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?


Bullets Beat Bombs–Assassins Take Out Iran’s Top Nuclear Scientist

Hard as it may be to believe, COVID-19 is not the only thing going on in the world today. Yes, people are actually dying from causes other than the coronavirus. Take Mohsen Fakhrizadeh for example. Iran’s leading nuclear scientist was wiped out in a rather old-fashioned way; he was assassinated last Friday in a hail of bullets. But dead or alive, this scientist spells bad news for the United States.

How bad could one scientist be in comparison to the latest coronavirus surge? Well, in Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s case, the answer is “VERY BAD.” He is the scientist who’s led Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon for the past two decades. In fact, he is commonly referred to as “the father of Iran’s nuclear bomb.” The thought of Iran being in control of a nuclear weapon is scarier than going into a Wal-mart right now where no one is wearing a mask.

OK, so Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s been taken out and cannot led his country’s charge for producing a nuclear bomb. How can that be bad? His untimely and violent demise has made Iran mad; he has been called a “martyr” and “severe revenge” has been threatened by the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces. Iran suspects U.S. involvement in the assassination, so Uncle Sam or one of his allies is likely to be in the crosshairs. Yikes! Instead of an eye for an eye, Iran may aim for a bang for a bang.

Another negative fallout (no nuclear pun intended) of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is that Iran’s relationship with the U.S. has just gotten worse. This further strain does not bode well for the incoming Biden administration which has expressed a desire to have the United States return to being a part of the so called Iran deal of 2015. The Trump administration withdrew from that multi-national agreement on nuclear activities in 2018. Under the agreement, Iran is constrained as to how much nuclear fuel it can produce–at least until 2030 when restrictions disappear and the sky’s the limit.

Even if the United States didn’t carry out the assassination, Iran may still have issues with our country because one of our allies did. According to a tweet by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zerif, there are “serious indications” of an Israeli role. (Apparently many government statements whether in the U.S. or in the Middle East are conveyed via Twitter.) Israeli involvement would be a reasonable conclusion seeing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labeled Fakhrizadeh as national enemy #1.

News reports claim there is “little doubt” Israel was behind the killings. The Israeli government has so far declined comment. Their silence probably means that they did it but don’t want to gloat about it. Fakhrizadeh’s assassination had all the signs of a precision operation carried out by Mossad, Israeli’s spy agency. Mossad has previously been linked to four successful assassinations and one attempted assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012. Isn’t past behavior a pretty good prediction of future behavior?

So what do we know about the assassins’ target and how he was taken out? Approximately 60 years old, Fakhrizadeh is (Oops! WAS) a physics professor at the Imam Hussein University in Tehran. I’m scratching my head at this information. I took physics in college, a course I thoroughly detested, and we NEVER talked about nuclear bombs; all I ever heard about was bullet and elevator problems. In addition to his scientific endeavors, Fakhrizadeh was also military–a brigadier general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

The scientist’s work with his country’s nuclear program, though, was what made him important to Iran and an anathema to Israel. He led a campaign to design an atomic warhead and ran Project Amad, Iran’s nuclear weapons program which purportedly ended in 2003; nevertheless, Netanyahu believes a covert bomb program has continued under his direction. Fakhrizadeh was hailed by Iran for having a track record of scientific and defense innovations. He is said to have led a team that developed one of the country’s first kits for coronavirus diagnosis. Perhaps the scientist would still be alive today if he’d switched his focus full-time to viruses instead of atoms.

Fakhrizadeh’s importance and value was underscored by his handling. He was kept under constant guard and lived in a secure compound. He even had his own security detail. [Note to Iran: Add hiring more competent security to the to do list.] He’d dodged a bullet (pun intended this time) when he escaped an assassination attempt a few years ago. But 2020 was a bad year for him in the end–it saw his life ended.

The scientist would likely still be with us today if he’d followed COVID protocols. Despite a coronavirus lockdown, Fakhrizadeh thought it would be a great idea to travel away from his secure compound and head to his villa some 40 miles east of Tehran to Absard, an area well known for being a mountain retreat for Iran’s elite. Absard, which has a view of Mount Damavand, the country’s highest peak, is where many well-off Iranis have second homes. What could go wrong with him traveling there accompanied by a convoy with three armored vehicles?

But, alas, Fakhrizadeh didn’t arrive alive. While en route, witnesses claim to have heard an explosion and then a burst of gunfire. Pictures on the internet show a black Nissan riddled with bullet holes and a pool of blood on the ground near the car. Although reports vary, it appears that a truck may have been blown up to stop the convoy of vehicles which then led to a shootout between the scientist’s bodyguards and his armed attackers. Fakhrizadeh was reportedly shot in the back and three of his bodyguards were killed. He was taken to the hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. A boom caused his death, but it wasn’t a nuclear bomb; it was just the sound of gunfire.

As Fakhrizadeh learned the hard way, nuclear scientists can be taken out without high tech bombs. Scientists may soon come up with a vaccine for COVID-19, but no vaccine is in the works for preventing man’s bent for violence. Unfortunately, the human desire to kill his fellow man isn’t so easily eradicated. Often our worst enemy isn’t a microscopic foe but other humans. There’s no shot to prevent being shot or blown up.

Just WONDER-ing:

Does Fakhrizadeh’s assassination sound like a scene out of a James Bond movie to you? Is it fitting that a man who worked to design a weapon of mass destruction died a violent death? Is Fakhrizadeh’s assassination justified under the circumstances?