Drones as Cheap WMD? A Skeptical Take


So this blog is the TerrorWonk, but I don’t seem to be writing much about terrorism these days. Hell I don’t seem to be writing much of anything lately. (I’ve done a bunch of academic writing that I need to post, but we’ll get to that later.)

A lot of terrorism analysis (is lousy, but that’s another issue) focuses on groups. I’m not so deeply embedded in following ins and outs that I have so much to say anymore. But I do still think about terrorism conceptually and in particular applying my maxim that counter-terrorism is the practical application of Murphy’s Law.

So, with the throat clearing out of the way…

The Scenario
I was at a workshop and a speaker discussed how, with advances in AI, small commercial drones could be fitted with a small amount of explosives and then autonomously target people – one drone/one person. A million of these drones could fit in a cargo container and, on arrival, be set loose on the city devastating it.

It seemed a little sensational to me and the more I thought about it, the less likely it appeared.

Technical Challenges
First, the engineering would be non-trivial. Assuming AI (and in particular computer vision) could fly around a city and identify people as people, there would still be a some pretty tough problems to solve. The drone involved is pretty small, loading it with processors, sensors, and explosives (people over-estimate the ease of engineering explosives) is going to add weight. That will limit range and speed (or you need a bigger drone – and thus more cargo containers – more on why that is an issue below.)

Building a small drone that can find and kill a person is theoretically possible, but not easy. (Here’s what DOD is doing with experimental micro-drones). Let’s assume this complex engineering feat can be overcome, actually deploying it will present a lot of other difficulties.

Deployment Dilemmas
How is this million swarm of killer drones (WMDrone) to be delivered? We have it in a cargo container, but then what? This very nice (and not so tiny) drone has about 30 minutes of flying time. So, how does this work? Do you just release them from the port authority? Will 30 minutes flying time get them to their targets? Won’t people notice the swarm of drones flying around the city? What if people go inside?

Also, will the drones need to be packed during shipping? They have explosives and stuff. Unpacking a million drones is a non-trivial endeavor. It requires time, space, and people.

For this to work, the drones need to start near their targets. They need to be transported, hidden, and prepared. This requires having a logistical base and personnel. The problem is that people do stupid stuff (like get pulled over or really insist on getting their deposit back) and get caught. The more moving parts, the more possibilities for something going wrong.

Let’s imagine an adversary has a reliable network of supporters and can secure the necessary safe houses.

Logistics Limitations
So in a quick search the least expensive drone I found was this mini quadcopter. It only flies for five minutes and weighs 2 ounces. It is small enough that large numbers could be transported and hidden. Let’s imagine with technology improvements it can have enough of a sensor and explosive to do the job, and a network exists to keep large numbers close to a crowd until the right moment.

The drone costs $20, so for a million of them (plus the additional engineering, tens of thousands of pounds of explosives, testing, transportation, acquiring space, paying personnel) and this becomes a pretty expensive project. Even if money were no object, carrying out a project on this scale would have a pretty significant footprint. There would be thousands of tests to ensure the things worked. There would be a pretty extensive supply chain. How does one order a million drones? Where would the testing take place?

Some of these problems could be overcome, the critical question would be about the adversary.

Capabilities and Motivation
A nation-state could overcome a lot of these challenges. A hundred million dollar project is not inconceivable. The drones could be transported over time through diplomatic pouch to the nation’s Embassy and then released when everything was in place.

But would this be an effective tool for advancing national interest? Nations pursue WMD for deterrence, but as we all know from Dr. Strangelove, you cannot deter if the other player does not know you possess the system. The WMDrone could not be revealed, otherwise counter-measures could be deployed, rending the system useless for deterrence.

Maybe a nation would choose to use the WMDrone for a decapitation strike. But it might not work. First, given all of these technical challenges, the things could just fail. Also, given the logistical and operational footprint of the project it could be discovered beforehand. The nation building the WMDrone would need to construct facilities, hire experts, and write analysis papers. The intelligence agencies of its adversaries might notice. Even if they got to deployment, nations tend to spy on the Embassies and diplomatic personnel of their adversaries as well. The costs of being caught carrying out this plot would also be high.

Terrorists might find the WMDrone quite appealing. They would have the desire, but the capability would be lacking. First, it is expensive. Terrorists usually do not have tens of millions of dollars for R&D. Second, because they act clandestinely, extensive testing would be difficult. Also, the mechanics of purchasing and assembling a million of these devices for a secret group would be very, very challenging. Finally, in the actual delivery phase, they would not benefit from an official tolerated infrastructure the way a nation-state would.

Terrorists might find a much smaller deadly drone attack – say a few hundred – possible. But this would not be easy to do. Let’s emphasize, right now the technology needed does not exist. Frankly a terrorist group that can get hold of a couple dozen pounds of high quality explosives has much simpler and sure-fire options.

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2 Responses

  1. Drones as "MWD" is an odd way of looking at it. I would think the thing you're basically trying to cheaply replace with a fleet of mass producible drone weapons is ground troops (this is effectively how they're used now, though not large numbers). The reason it's a semi plausible new threat is that in large scale conflicts, often times swarm strategies are effective: having cheap, easier to replace tanks gave US armor and advantage over much more well constructed but much more expensive German tanks. Drones conceivably occupy the natural maximum endpoint of that approach. The cheaper you can make effective killing drones, the better they are from a pure industrial strategy point of view. It's also a method that can theoretically absorb a lot of inefficiency-even if you've got a relatively high rate of failure, it can still be worth it just because you can mass produce so many. Given the uncertainties of warfare, that kind of thing is a huge feature.

    The other advantage that drones conceivably bring to bear is a platform that scales up with programming technology that we already know in other contexts can be very finely developed. The problem of a shipping container (or what have you) of drones unpacking itself is something that should be substantially solvable with programming. And the sky's the limit for what can be done with coordinated assaults.

    There may be some simple, reliable countermeasure to a swarm of killer drones, but off the top of my head I can't think of one.

  2. Hey, thanks for your comment. Always glad when someone reads my stuff. Anyway, no question drones are going to reshape battlefields. I was responding to a particular nightmare scenario of lots of little cheap drones (like a million) as a low-cost way of taking out a city – cheap WMD. It was by an academic who is famous for spinning nightmare scenarios. Making said drones is maybe doable, although they might not stay all that cheap given the needed capabilities. But I think there are a bunch of other problems bringing such a plan to fruition. As for counter-measures – well if there is a swarm of tiny inexpensive drones killing people walking around a city, they might go inside. Giving these drones the ability to blow down doors or windows strikes me as a significant additional complication.

    I am curious about self-unpacking drones. Seems hard to do.

    Thanks again for reading.

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