The Persian Gulf Region is Facing an Urgent Drone Threat

Recent incidents in the Persian Gulf region are in the headlines and making a lot of people, from oil industry insiders and defense experts to beach-going tourists very nervous. Over the past few days, militants belonging to the rebel group known as Ansarullah or the “Houthis”, have stepped up their campaign to bring the 5-year long Yemen War to the skies over Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Incidents include:

  • 14 May: An armed drone penetrates Saudi airspace and damages an oil pipeline near Riyadh
  • 20 May: An unconfirmed missile launch on Mecca. Saudi officials claim they intercepted two missiles before they reached their targets in the city, but Houthis vehemently deny attacking on Islam’s holiest site
  • 21 May: An armed drone attack on Najran (Saudi Arabia) airport. The airport is principally civilian in nature but houses a military base
  • 22 May: A second armed drone attack on Najran. Saudi officials acknowledge the incident, but do not comment on the extent of damage or casualties

To these latest incidents, add unconfirmed reports of drone attacks on airports in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2018 and a deadly exploding UAV over a Yemeni military parade in January 2019 and it’s clear that the Gulf has a drone problem. It’s an issue that has the members of the Saudi-led Gulf Coalition, as well as farther-flung allies like the United States, worried. And it’s not likely to disappear anytime soon and the Yemen War drags on for another deadly year.

No End in Sight

A years-long conflict that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions, the war in Yemen is also notable for the rapid technological and strategical evolution of a formerly rag-tag band of fighters from the country’s poor northeast. In a relatively short time the Houthis have advanced from traditional ground battles to effective and deadly use of drone and missile technology, often calqued on low-cost military equipment supplied by their Iranian allies.

As noted in an earlier article on our blog, Houthis are reworking fairly simple Iranian Qasef 1/Ababil T model UAVs by adding commercially available GNSS systems and either adding locally made bomb-releasing materials or using the drones as kamikazes to ram targeted infrastructure. The drone attack carried out over al-Anand (Yemen) airforce base demonstrated with multiple casualties the effectiveness of this new technique.

Not facing a military drone threat, but having trouble with intrusive DJI-style consumer drones? Read on to find out how you can successfully deal with civilian drone threats.

Local Drone Threats

As a security administrator or a sensitive site, you probably aren’t facing a Houthi-style insurgency. But, don’t let your guard down just yet. Consumer drones, also known as “COTS” (Commercial Off The Shelf) drones, have been causing quite a few headaches themselves, often without so much a firing a shot.

So, what can you, the security administrator of an oil pipeline, airport or prison authority, or other sensitive site do to stop an intruding drone? As seen during the December 2018 Gatwick incident, the dangers associated with using firearms or radio frequency jamming to bring down a drone make these options nearly impossible in sensitive or urban environments.

And even if your security team manages to destroy the offending device, with drones becoming cheaper and cheaper, a motivated pilot could simply buy a new one and try again.

So, what to do?

Detect the Drone, Catch the Pilot

Simple right? Except when it’s not. Imagine your sensitive site sits in the middle of a dense urban area, surrounded by a tangle of dark alleyways, shuttered warehouses, and private residences. Add to that a thick hale of light, sound and radiofrequency pollution. Now, in that middle of all that mess, try spotting a tiny drone traveling at bursts of 25kph – 30kph (15mph – 20mph) using only your 5 senses. Nine times out of ten you won’t.

And what about the pilot? He could be hiding within a 7 kilometer (4 miles) radius, safely ensconced in any of those alleyways, warehouses or private houses that you don’t have the right to search. It seems grim – and it is! But there’s a solution.

Radio Frequency – Your Site Could Benefit From It

CerbAir uses radiofrequency sensors to detect drones at up to 2km in dense urban settings like the one described above. Our Hydra sensor is able to cut through the ambient noise and frequency pollution thanks to specialized algorithms that “listen” for the distinct communication style that exists between most drones and their remote controls. Even when you can’t see or hear a drone in your vicinity it’s giving off signals that can be detected and be used to flush out its location.

Those same signals can also lead you back to the remote control – and the person operating it. With pilot geolocation, a remote can be pinpointed to within +/- 10° of its actual position, making it much easier for local law enforcement to locate the pilot. Once apprehended, the threat itself is neutralized without the use of complicated and potentially dangerous drone interception techniques.

More Information

Want to know more about radio frequency and drone detection methods? Click here to download our White Paper on choosing the right anti-drone solution for your sensitive site.

Curious about drone regulations in the Gulf Region? Click here to download our overview of drone regulations in countries around the world, including the United Arab Emirates.

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UAS Technology Catches the Eye of UK and US Militaries

UK Defence Minister Gavin Williamson’s announcement that British armed forces are in the midst of developing drone “squadrons” created a buzz in both the defense and UAS worlds. Appearing at an engagement at the Royal United Services Institute, Mr. Williamson spoke of swarms of tiny UAS steered by a single pilot and designed to saturate and eventually completely overwhelm enemy air defenses.

The move comes as the Minister maneuvers to close budget and manpower shortages by employing AI and a combination of commercial and military technology.

