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eitan drone
The Israeli drone Eitan

Today we live in a world where war becomes technology, thus overcoming the classical clash between men and armies; where everything is global and there is no geographical limitations; no differences between the public and private role; where cause and effect take place within the span of a handful of seconds; where interests – be they political, commercial, military or security driven – justify the meddling in the interior affairs of other nations: we live in a drone's world.

The drone (which technically goes by the acronym UAV, meaning “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) observes, intercepts, follows, listens, sometimes jams communications, but mostly shoots and kills, all the while subjecting those who direct its actions to a near-to nonexistent risk.

Since the year 2001 this operative vehicle has become an integral part of the asymmetrical global warfare. Its first test run as a weapon by the US took place in California in January 2001, when a drone was used against a tank. By 2003, there was already a massive deployment of drones in the war against Saddam Hussein. During that year, about a hundred different drones were launched on a daily basis by different military entities (the Army, the Airforce, the Marines, the CIA, the DIA...). There were so many of them in the skies above Iraq that they sometimes accidentally crashed into one another. After 2003, drones were employed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia to eliminate members of Al Qaeda. By March 2013, when John Brennan became the head of the CIA, drones had become an essential tool in the fight against terrorism, working at the services of a 'kill list' that included all the top exponents of international terrorism.

The US is not the only nation that uses drones; they are widely employed by Israel as well to fight its enemies and to carry out both offensive and defensive tasks. As the CIA uses drones outside of the US territory, the FBI uses them at home. Finally, drones have lately been employed in the civil sector as well. The pioneer of such use of drones is Amazon, the leading US on-line sales company, which is presently testing the use of a small drone, the “Prime Air”, for the delivery of packages to its costumers. In the light of such use, the US Federal Aviation Authority is tasked with issuing guidelines for the civil use of drones by September 2015.

As we mentioned above, drones have become a major instrument in the fight against terrorism and in electronic and visual espionage; they can cross borders without asking for authorization and are more efficient than manned aircraft. A drone will usually be guided in its strategic activity by spy satellites that provide it with its tactical guidelines. The sheer number of operations and killings by drones in the past years prove that they have become an widely employed instrument of war.

Collateral damage

The use of drones comes coupled with the problem of the collateral damages that they leave behind them: civilian victims that sometimes lose their lives during the elimination of a terrorist or the destruction of a target. Unfortunately, the person driving the drone sits thousands of kilometers away in front of a monitor with a keyboard and a joystick in his hand. That person has an incomplete perception of what he sees and no certainty. He cannot contextualize the events that appear on the monitor, he merely interprets them. It therefore becomes easy to mistaken a group of people celebrating a wedding for an assembly of terrorists.

And there is, of course, the technical issue. From the moment that the pilot sees his target, (there is a delay of a few seconds due to the satellite transmissions) decides a course of action (a few more seconds) and issues his commands, the position of his target might have changed. This delay often causes victims among civilian bystanders. It is for this reason that the UN has launched an inquiry in 2013 questioning the legitimacy of the use of drones.

According to widespread statistics, the ratio of killed terrorists to civilian victims derived from the use of drones in Pakistan, for instance, is four to one. In practice, during the past 10 years, drones have killed 3500 (alleged) terrorists and, at the same time, about one thousand civilians, two hundred of whom were children.

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Amazon's tiny Prime Air

The race to make better drones

There are many varieties of drones that are currently being produced and every new model is more sophisticated than its predecessor. It is a technological race that pits many countries in competition against one another.

The Americans make the “Predator”. It is a little over 8 meters (26 ft) long (thus almost invisible) and can be fitted with two missiles. Another, more efficient model is the “Reaper”. It is 11 meters (36 ft) and can carry four missiles. The least lethal US drone is the “Sentinel”. only 4 meters (13 ft) in length, it is mainly used in “listening”. The smallest of the US drones is the “ScanEagle”. It is 1.5 meters (5 ft) long and is often used in the skies above Iran. A prototype of the ScanEagle was captured by the Iranians at one point and handed over to the Russians to share the technological information contained therein.

Israel has the tiny “Ghost” and the larger “Eitan” (the Resolute), 14 meters (46ft) in length and able to fly for 36 straight hours while carrying an explosive charge weighing a ton. Some of these drones were stationed in a base in Azerbaijan. Israel also has the “Hermes 450”, which is used in surveillance, reconnaissance and interception missions. The “Heron Machatz” was another prototype that crashed (whether willingly or accidentally, we do not know) in Lebanon in November 2011 and exploded while the Hezbollah were trying to pry it open.

Italy has acquired its share of drones by virtue of a contract signed with a US company in 2001. The agreement was followed by an order of six Predator units in 2006. The Italians have even produced their own drones; the “Hammerhead”, which can fly for 16 straight hours at a very high altitude; and the “Falco” (Falcon), which is presently used by the UN to survey the Democratic Republic of the Congo on behalf of the international force operating there.

