your enemy was.  But a drone, a cyber attack or an IED is much harder to pin down.  Who is your enemy and where are they?

The final aspect of these threats is the targets which they can be applied against.   No longer is it nations and governments which face these complex, hi-tech threats. It is also commercial organisations and indeed individuals.  Interestingly one aspect that hasn’t been broadly understood is that very often the parts of government that face them haven’t traditionally had to face hi-tech threats.   To give two examples – on the US Mexican border there are plenty of drones being used. But pretty much all of them are not being used by the US or Mexican border agencies. Virtually all of them are being used by the drug cartels, to transport narcotics or conduct ISR. The cartels are even, reportedly, using counter -drone technology in the form of GPS jammers to disrupt those few US drones that face them. Banning GPS jammers won’t have much effect on that as the user isn’t renowned for its willingness to rely on laws.  So the US Border agencies are facing a highly dynamic, innovative threat, that simply goes around expensive walls, fences and other 16th century technology.  It is cheaper for a narco-gang to invest in a virtually disposable drone than invest in time and risk digging a tunnel. The second example is prisons, which globally are facing drone technology delivering contraband into prisons, again simply by-passing the technology of fences, walls and barbed wire.

I don't normally read the Sun...

I don’t normally read the Sun…

So the responsibility for countering the threat becomes one for many government departments and not just the defence department. Similarly with cyber threats.  We see traditional defence departs the world over simply scratching their heads and struggling to even define the threat never mind develop a counter to it.   In 1914 it wasn’t the man on the street whose personal responsibility it was to counter the technological threat of the dreadnought.  Whatever that person, that man in the street, neither enabled or defeated that threat. But today with cyber threats abounding a regular run of the mill employee can by poor security awareness be subject to “phishing” or introduce a virus onto an IT system with devastating consequences to a commercial or government entity, or his own bank account.

Many of these factors are obfuscated when we talk of “asymmetric” warfare, a term which has limited use and tends to lead discussion of how we must adapt our conventional thinking. Frankly one could argue we need to be more radical ourselves, and start afresh rather than adapt our clumsy 20th century thinking by bolting more armour on to targets that will remain targets for bigger bombs, or building bigger walls that drones can fly over with impunity.

One aspect of the threat however remains from 20th century defensive thinking, and is perhaps even more important.  The first step towards countering these threats is to understand them, define them, and track their dynamics. Of course that’s “intelligence” and that’s what IMSL are all about.  There are two aspects of the threat,  I think – firstly the technology and second how it is being used.   This is particularly important with regard to IEDs because the technology isn’t in fact new – its simply that the skills for employing them have improved as the user realises that there is so little a target can do to counter them effectively.  The terrorist also know that our cultures will spend billions on defending ourselves and that will be a drain on our economies.

IMSL is looking hard at all three of these evolving threats based originally on our Counter-IED threat understanding but now with our own drone intelligence expertise of Project Ikarus, and with some key partners in the the cyber domain. We think it’s important work. Never has the threat horizon been so dynamic and challenging.