National Security

Drone Terrorism Revisited

Back in April of 2017, I wrote about the new weapon of terrorism: drones. In the article titled, The New Weapon of the Islamic State, I talked about how ISIS was converting commercially available off-the-shelf drones into weapon- carrying vehicles and how they were being used to combat our troops. It seems that the idea may not have gone away. ISIS’s use of the small drones sparked an entire industry in battling such devices. The focus was, of course, for military purposes, but as we have all seen this last week at Gatwick Airport in London, drones have become an issue again.

Gatwick Airport, also known as London Gatwick, is a major international airport near West Sussex in southeast England, about 29 miles from London. Gatwick is the second-busiest airport by total passenger traffic in the United Kingdom. The only airport in England to see more traffic is London Heathrow. Gatwick is the eighth-busiest airport in Europe. According to statistics, in 2017, 45.6 million passengers traveled through the airport.

This last week Gatwick was shut down repeatedly because of “drone activity” in and around the airport. The drones were viewed as a threat to air traffic safety which caused the closure of the airport in the height of holiday travel.  This shutdown caused thousands of passengers to miss flights, connections, or have their travel plans outright canceled. The disruption did not stop there, as Gatwick delays reverberated throughout the world’s other airports, and schedules were disrupted.

The Government’s Response

The English government responded with sending military as well as massive numbers of law enforcement into the area to find the drone operators and ensure the safety of air travel.

As was done in Iraq to counter the ISIS drone threat, the British Army and RAF specialists lined up a vast array of countermeasures. These included a hi-tech tracking system of the kind used in the struggle to liberate Mosul in northern Iraq, deployed in tandem with “drone killer” equipment. The British Army deployed one of six Drone Domes it had purchased a few months ago from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

The Drone Dome pinpoints the suspicious drone and jams the radio frequencies used by its operator to control it. The drone then either flies out of control or crashes to the ground. The system incorporates cutting-edge technologies including electro-optics, radar, and signal intelligence. The Drone Dome system reportedly has been used to protect against hostile drones during battles against ISIS in Mosul and eastern Syria.

(Credit: DroneShield/YouTube)

Police were also deployed, armed with Heckler & Koch rifles as one of the measures taken to stop the rogue drone operators threatening the airport. Authorities from the British government expressed concern about trying to shoot the drones out of the sky citing danger to civilians on the ground; therefore, no drones were engaged.

This is where things get a little interesting and frankly scary. The drones were only spotted intermittently. They were not easy, if not impossible to track. Since drones can be operated from a distance through wireless connections or even smartphones, finding the drone operators was a momentous task. This coupled with the mounting pressure on those responsible for the protection of the airport, placed on them by citizens and government officials alike, added to the stress of stopping this elusive threat.

Another problem is the drones were purported to be commercial in nature. This means readily available as off-the-shelf equipment that anyone can purchase and operate. Drones have become almost ubiquitous and very easy to operate. Even someone that has never operated a drone or has no formal training can learn to fly the drones in a matter of minutes.

Sussex Police, which has been leading the Gatwick operation, says the drone has “industrial specifications.” Transport Minister Chris Grayling noted that it is a commercial drone and not a small plastic one which can be cheaply purchased. It is not clear how many drones have been flown over the airport.

However, even a commercial drone is unlikely to be big enough to appear on the radar systems of air traffic controllers. Compounding those problems for the authorities is the fact that the flight path of some drones can be preprogrammed into the equipment, making the flight almost autonomous.

The English government has stated that there was no hint of terrorism in the drone incidents, but is that accurate?  The most widely accepted definition of terrorism is: the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

News reports say the first drone sighting was reported around 9 p.m. Wednesday, forcing officials to shut down the airport’s runway and grounding or diverting more than 1,000 flights over three days; the runway was buzzed more than 40 times within 48 hours.

English authorities arrested two people thought to be the operators but subsequently released them without charges. Detectives investigating the Gatwick drone attacks which caused three days of chaos for passengers say it is possible there never were any drones. There is no video footage of the drones flying over the airport. Police are relying on accounts from witnesses and the discovery of a damaged device.

Was It Real?

The word from authorities now starting to make the rounds was that there may have been no drones at all, and it was all a mistake in over-cautiousness. That to me sounds like a poorly designed public relations story to calm the fears of the public since English authorities have yet to find the culprits and this is a way to dispel panic and anxiety. I do not think that approach is working. It is a clumsy attempt to cover at best. Trying to square the reports of 40 flyovers and then the police saying there may have been no drones, does not have any basis in logic. Either there were, or there were not, but these two reports are in direct conflict.

So this was not terrorism, and no one was hurt but let’s think about that for a moment. The use of supposedly two small and relatively inexpensive pieces of equipment, which some would categorize as expensive toys, shut down England’s second-busiest airport at a time when that shutdown would cause the most trouble. Was this a test? Could this have been a test-run to gauge response and damage?

(Credit: Halftermeyer/Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine if a few drones were deployed just like this: no weapons, no violent action. But what if drones were simultaneously flown at five or ten major airports worldwide? Look at the chaos, the cost, and effect. With just a few people and a dozen or so “toys,” it would not be hard to completely shut down air travel in a country. Granted, the reports say these drones were more substantial than the many offered on the Internet for Christmas. But still, even those hobbyist drones could cause massive effect.

Owen McAree, a drone expert at Liverpool John Moores University, doesn’t think it’s an amateur hobbyist in over their head. “In this case, it looks more deliberate,” he says, citing the fact that standard batteries only allow drones to fly for 10 or 15 minutes at a time.

What if There Were a Concerted Attack?

What if drones were deployed in swarms? The chances of bringing an aircraft down increase greatly. A single drone would be hard-pressed to cause enough damage to cause an air flight emergency. What if there were, say, 30 drones in an aircraft’s flight path and the odds of a disaster greatly increase. With a modicum of technical ability and the inclination to do so, an attacker could program the drone swarm to seek the aircraft’s engines. This could be done through infrared or image recognition. That would increase the risk of damage from an impact even more. If the drone was also carrying a small explosive, you have the recipe for a catastrophe.

Lastly, with the relatively low cost of drones, it would not be hard to exponentially outpace drone countermeasures with sheer numbers.

The Pressing Question

We know that terrorist organizations are increasingly using drones. I wrote about that very thing in OpsLens almost two years ago. A person could certainly ask, “Why has it taken this long for this sort of thing to happen?” Was this terrorism? Was this a dry run at an economic attack of a country’s air travel industry?  Indeed, using this type of weaponized  “toy” is not beyond the realm of possibility.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Jon Harris

Jon Harris is a former Army NCO, Sergeant Morales Club member, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He is published in Army Trainer Magazine, authored regular columns in several newspapers, and is the author of the Cold War novel Breakpoint. His adventures as a security contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq can be found on He holds a B.S. in Government and Politics and an M.S. in Criminal Justice and is currently completing his Juris Doctor degree.

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