Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Drones level the battlefield for extremists

Non-state actors using drones that cost a couple of grand to build are now pitted against some of the world’s most expensive and sophisticated weaponry.

Photo: Ars Electronica/Flickr
Photo: Ars Electronica/Flickr
Published 20 Apr 2018 

In early 2016, I contributed to an Armament Research Services (ARES) report on the use of commercially available drones by non-state actors in contemporary conflicts, including in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine. We predicted that the use of commercial drones, which up until that point had been used for reconnaissance purposes predominantly, would soon be regularly weaponised.

As recent events in Syria have shown, weaponised commercial drones are now a regular feature in a range of conflicts, notably involving non-state actors.

Drone use by non-state actors in the Middle East is not a new phenomenon. Libyan rebels spent more than US$100,000 buying a drone in 2011 to aid their fight against forces loyal to Gaddafi. Hezbollah has been operating Iranian-built drones against Israel for years, but these have been predominantly military-grade models and thus fairly sophisticated.

Things started to change in Syria and Iraq in 2014 when organisations such as ISIS began regularly using relatively cheap commercial drones. Since then there have been hundreds of reported uses of drones by ISIS and other armed non-state actors in Iraq and Syria.

In addition to direct military uses, ISIS in Syria has used drones to make professional-looking propaganda videos – a significant contrast to the chaotic and grainy images of mass executions and cheering jihadists of early ISIS videos.

What’s more, these commercial drones can easily have their range boosted, a fact not lost on ISIS’s online supporters, with at least one DIY manual on how to boost a drone’s capabilities appearing on a jihadist website.

A more spectacular use of commercial drones was seen on 5 January when a Syrian Islamist group sent a swarm of 13 home-made drones to attack Russian airbases. The Russian Ministry of Defence claimed that all were shot down with a mixture of electronic and kinetic countermeasures.

The Houthis in Yemen have also made effective use of drones in their fight against government forces and the Saudi-led coalition. In 2017, locally built “kamikaze” drones were reportedly used to target radar systems of Emirati Patriot missile batteries, the idea being to knock them out as a precursor to conventional missile attacks.

The Houthis have struck targets inside and outside Yemen with ballistic missiles, and US-supplied Patriot missile batteries are the primary defence against these attacks. The recent Houthi launch of seven missiles into Saudi Arabia has already highlighted weaknesses in the Patriot systems; dealing with tandem drone attacks is an added challenge operators can hardly afford.

Drones have not only appeared in the air. Houthi forces in Yemen have also conducted attacks on coastal shipping using remotely controlled IED “drone boats”. The most significant example was an attack on a Saudi frigate on 30 January.

The 5 January swarm attack in Syria is the most obvious example of how non-state actors, using drones that probably cost only a couple of thousand dollars to build, are pitted against some of the world’s most expensive and sophisticated weaponry. Herein lies the challenge for advanced militaries, such as Australia.

Current countermeasures struggle to deal with the threat posed by large numbers of cheap drones, and tend to be extremely expensive by comparison. The US military has recognised that it is impractical to rely on state-of-the-art multimillion-dollar aircraft and munitions to knock a drone worth $1000 out of the sky.

The lesson hasn’t been lost on senior Australian military figures. In January, Australia’s Lieutenant General Angus Campbell warned of the risk posed by drones in the hands of non-state actors.


Increasingly, jamming is seen as the most effective countermeasure against small commercial drones. However, drones are becoming more and more autonomous, nullifying the ability of jammers to take them down. Kinetic solutions are the usual recourse, but small drones are extremely tough or expensive to take out. As a result, a number of different countermeasures are being explored, ranging from lasers to trained eagles, although as yet it seems none of these solutions is easy, cheap, or completely effective.

It can be argued that the now regular appearance of cheap, often commercially purchased drones in the hands of non-state actors marks a shift in modern asymmetric warfare. Non-state groups today have access to the kind of operational awareness previously held only by state militaries.

This has serious policy implications for Western powers, such as Australia, who seek to limit the capabilities of militant organisations on the ground, as well as the domestic terrorism threat that they could pose.  

To ensure that drones they don’t fall easily into the hands of organisations such as ISIS, continued investment in new technologies to counter them will be needed, and the market for dual-use technologies will likely require more stringent regulation by national and international legal regimes.

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