Attack of the Killer Drones!–UAV’s Aren’t Just for Fun

Drones are just for hobbyists and kids, right? WRONG! They can be effective and lethal weapons too as demonstrated by an attack on a commercial ship off the coast of Oman on July 30th. So, in addition to being wary of small viruses getting you, better keep your eyes open for small UAV’s as well.

Other than being a flying object, what exactly is a drone? A drone is an unmanned (or womaned for that matter) aerial vehicle (“UAV”) which is piloted by remote control or by an onboard computer. Drones were originally developed during the 20th century for military missions. Someone had the brilliant idea that humans should not be bothered with performing missions that could be characterized by one of three “D’s,”– that is dull, dangerous, or dirty.” Let the machines do that work!

Drones are not simply for use in ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) for ground troops. Sure they can be outfitted with cameras to see what the enemy is up to. However, they may be designed for precision strike capability and outfitted with dangerous payloads such as explosives, chemicals, or biological hazards. The first military drone, the Predator, targeted Osama Bin Laden. Nevertheless, humans, in the form of Navy SEALS, were the ones to actually take the world’s most wanted man out.

Israel, a country which needs to be prepared for war at any minute, was the first country to manufacture drones. But it was a portable rotary wing attack drone produced in Turkey by STM which made big news in 2020. According to a U.N. Security Council report, an STM Kargu 2 drone loaded with explosives detected and attacked a human target in Libya. So what? Isn’t that what the drone was built to do? Yeah, but the catch was that the drone carried out the attack without command, i.e., on its own initiative. Apparently this is no dumb drone. Scary, yes. Dumb, no.

A drone attack last week resulted in two fatalities. The oil tanker Mercer Street, empty of cargo, was en route from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Fujairah, United Arab Emirates. Who would target such a vessel? Well, let’s see. It was a Liberian-flagged and Japanese owned ship managed by the London-based Zodiac Maritime, a part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. Thus, the possibilities are quite broad.

But the most likely suspect is Iran. That country is the principal user of one-way explosive drones, also known as “suicide drones.” These drones are loaded with explosives set to detonate upon impact. And, to put it mildly, Iran as been making a nuisance of itself with its nuclear deal in shreds leading to heightened tensions in the region.

The oil tanker with the bull’s eye on it was a whopping 28,400 registered gross tons, referring to the measurement of the volume of all enclosed spaces on the ship. Thus, the Mercer Street was no small target. But the thing targeting it was small, a “kamikaze drone.” As the vessel proceeded through the northern Indian Ocean off the coast of Oman beyond Omani territorial waters, it attracted small visitors. First, an unsuccessful drone attack occurred; fortunately for the oil tanker, the drone fell in the water causing no harm.

But whoever sent the drone subscribes to the philosophy “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The second attack was the charm, from the attacker’s perspective that is. A subsequently sent drone hit the vessel blasting a hole through the top of the oil tanker’s bridge where the captain and the crew command the vessel. Two people on board were killed; one was a Romanian crew member and the other was a British national serving as a security guard.

The tanker sent out a mayday call to which the U.S. Navy responded. (Uncle Sam is helpful like that.) The USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher escorted the damaged vessel to a safe port. Meanwhile, no one claimed responsibility for the attack. Israeli officials, however, quickly pointed the finger of blame at Iran. Coincidentally (or likely NOT), three other similar attacks on Israeli-linked ships have occurred since February.

The United States and the U.K. have joined Israel in blaming Iran for the drone attack. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement indicating the U.S. is “confident” Iran conducted the attack. His statement noted Iran is increasingly utilizing the “lethal capability” of one-way explosive drones in that region. Bolstering this conclusion is the fact pro-Iran forces have used drones to attack U.S. forces in Iraq and that Iran has trafficked drone technology to Hamas, Hezebollah, Iraqi militias, and Yemeni Houthis. Yikes! I think of arms dealing as missiles, assault weapons, and bombs, but drones clearly need to be included in the “arms” category.

Recognizing drones are a real threat, the U.S. military has taken steps to counteract use of such technology. For example, the U.S. Air Force is seeking prototypes for a microwave based anti-drone system. A research lab at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico will be building an advanced version of THOR (Tactical High-Powered Operational Responder) which uses bursts of intense radio waves to instantly disable small unmanned aircraft systems. The program is scheduled to begin this fall with a delivery of the prototype weapon in 2023. (So, hey Iran, hold off on any drone attacks until then!)

Meanwhile, back in the Middle East, ships not only need to watch their backs (isn’t that aft in nautical terms?) but look overhead for threatening drones. In the olden days, ships feared seeing a ship flying a skull and crossbones on the horizon. Today, it is small flying objects with rotary blades which prey on innocent vessels which may be appearing. Yes, lethal things are coming in small packages. Beware the killer drones!

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you ever flown a drone? Were you aware that drones could be used for military and lethal purposes? How can ships protect themselves from such objects?

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