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ISIS is expanding the reach and sophistication of its drone fleet

April 17, 2016 (Photo Credit: U.S. Central Command)

With either expert marksmanship or great luck, an Iraqi soldier apparently shot down an Islamic State drone this past week.

The terror group's drone fleet, if you will, contains nothing even remotely so sophisticated — or lethal — as an Air Force Predator. Its gear is comparatively cheap, consisting of either homemade electronics or products readily available on the consumer market. But the militants' growing use of drones highlights an important battlefield development in the conflict in Iraq and Syria. The enemy is now regularly employing this technology for everything from propaganda videos and surveillance to indirect fire spotting and, possibly, weapons delivery.

Photos released by the Iraqi Ministry of Defence show Sgt. Hussain Musa Kathum proudly displaying a damaged DJI Phantom 3 quadrotor he reportedly brought down this month in the Al-Jirashi area in northern Anbar province. “The brave warrior ... was able to hit a spying plane belonging to the gangs of ISIS,” the ministry claimed in a Facebook post. “The plane was trying to spy on our army by taking pictures of the area.”

 

635963378463931833-MAR-Iraq-drone-2.JPG
Iraqi Sgt. Hussain Musa Kathum displays an ISIS drone he shot down in Anbar province.
Photo Credit: Iraqi ministry of defence

This means the U.S.-led military coalition that's battling ISIS no longer faces a hypothetical, what-if scenario, explained Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C. Commanders are being forced to counter a "no kidding military target."

“We’ve known for a while that we’re not going to be the only folks with UAVs for surveillance on the battlefield,” Grant said. “So here we are.”

 

On March 19, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed, and eight others were wounded, when an ISIS Katyusha rocket struck a U.S. artillery outpost, Firebase Bell, outside of Makhmur, Iraq. Two weeks later, an American drone strike killed Jasim Khadijah, an ISIS rocket expert responsible for Cardin’s death, a coalition spokesman said. Five other ISIS militants also were killed in addition to the destruction of two vehicles — and an “improvised” enemy drone, he added.

It’s at least the fifth time in 13 months that the coalition has publicly disclosed destroying an ISIS drone. They were intentionally targeted twice last year, a U.S. official told Military Times.

ISIS uses both commercial and improvised drones on a regular basis to recon potential attacks, posing a “valid potential threat” by gleaning sensitive tactical information, the official said. “Improvised drones," he added, "are homemade with cheap parts that can be assembled in homes or other areas."

The coalition first destroyed an ISIS drone on March 17, 2015. "It was a commercially available, remotely piloted aircraft, really something anyone can get,” Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman, said at the time. “We observed it flying for approximately 20 minutes. We observed it land. We observed the enemy place it in the trunk of a car and we struck the car."

 

The improvised drone destroyed April 3 may indicate a deeper threat as ISIS seeks to expand their capabilities, Grant said.

“Some of the bad guys are fiddling around, trying to improve the performance,” she said. “It may be a very basic, ‘actually take off’ kind of improvement, but it says that there is some level of active work in the drone area. It’s probably not super-sophisticated yet, but they’re working on them.”

Out-of-the-box, tactically viable drones can be purchased on Amazon for under $100, but face major operational limitations due to their short range, slow flight speed and minimal battery life. ISIS has used commercial drones to capture propaganda footage of battlefields and suicide attacks since at least December 2014, but improvising solutions to their limitations would raise the ante — and potential lethality.

Weaponized payloads, while difficult for ISIS to pull off, are not too far a stretch. “If it was me, I would be asking ‘How can I extend the battery life, how can I extend the operational range, how can I stick a payload on here that I can actually use? How can I really get that to work?’” Grant said.

In December, Kurdish forces in Syria allegedly downed an explosive-laden ISIS drone, according to a report in Popular Mechanics. Hamas and Hezbollah each has employed explosive-laden, kamikaze-style drones based on Iranian military-grade drones such as the Ababbil-3.

While doubtful Iran has directly supplied ISIS with drones, it begs the question of what kinds of payloads ISIS can improvise, Grant said. “Just looking at what’s out there, I think [ISIS] certainly has access to the bad-guy drone-makers in the region, certainly they have access that goes beyond what they can order commercially."

The U.S. military has been looking at the “red drone threat” for almost the past decade and actively developing counter-measures, Grant said. “Clearly, the fact that they struck it tells you that the U.S. and coalition forces are very aware,” she said. “They’re vigilant and going after even that embryonic drone threat.”

Matthew L. Schehl covers training and education, recruiting, West Coast Marines, MARSOC, and operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Marine Corps Times. He can be reached at mschehl@marinecorpstimes.com.

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