The US Air Force Joins the Game

Britain is far from alone in its interest as cheaper drone models are seducing military strategists worldwide. In 2018, the Pentagon included UAS among the emerging technologies it was looking to incorporate into its new “Flight Path” strategy for the US Air Force. It came to that conclusion after Red Team exercises revealed that traditional staples of US air power like Predator and Global Hawk military drones were becoming a thing of the past.

“Gremlins” – DARPA’s project to “develop a full-scale technology demonstration featuring the air recovery of multiple low-cost, reusable UAS.”

“What we see is that the traditional big wing ISR has been routinely losing effectiveness over time,noted Kenneth Bray, the Air Force’s deputy chief for ISR, at a conference held in August 2018, adding that the Pentagon was not going to wait to move forward with new innovations, even if there will still a few kinks to work out.

Drones, specifically devices made of lower cost, sometimes mass-produced materials, provide an interesting alternative to the much more expensive Predators of old. And they bring with them the additional benefit of speed, with their artificial intelligence powered sensors and processors allowing airmen more leeway to think critically rather than merely process data according to another official.

From a Trickle to a Torrent

Of course, those in know are aware that expensive materials and sophisticated AI aren’t obligatory to turn a drone into a military asset.

The separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine has been marked by a steady stream of commercial and locally produced drones employed by both sides in a surprisingly wide variety of roles: providing surveillance footage of on the emplacement of artillery, tanks, and rocket systems, smuggling of provisions and even “kamikaze” drones designed to be sacrificed in an attack on enemy forces.

An emphasis on surveillance and attack was similarly observed in fights with the Islamic State during the Syrian Civil War as well as the effort to push the jihadist fighters out of Mosul, Iraq. Coalition troops regularly reported being harassed by quadcopters and dozens of Iraqi troops were killed or wounded by 40-millimeter grenades and light explosives dropped from UAS buzzing just out of reach, described by one serviceman as “killer bees.”

In most cases the devices were either off-the-shelf hobby drones modified to carry a single explosive or locally-produced UAS whipped up out of mix of homemade and commercially available parts, often sourced through third parties from unsuspecting wholesalers in Europe and Asia.

Beyond the Middle East, Islamic State affiliates in the Philippines, Libya and Yemen have reportedly used drones for surveillance as well Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

For Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, nothing can stop the coming flood of UAS expected to darken the skies of battlefields all over the globe: “The U.S. military and any military has to prepare for an operating environment in which enemy drones are not just occasional, but omnipresent,” adding, “Whether it’s a small, tactical UAS, midsize or strategic, drones of any size will be commonplace on the battlefield of the future.

The Chinese and Iranian Factors

The easy availability of drone technology itself might be partly to blame for their increasing presence in war. The devices can be mass-produced cheaply, parts are simple to procure and online vendors can ship them to virtually any part of the world.

Even for UAS specifically conceived for combat, prices are falling as producers like China are challenging American dominance in the field in more ways than one. A report on drone proliferation in the Middle East released by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies noted that in addition to the relatively low cost of Chinese made drones, China’s “no questions asked” sales methods did much to contribute to the jump in drone numbers in Middle Eastern nations:

“Purchasing armed drones from China, a country which does not abide by the MTCR, enables them to gain access to this technology without being barred by international norms. Although Chinese operators often conduct initial sorties, including combat ones, they do not appear to insist on particular procedures but instead enable and teach new users to employ their armed UAVs as they wish.”

The report also names Iran as an emerging manufacturer of low cost (and no strings attached) UAV technology, noting that Iran does discriminate between state and non-state actors such as insurgent groups. Though evidence and details are still “feeble”, it is suspected that Iran “might have supplied armed drones to Hamas, Hizbullah and the Houthis as well as the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

As noted in a previous blog post, some non-state groups have become particularly adept at adapting Iranian or Chinese low-grade military drone technology with the addition of commercial parts or technology to produce a sort of “Frankendrone” that while clunky, gets the job done.

The Houthi rebels of Yemen are an excellent example of this. In January 2019 they sent an armed Iranian-made Qasef-1 fitted with civilian GPS to attack a Government military parade, killing several including a high-ranking intelligence official.

A Problem of Speed

Even though militaries appear to be enthusiastic about the potential of UAS and well aware of the risks stemming from its proliferation – actual rollout of reliably functional battle drones seems to be proceeding at a slower pace than many would prefer.

In the case of the UK, many were skeptical of Williamson’s promise that the UK could develop drone swarm squadrons “ready to be deployed by the end of this year (2019)” with one expert stating that the idea of swarm drones was “very much at the concept stage, and it’s very unlikely he can meet the deadline of the end of the year.

Indeed, for the moment the most dynamic players in the new drone arms race appear to be non-state actors, who faced with the overwhelming fire power and budgets of traditional state militaries are making due with what they can find and in an often very effective and potentially deadly way. It seems necessity really is the mother of invention.

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Yemen Drone Attack is Indicative of Worrisome Trend

Is the Yemen Attack a Sign of Things to Come?

On January 10th a clutch of high-ranking officers in Yemen’s Hadi-led government army gathered at Al Anand military base. Seated on a raised dais, they surveyed the soldiers arranged in orderly rows before them while cordial speeches praising the bravery and fighting prowess of the armed forces blasted from tinny loudspeakers.

Continue reading “Yemen Drone Attack is Indicative of Worrisome Trend”