The examples above show the somewhat self-explanatory threats in both a security and battlefield context, but to expand further…

Security Context

The most common threat seems to be mostly non-malicious, careless use of commercial UAS near airports or groups of people for example.

Terrorist threats might seem far-fetched but the media attention given to ‘drones’ plays into their potential use against civilians. Most systems cannot lift heavy payloads but in many regards, they don’t need to.

The videos below shows a commercial DJI Phantom drone used to carry a flag into a football stadium during a match between Serbia and Albania in October 2014. The match was pretty much a fight from start to finish but the drone incident resulted in a brawl and riot, leading to the match suspension.

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A small explosive charge surrounded by nuts and bolts can be devastatingly effective in the right circumstances, instead of a flag. From a terror and societal disruption perspective, imagine what would happen if that explosive were replaced with a bag of flour and a warning about anthrax, and instead of a Serbia-Albania match, it was the FA Cup.

Some manufacturers have started to look at arming these relatively low-cost systems. The South African company Desert Wolf is offering an 8 prop unit that is equipped with 4 paintball barrels and a hopper containing 4,000 pepper balls for riot control. It can also carry strobe lights and eye safe lasers.

In the USA, a company called Chaotic Moon has developed one that can carry a Taser.

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It is not beyond the realm of the impossible that these systems could be obtained by terrorists and weaponised with alternative payloads.

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Battlefield Context

On a future battlefield, we cannot assume the enemy will not have access to unmanned systems.

They may not be as sophisticated as ours, but that is not really the point.

Their most obvious use is the equivalent of the age old technique of climbing a hill and looking beyond, i.e. intelligence gathering.

What makes them such a threat has almost nothing to do with their capabilities, or lack thereof, it is their potential for ubiquity driven by mass market cost reduction.

Sophisticated military unmanned systems are expensive and it is this that puts them out of reach of many of our potential enemies but when those potential enemies can buy one from Amazon for hundreds of dollars then the specification difference between proper military systems and remote control toys becomes of decreasing relevance, their very lack of sophistication and low cost becomes the problem because it will drive us to counter with increasingly expensive measures.

3D printing designs shared online and open source control software means that the technology cannot be contained and given this, we can also make a case that innovation cycles will turn over faster in the commercial market than the military.

Beyond just looking…

Current commercial offerings are designed around the carriage of a video or still camera payload and the means to transmit to a control station, roughly the same weight as a hand grenade or two.

With a bit of imagination, one could see an enterprising and imaginative enemy using 50 of these, each carrying an explosive and bag of nails to simply fly to a pre-programmed pattern above a military airfield and destroy a handful of very expensive but very fragile Typhoons or F35’s.

Impossible you say, except the software is freely available online that enables swarming behaviour and formation flying, not remotely piloted. The enemy would not need 50 pilots as each would formate against a pre-arranged pattern to maximise fragmentation coverage and all it would take is a large commercial van to carry them.

A poor man’s cluster bomb.

The Taliban attacked Camp Bastion and destroyed six percent of the USMC’s Harrier inventory, they were housed in fabric shade shelters.

Bastion Harrier

Threats are increased by swarming systems, again, these are advancing, although still mostly in academia and government.

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This subject is interesting because of the relative economic exchange rates, buy a hundred, arm them with a grenade, pre-programme to fly over a military airfield and drop their grenades in a pattern to maximise fragmentation coverage and you have a very effective means of putting very expensive combat aircraft and helicopters out of action, maybe not permanently but certainly good enough to do a denial job.

A command detonated Claymore mine weighs less than 2Kg but has an effective range of approximately 50m. Although it is an anti-personnel system, the effect on light vehicles, helicopters or aircraft would be equally devastating.

All far-fetched, perhaps, but consider one of the fastest growing areas for civilian drone systems is for package delivery. Package delivery might be for something from Amazon or an emergency flotation device for a swimmer in difficulty, both have been demonstrated.

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Substitute the parcel for an anti-personnel mine or unintended ground sensor, all of a sudden, it seems less far-fetched.

More conventional defence manufacturers are also exploiting commercial UAS.

During RAE15, Oleg Sienko, General Director of Uralvagonzavod said;

The use of a drone on the T-15 heavy infantry fighting vehicle is envisioned. This is an indispensable element in the tactical level. It is extremely difficult to move in a convoy without seeing

This videos below from RT (as usual, treat with a pinch of salt) show an AT-29 anti-armour rocket being fired from a commercial UAS.

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How would the British Army defend against this today, not in a few years, today?

At the recent MPSO defence exhibition in Poland, the Polish Military Institute of Armament Technology (WITU) showcased a weaponised commercial UAS called the Dragonfly that could penetrate up to 200mm of RHA in a top attack profile, a conventional blast fragmentation warhead was also shown.


The battlefield threat is twofold, their use in intelligence gathering today and the potential for weaponisation tomorrow, and as can be seen; the latter is becoming a reality very soon

Table of Contents

This article is split into six sections;

  • Introduction; this page
  • More than Toys although some of them are toys, many are not. Modern professional systems are used in agriculture, survey, civil engineering, telecommunications and other sectors where durability and capability are key requirements. As technology improves, those capabilities can be exploited in the defence sector.
  • Threats and Examples of Use; recent examples of criminal and combat-related use of low-cost civilian UAS and a discussion of potential threats as the technology matures.
  • Counters; in response to increasing use, the defence and security industry has responded with a wide variety of countermeasures.
  • Opportunities; if others can exploit this technology, why not the reverse, a look at potential means by which UK forces can use a low-cost civilian system derived UAS
  • Summary; a summary!
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