This report inaugurates debkafile’s new column which, under the heading The Cyber Dimension, will appear regularly and keep our readers abreast of novel events in this fast-developing field. The least appreciated cyber threat today comes from the potential of toy drones reaching terrorist hands. Unidentified UAVs over the White House and Elysée triggered the first alarm. As yet, no counter-measures have been developed capable of diverting or aborting a small drone with a 400-gram explosive payload, after its flight plan, fatal mission and target have been installed in its program.
The American Secret Service is planning a novel kind of exercise for keeping the White House and Capitol Hill safe from intrusive drones. Squadrons of UAVs will swarm over the two sites between 1:00 and 4:00 a.m. for several nights, to test optional methods of protecting sensitive buildings in the country from what has been treated until now as no more than a nuisance.
It was a two-foot long “quadcopter” drone, essentially a sophisticated toy, which crashed onto the White House grounds on Jan. 25, that alerted the Secret Service to the possible dangers those playthings may present their charges, the president of the United States and other symbols of government.
A string of mysterious drones over historical and national sites in Paris has made French police and security agencies jittery.
The US army and navy field the most advanced drones in the world for intelligence, patrol, surveillance and assault missions. These UAVs can stay aloft scores of hours, thousands of kilometers from their home base, while able to navigate independently by instruments programmed before they takeoff. Those instruments lead them to target and then switch them onto performance mode for assault on photography. After completing their mission, the drones are automatically steered back along a different route up until their landing at home base. All these functions are performed without human intervention or remote control.
It is hard to explain how the developers of this highly sophisticated tool neglected to develop parallel means of defense and interception against drones when turned to hostile use. The broad communities of intelligence and security agencies in the US and worldwide, including Israel, appear to have missed out on the most important step, which is to list drones under dual headings: threat as well as a novel strategic tool.
This threat is easily available commercially. Costing between $1,500 and 5,000, depending on the model, anyone can buy a “toy” drone, with a whole range of capabilities, including one that can carry a payload of more than one kilo, has a flight range of up to one kilometer and is able to stay aloft for half an hour.
In the hands of a terrorist, the “toy” drone can take the place of a suicide bomber. Loaded with 400 grams of explosives, an HD video camera and a miniature transmitter, it can broadcast live up until it blows up its pre-assigned target.
To develop counter-measures for a suicide-drone, coordination is necessary among the various arms of government – the army, navy, security and intelligence agencies, the customs department – to exercise a ban on their import, law enforcement agencies, the police and the civilian aviation authority. They would need to push together for new laws and regulations to restrict and oversee the production, import and use of unmanned drones with dangerous capabilities.
The administration will furthermore need to invest whatever sums are necessary for developing the technology to counter a weapon which has almost unlimited potential for wreaking death and destruction of unimaginable proportions, if allowed to get out of control.
The drone that landed in the White House compound and the rash of mystery drones sighted over the historic sites of Paris, including the presidential palace and Eiffel Tower, ought to be wake-up calls. In Washington and Paris, law enforcement and security agencies were helpless to intercept the buzzing intruders and found their operators highly elusive.
Until this danger is seriously addressed, no single remedy exists for stopping destructive drones.
An electronic fence capable of jamming the frequencies of one type of drone will not work for another. None of these electronic devices can divert or abort an unmanned drone, which is bent on a fatal mission after its flight plan and target were previously installed in its program.
None of the most advanced electronic devices, including laser-guided instruments, are designed to knock out plastic toys weighing a few grams. They are programmed to counter large aerial vehicles with certain heat levels and dimensions.
Until a better solution is found, the only way to guard the White House against one of these unmanned invaders may prove to be a vast nylon net canopy thrown over the buildings to be safeguarded.