In a world where drones are becoming the new tools of extra-judicial executions and geopolitical power projection, it is only inevitable that the technology will fall into the hands of ‘the wrong people’, as evidenced by the foiling of the recent plot to fly a drone into the U.S.’s Capitol building.
But then what? Police drones shooting down terrorist drones? Anti-drone missiles fitted around important landmarks?
The FBI alleges that Rezwan Ferdaus, the Al Qaeda sympathizer, planned to buy, for $3,000, a 68-inch long, 1/10th-scale McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. The plane, he allegedly told informants, could carry 10 to 12 pounds of plastic explosives at up to 160 miles per hour. It could come equipped with a GPS system to automatically guide the plane, he allegedly said. He also planned to buy two F-86s, one of which he already possessed at the time of his arrest, which have similar capabilities.
His plan, which included detailed diagrams, was to crash the F-4 into the Capitol dome and the two F-86s into the Pentagon to make a statement and kill as many as possible, an FBI affidavit states.
Mr. Villasenor, the Brookings fellow, emphasizes, however, that in the near future terrorists will have more access to smaller, less expensive and more plentiful drones.
“To date, a lot of the drone strikes have been by Predators, which are almost the size of small business jets. But this newer generation of drones can fit in trunk of a car or backpack. Weaponization is moving down the size scale.”
“At this point, these small UAVs are a very limited terrorist threat,” agrees Mr. Finnegan. “It’s not going to be easy for them to get a large enough system to do serious damage. But that’s going to change as the technology progresses and number in inventory increases – and particularly as the market for commercial UAVs opens up. We’ll see a proliferation in numbers and the cost coming down. Then you’ll have the whole issue of control. Then there’s no longer government control, it’s private industry and individuals.”
Tiny surveillance and weaponized drones can be a huge advantage to military forces, because they’re so difficult to detect or stop. But for that reason “it ought to be sobering since this same technology could be used against us,” Villasenor says.
“We have to recognize that the US’s quasi-monopoly on drones is coming to an end,” he says. “We have to think about what that means in terms of how drones impact armed conflict and security in the future. Unfortunately, this arrest in Boston is just the first in what is likely to be multiple news items over the coming years.”