But the use of drones is not limited to sovereign nations. The Hezbollah have the “Ayoub”, which they flew in the Israeli skies on October 7, 2013, nearing the nuclear plant of Dimona before being shot down. In the past years, Hezbollah has made use of other, Iranian, drones such as the “Mohajer” and the “Ababil”. The “Ayoub” is a drone produced in Iran but which the Hezbollah have assembled and used in Lebanon. The brains behind the “Ayoub”, Hassan Laqis, who was also the brains behind all of the other latest technological developments of the Shiite group, was eliminated by a commando in Beirut in early December 2013.

The Hezbollah are backed by Iran and benefit from their military and technological efforts in this specific field. Iran has been one of the first nations in the world to invest in drone research. After the “Mohajer” (the Migrant), used in the war against Iraq in the late 80s, they developed the “Ababil” (Swallow), which was produced in 1993 for reconnaissance missions (It was used in the skies above Haifa in 2006 and later in Iraq). After the Ababil, Iran began devising more sophisticated models such as the A-3, the A-T, the “Karrar” (Bombardier), the “Sofreh Mahi” (Eagle Ray) and the “Sharapa” (Butterfly).

The problem with the Iranian drones are the vehicle's lack of invisibility to enemy radars and its limited range which, in order to be useful, must be long enough to include Israel among its possible targets. The “Karrar” was designed in 2010 with a range of 1000 km, but it was not enough to reach the Israeli skies, they needed a range of at least 1700 km. For this reason they upgraded the “Ababil” into the “Ababil T”, which allegedly has a range of 2000 km. The Hezbollah are used by Iran not only in testing their technological advancements on the field, but also in dispatching their instruments of death in the skies above Israel.

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The historical Iranian Ababil drone

How to defend yourself from a drone

If the drones have greatly increased the operative capacity of those that use them in the fight against terrorism, the terrorists are struggling to find countermeasures against them. The worrisome reactions of terrorists when faced with drones suggest that drones are efficient, scary and unpredictable; they strike without warning, like an invisible enemy.

In a handbook found recently by journalists inside a building in the north of Mali, where groups affiliated with Al Qaeda were stationed, there is a long list of precautions to be adopted in order to escape from drones. These precautions range from electronic ones (to produce frequencies that disturb those of the drones; to jam communications and to keep radios and other similar equipment on to provide the drones with fake targets) to operative ones (mounting mirrors on the roofs of cars and houses in order to blind the drone's eyes with reflections; to hide under trees and in the shadow of buildings; to never assemble outside; to confound the drones by walking into buildings with multiple exits; if found, to run out of a car in different directions in order to cut one's losses; to keep away from cars during firefights; to use forests or other natural hideaways when training; to burn car tires in order to produce smoke and decrease visibility; to use fake targets in order to draw the drone's attention; to change the location of headquarters and living quarters frequently; to use caves and bunkers because the US missiles have a scarce ability to penetrate such structures; to enact early warning systems to detect incoming drones; to position snipers on the roofs of buildings that can fire against the drones; to carry out counter-surveillance activity in order to identify the spies that can direct the drones to their targets).

The terrorist handbook also mentions another precaution that shows how the drone war has become a global instrument that is used not only by the terrorists but also by the countries that support their struggle. The handbook speaks of buying a Russian software called “Skygrabber” which, together with a computer and a satellite decoder, would allow one to intercept the frequency of the drone and see what the vehicle transmits, usually via unencrypted satellite communications, to its headquarters. So we have the Russians, we have the Iranians, the on-the-ground experience of the Hezbollah in Lebanon and of the Sunni terrorists in Iraq. There is, in short, a sharing and partaking of knowledge, technology and experiences about drones.

The future

There is no available data about how many operations were conducted by the US with the use of drones. This is in part because the drones are always busy flying around. Those that listen or see don't end up in the news while the others, those that shoot, are mentioned only when they successfully eliminate infamous terrorists such as Abu Yahya al Libi (Pakistan, September 12, 2012) or Anwar al Awlaki (Yemen, 2011).

Statistics suggest that between 2004 and 2013 there have been over 380 operations in Pakistan and 60 or 70 in Yemen (maybe this figure should be doubled). They also show that there have been an additional 10 drone operations in Somalia during the past five years. These statistics were probably rounded down, seen as they all refer to secret operations.

It is unequivocal today that the drones are part of a technological war that is being fought in many parts of the world and that their employment is due to spread widely in the future. Analysts have esteemed that, in the coming four years, there will be over 30 thousand drones (both military and civilian) flying above our heads; half of these will be hovering over the US.