At the tail end of 2018, a terrorist incident in the UK managed to shut down an international airport.
No-one knows who the perpetrators were, or what their motivations may have been, but the person or persons behind the Gatwick drone fiasco of 19 – 20 December 2018 cost airline companies in excess of $60 million, as well as disrupting the everyday lives of more than 100,000 travelers.
It was easy to do, and for the perpetrator, it was cheap.
There is a standard trope in movies and literature, whereby the hero, with minimal training or preparation, deals a devastating blow to society.
He might be taking down corrupt financial institutions, he could be a component of the Matrix, or he might be fighting against the evil Galactic Empire. You know which films we’re referencing here, but it could be almost anything churned out of a major movie studio in the last half century.
Luke came straight off the farm, became an X-wing pilot, and immediately destroyed the first Death Star. Within weeks of being yanked from the goo tank, Neo was deflecting bullets and dealing serious damage to the many iterations of Mr Smith.
But that’s because they’re the hero, you say. They come equipped with special powers to help them fight against the forces of darkness. And besides it’s part of an established storytelling mechanism called the “Hero’s Journey.”
You’re right, of course, and we’re impressed with your knowledge of literary techniques. Another part of the trope is that the underdog actually wins. Faced with the might of an empire, a police state, or global cabal, the plucky hero begins as less than zero, and eventually triumphs. Historically, that has rarely been the case.
To deal the kind of financial damage we saw at Gatwick last year, you don’t need to be an inspiring leader, have pseudo-magical powers, or even be the underdog (and therefore the inevitable victor). You can do it in any city on the planet. You can close down infrastructure and disrupt an entire country to address legitimate grievances – or you can do it for kicks.
When the police went looking for suspects, they settled on Paul Gait, a window fitter, and his partner, Elaine Kirk. They turned his life upside down, wrecked his house in the search for evidence, and questioned the pair for 36 hours. Sussex Police force’s reasoning was flawless. Here is a man who lives a mere 40 miles away from the airport, and is a known drone enthusiast. But the searches and relentless questioning revealed nothing.
You can buy them from Costco, or Amazon. You can purchase in bulk from Alibaba, where drones are so cheap as to be almost disposable. And then, you can train as a drone pilot from the comfort of your own PC.
Anyone can do it.
Can you imagine a fully loaded 747 hitting something the size of a brick as the aircraft makes its final approach at around 170 MPH? Or that same brick slamming into one of the engines of an Airbus A380 as it lifts off at 195 MPH, carrying 800 passengers and nearly 300 tons of jet fuel?
Exactly. And that’s why, in this age of cheap drones, you barely need to do anything to close down a major international airport. The threat is real and clear, and taking risks simply isn’t worth it for civil authorities.
We contacted four UK airports and asked some fairly pointed questions about their drone preparedness. Liverpool Airport did not acknowledge receipt of the request, but Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands Airport issued a joint statement:
“All MAG airports have robust safety management plans in place to deal with the risk of drones, which are prepared in consultation with local police forces. We welcome the Government’s recent announcement of additional powers for police officers, allowing them to more easily land, seize and search drones. Following recent events at other UK airports we are continually engaged with the Department for Transport, other government agencies and local police forces to identify additional improvements that may further mitigate the risk posed by drones, taking into account developments in technology, laws and regulations”
It’s a bullshit statement. It doesn’t say a lot, and the emphasis is on dealing with the actual physical threat posed by drones, rather than the perceived threat.
The mere fact that the technology exists is enough to bring about panic, bewilderment, and indecision.
After all, there were no confirmed sightings of the drone which shut down Gatwick Airport. It may even have been a prank call or a misidentified seagull, later confused with the police’s own drone, which was deployed later on in the sequence of mayhem.
For now, the only response available to airports is to close the runways if there is a suspicion that drones are in the area.
The Gatwick incident may have been amateur hour, it may have been a genuine mistake, or it may have been a practice run , a rehearsal for something more. And it has certainly provided inspiration. The Islamic State has begun producing propaganda posters, showing drones targeting Western cities. Last year, a swarm of explosive laden commercially available drones attacked a Russian military base in Syria. Similar tactics were used to delay the final assaults on ISIS strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul.
Not quite so cheap, and certainly not cheerful
Disrupting civilian infrastructure and causing general havoc is one thing, but for military use, the would-be rebels/freedom fighters/plucky underdogs/terrorists need to have dedicated hardware. In the world of drones, the epitome would be the General Atomics Avenger. The Avenger can carry 3,500 pound of munitions, is invisible to radar, and can stay up in the sky all day long.
But at an estimated cost of $15 million per unit, it’s probably a little on the pricey side for any ragtag bunch of misfits. Far more budget friendly are one-shot drones, which carry an explosive payload, fly in fast, and then detonate near their target.
You may be aware of the Houthi insurgency in Yemen which has been raging since 2004, and which stepped up a notch in 2015, with the intervention of middle eastern military giant Saudi Arabia, backed by American air support.
Much to everybody’s surprise, the rebels have been more-or-less holding their own in the conflict – in no small part due to their acquisition of low cost Qasef drones from Iran. In 2017, insurgents used the drones to disable patriot missile defence systems by explosive decommissioning of their radar sets, and having achieved some degree of air superiority in the drone space, moved onto other targets – notably managing to kill the Yemeni Intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Saleh Tammah, along with five others in January 2019.
If the US made Avenger drone is an iPhone XS Max, then the Qasef K2 is an antique Nokia-Mobira Cityman. It is based on 1980s tech, and is powered by a small, two cylinder Chinese motor. It’s rough and ready, easy to use, and it’s cheap.
Of course, it’s not particularly easy for the homegrown anarchist to buy direct from Iran. But there is a new player in the attack drone market. One which already has munitions on the shelves of your local Walmart, and sporting goods stores across the country.
We are, of course, taking about former Soviet munitions behemoth, Kalashnikov.
While the Qasef is the size of a divan, and can carry 75 pounds of explosives, Kalashnikov’s KUB-UAV is small and elegant – about the size of a coffee table, and can carry six pounds of whatever you want. It’s the Nokia E90 of high speed exploding objects.
Kalashnikov is trying to shrink the gap between large, well funded militaries, and those operating on a shoestring budget from a cave in Afghanistan. Or Utah. Or France. Or wherever suitable launch sites can be found.
Because let’s not kid ourselves. These dinky little guided missiles are not going to be limited to the gory battlefields of the Arabian peninsula.
There are now at least three players in the drone game, and an eager customer base. The market is maturing, and we can expect to see the production lines in Guangzhou preparing for the inevitable raft of even lower cost, lower quality imitators.
Technology brings democratization of regimes, of utilities, of work, and of communications. It has democratized terror, too.