FrontPage Interview’s guest today is Ben R. Furman, the FBI's Former Counterterrorism Chief. He writes a blog at blackhawkpress.com/blog, and he is the author of The Devil’s Darning Needle, a counterterrorism thriller.
FP: Ben R. Furman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I’d like to talk to you today about unmanned aerial vehicles and what they mean to the terror war.
How do we start this discussion?
Furman: Jane’s, a military weapons systems authority, just published the specifics and details of over 180 operational unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and also reported that more than forty countries are developing and/or deploying UAV systems.
As an example, on March 20, 2008, Pakistan’s Chief of Army, Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, displayed a Pakistani-made UAV that successfully completed flight trials and is ready for production. Unmanned combat and intelligence systems are a major thrust for us as shown by the 2008 billion dollars plus Department of Defense budget dedicated to developing and acquiring micro aerial vehicles (MAVs) and UAVs.
I became aware of the micro unmanned robot world and its attractiveness to terrorists during research for my counterterrorism novel, The Devil’s Darning Needle. I took literary license and slightly advanced the capabilities of a prototype dragonfly robotic MAV I discovered and used it as my attack delivery system. Their small size and carbon fiber skins echoed as birds on radar monitors, and their lethal potential for dispensing explosives or deadly chemical/biological agents made them the perfect weapon.
Too Sci-Fi? Here’s a taste of the newest technology. In the micro vehicle area the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military, is evaluating the MicroSTAR, a low flying MAV that weighs 85 grams and measures 15 centimeters across. It’s capable of carrying an infra-red or visible light camera for surveillance, or biological/chemical “sniffers” and it provides real-time actionable intelligence. An autopilot and inertial navigation is integrated into the system, and the tiny bot flies at 30 mph for up to 20 minute missions. It’s designed to be launched at the platoon level, or released from over-flying planes.
FP: So can terrorists can their hands on these easily?
Furman: From a practical standpoint, acquiring these highly sophisticated, tightly held, ultra expensive UAVs or MAVs is out of the question. So what’s a poor jihadist to do? Well, it’s easy and inexpensive to build or buy a functioning, improvised UAV.
Let’s see what can be accomplished on “the cheap.” What can a terrorist buy for $9.95?
-- A “Happy Meal” with fries and a diet Coke, or the plans for a miniature remote controlled, tank-tracked ground platform.
-- What can he buy for $19.95? A set of Ginzu knives with a potato peeler thrown in comes to mind, or how about the plans for building a miniature version of the Predator?
-- If he’s tech challenged, can’t change a light switch, but flushed with money, a flight-ready model of the Predator can be bought for $199.95 from a hobby shop that’s easy to modify for sinister purposes.
-- Comparison shopping: The real one costs about $3.5 million per copy, not including the ground control systems.
Today, remote controlled aircraft, radio transmission systems, camera phones, GPS, Google Earth, Google Maps, computer programmable navigational systems and technologies are readily available on the Internet, in toy stores (Lego’s programmable lift platform, for example), and on the shelves of hobby shops.
Cobble everything together and a terrorist would be hard pressed to spend more than $3,000 for a robotic plane with a six-foot wing span that cruises at 45 mph for thirty minutes at 1,500 feet, and carries a fifteen pound payload. No, it’s not the equivalent of a Global Hawk or the Predator with Hellfire missiles, but it will fly and quite well.
Legitimate enthusiasts build their vehicles for the fun and challenge of it; terrorists build them to cause death and mayhem. And, they don’t have to smuggle anything into the country. Terrorists can legitimately buy what they need to build an improvised unmanned vehicle off the shelf and modify it to suit their purposes. Keep in mind that terrorists seek the world stage – they know the more horrific the act the more media coverage they can demand. And even a small attack, if properly focused, can produce a major psychological effect on the entire nation.
Imagine the reaction should a swarm of MAVs smash into the center of a packed sports stadium and explode or disperse a deadly toxin, or if a dozen remote controlled road-side IED drones were spun into the path of an Army truck convoy.
The concern about robotic micro vehicles and ICCDs surfaced during the 9/11 commission hearings and in various intelligence gathering committees as well. In February, 2004 former CIA Director George Tenet appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and said this, “Many countries remain interested in developing or acquiring land-attack cruise missiles, which are almost always significantly more accurate than ballistic missiles and complicate missile defense systems. Unmanned aerial vehicles are also of growing concern."
FP: So what does the near future hold in terms of this terrifying reality?
Furman: While no terrorist incidents involving unmanned vehicles have yet been reported in the U.S., that doesn’t mean terrorist planners aren’t considering them as a means of delivery. They’ve surfaced elsewhere as the following examples show:
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an anti-government terrorist group, was discovered in possession of nine remote-controlled unmanned aircraft when a Colombian army unit overran one of their remote camps in August 2002. (Source: EFE News Service, August 28, 2002.)
The Vremya Novostei newspaper reported the plans for Israel’s newest developmental reconnaissance UAV model were stolen from a building plant in Israel. The UAV weighs 14 kg and has a wingspan of 1.5 m. There were fears about the possible use of the model by terrorists. (Source: Vremya Novostey, November 11, 2003.)
Hamas said six of their senior activists were killed in March, 2004 when an ICCD they had planned to launch against Israel blew up prematurely in central Gaza as it was being prepared for flight. Authorities surmised the ICCD drone was packed with explosives. (Source: Jane's Missiles and Rockets, December 1, 2004.)
According to the story, Israel’s current air defenses are not designed to detect and recognize small, low-flying, slow-moving objects like small UAVs. Their flight profiles on radar and even through electro-optical and other sensors, is obscured by ground clutter, glare and other environmental conditions. “It’s like catching a mosquito with a net,” said Brigadier General Ruth Yaron, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief spokeswoman.
International intelligence analysts have expressed concerns that future UAV incursions could be equipped with more deadly payloads like biological or chemical agents. The Mirsad-1 can carry 50 kilograms of explosives.
Tree top-hugging, radar-resistant improvised UAVs operating close to an intended target, perhaps line-of-sight close, are major problems. Our response contingency planning to address this kind of threat has to be “spot on.” There won’t be much time to react to improvised UAVs even if they’re only flying at 35 mph – 45 mph. The authority to act will be critical, and those manning the turrets must be the decision-makers. There won’t be time to run the situation up the chain-of-command and back.
FP: Aren’t we giving the terrorists ideas by talking about this?
Furman: Initially I wondered if talking openly about this danger was a good idea. Wouldn’t it be a “heads up” for terrorists? No. A thorough library check and Internet and blog searches revealed the technology wafted out of the genie’s bottle some time ago, and even with technology that advances in quantum leaps, someone is keeping pace and reporting or commenting about it real-time. Chat rooms, YouTube and FaceBook are heavily peppered with “how to” information about building and flying improvised UAVs and MAVs. If you have a question about building a bot, ask it and instantly a dozen answers appear on your computer screen.
Before my FBI partner and I entered dark and scary places he always reminded me to, “Put your head on a swivel like an owl.” He wanted me totally focused and aware of my surroundings; great advice that kept us safe. So, if you hear what sounds like an angry lawn mower flying overhead, you might want to check it out, or the spider that went off like a sparkler when you squashed it underfoot might be worth a closer look.
Let’s not forget: Security is everyone’s job, and as my partner wisely said, put your head on a swivel and always be mindful of your surroundings.
FP: Ben R. Furman, thank you for joining us.