Since October 2014, approximately 19 unidentified drone flights have been reported over French nuclear power stations, mostly at night.
On one night alone, five flights were conducted over separate stations many hundreds of miles apart, suggesting a coordinated action. Greenpeace has admitted flying paragliders over nuclear power stations in the past, but has denied any involvement in these new incursions. In December, another unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was seen flying over the large Doel nuclear power station in Belgium, which had only recently re-opened after being sabotaged by a suspected disgruntled worker. These incidents have raised concerns within security circles that these aircraft are being or could be used by terrorist or other hostile groups.
Platforms available today already offer a wide range of options for hostile groups. Such groups could take advantage of small helicopters capable of carrying HD cameras within close range of perimeter fences, building access points and critical infrastructure on surveillance and reconnaissance operations, or far larger models that could carry explosives weighing several kilogrammes to detonate precisely on target with minimal risk to the terrorists themselves. An attack by multiple drones on a nuclear power station could cause major destruction, which, while unlikely to cause a radioactive leak, could force the station to close for inspection and repairs, and would also raise considerable concern among nearby communities.
Terrorists could also use drones to target tourist sites and government/military infrastructure. In London, United Kingdom, police have reported an increased use of drones around locations such as Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, major shopping centres, sports stadiums and airports (including two near-misses with airliners), though none of these have been confirmed as terrorist-related. A recently-released batch of threat assessments by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police included a report entitled Extremist Exploitation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which reported of plots by terrorist groups around the world to weaponise aircraft with improvised explosive devices and even chemical/biological devices. These plots targeted locations such as the US Capitol, the Pentagon, the UK Houses of Parliament and the principal military headquarters in Pakistan, though all were thwarted in the planning phase.
In 2012, a Massachusetts student was imprisoned for plotting to fly small drones into the Pentagon and the US Capitol. In April 2014, the FBI arrested Moroccan national El Mehdi Semlali Fahti in Connecticut, United States, for planning to arm drones with bombs and use them to attack a school and a federal building in the state. While no explosives were found in his possession at the time of his arrest, the suspect had admitted to undercover officers that he had previously successfully created a chemical weapon in Morocco and was confident that he could obtain everything in southern California that would be necessary to do it again. In July 2014, Hamas launched a small drone into Israeli territory. It was unarmed at the time, and was eventually destroyed by a Patriot missile, but Hamas have claimed to have other versions that will be used to conduct attacks. Hezbollah has been flying drones into Israeli airspace for several years. And Al-Qaeda has revealed plans to use drones for a range of brutal attacks.
Governments around the world are currently reviewing strategies for dealing with drones operating illegally, including developing rules of engagement for armed responses to UAVs fitted with weapons. For example, the New York Police Department are liaising with federal authorities and the military to design and implement a defence system for the city’s open-air stadiums.
In a mirror of US drone use in Afghanistan, a drone fitted with a remotely-controlled explosive device would be capable of targeting a VIP vehicle or to attack an individual out in the open – turning a key tactic of remote-control warfare back on the West. The threat of this was highlighted by the drone that evaded radar and crashed into the grounds of the White House on 27 January 2014. In September 2013, the German Pirate Party flew a drone over a crowd gathered to listen to a speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While she was speaking, the drone was flown towards the podium, landing right in front of her. There was no real threat on either occasion; however, they certainly demonstrated the versatility and capability of such vehicles.
This assessment is taken from our remote-control warfare briefing for January 2015.