Drones: has technology changed the security landscape again?

History Repeating Itself?


 “The year was 1575 and Shinoko Meishu, the Takeda Samurai quieted his restive mare by leaning forward to fondle her ears, and whisper familiar nothings.  The two of them, man and horse, had experienced this moment many times before; the quiet creak of leather harness, the jingle of metal weaponry, and the sotto voce ribald jokes, told mainly to mask the nerves.  Shinoko prided himself on feeling only the mildest apprehension; he was a seasoned warrior with his victories and accomplishments talked of around camp fires far outside his home province.  And today’s battle, in some dog-meat town called Nagashino against a bunch of foot-soldier peasants whom he and his fellow Samurai were about to crush like insects, would accrue him no additional honour. 

A few hours later, Shinoko, his horse and thousands of his comrades were dead or dying.  The foot-soldier peasants had been armed with 3000 guns, and in three alternating rows under the command of Oba Nadunaga they had mown down their illustrious enemy.  Samurai warriors, unrivalled at the pinnacle of the profession of arms and with a lifetime of training behind them, had been despatched by uneducated illiterate scum from the unbridgeable gap of thirty yards away……”  (Anon)

And so we see the first instance of the democratisation of firepower; the process by which lethality becomes the preserve of anyone who wants it. Guns over Skill. After the battle of Nagashino in 1575, Oba Nadunaga became the most powerful lord in Japan (and ruthlessly controlled the manufacture and ownership of firearms for his entire tenure).  

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 Today history is repeating itself with drone technology.  On September 14th, 2019 we witnessed the drone attacks against Abqaiq, Aramco’s largest oil-processing plant in the Khurais field in Saudi Arabia.  Responsibility for the attack is as yet unclear, with the US and Saudi blaming Iran, whilst the Yemen-based Houthi insurgent group also claim to be behind the attack. 

The two resulting fires were swiftly controlled and no casualties were reported, but this rather misses the point. 

The point is that Saudi and the USA, a combination of the richest and most influential economies on the planet, can have infrastructure which is critical to them (and arguably the rest of the world) threatened by technology that you can buy in a model shop for under £1000. 

And the threat is very difficult to counter, for the following reasons:

  • Drones are low-flying, slow and very small, and therefore very difficult to detect reliably.

  • They can be flown in “swarms”, and only one of the swarm needs to attack successfully.

  • You cannot fire a $3.5M Patriot air-defence missile at every drone in a swarm.

  • They are cheap and easily adapted.

  • The human controller can be a significant distance away, and like the drone itself, very difficult to detect.

  • The target array is vast, nigh-on impossible to protect, and any disruption can have a strategic effect. Most oil installations are physically huge and dispersed over a wide area, and in Shaybah’s case the pipeline between Abqaiq and the main export terminals is 645 km long. Simple geography makes both installation and pipeline very difficult to defend against a drone that is barely visible in the first place. And the volume of oil flowing means that a successful attack could have alarming environmental and economic consequences.

 It is reported that the drones used in recent attacks are Iranian Ababil-Ts, or variants thereof, also known as Qasef 1s.  The original technology was designed for target drones and it is cheap and easy to manufacture or copy, with many components which can be commercially sourced, and it requires relatively little supporting logistics.  Open-source satellite imagery is used for target identification, and the result is an asymmetric, stand-off precision-guided munition with potentially geopolitical consequences, because airports, nuclear power-plants, personnel and, perhaps most critically to the region, water treatment plants are all now at risk. 

So what?

The Houthi group, and by association any other insurgent organisation, now have the ability to increase their leverage over richer and better-resourced adversaries.  For the energy industry as a whole it is therefore worth asking 2 questions;

  1. Is our infrastructure strategically important to a host nation?

  2. If so, is there an insurgent group who may want to attack it in order to further their aims and/or damage the host nation?

If the answer to both questions is “yes”, then it is time for a fresh look at the physical defence of the said infrastructure, done in conjunction with the host nation, and encompassing the drone threat. 

Extra radars, IR detection and radio environment monitoring to detect the drones or their control signals, and guns, missiles, hunter drones and jammers to engage them are all options to be considered.  The standing Emergency Response capability may also have to be reviewed, because the ability to fight one fire at a time may no longer be enough against a swarm of drones. 

Unfortunately, all the options are expensive, not least in terms of the manpower required to operate them, but in high-threat circumstances, they may well prove necessary within business planning.

As for the geo-politics, the Saudi-Houthi conflict may be a microcosm of the ever-present Sunni-Shia divide, with a battle for oil revenue thrown in.  Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has recently called for global action against his religious and economic rival, Iran, using the well-worn but still potent threat of “unimaginably high oil prices” as the incentive for other nations to side with him.  

The US, France, Britain and Germany have so far backed his assertions that Iran was behind the Abqaiq attack, but the only certainty is that we should expect more of these attacks in future.

About The Author


Toby Ingram

Senior Consultant, Inverroy

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