Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies

Threat of Terrorism Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Technical Aspects

by Eugene Miasnikov

About the author | Full report in English (0.54 Mb, PDF), in French (0.4 Mb, PDF), in Russian (0.77 Mb, PDF)
Media reports on terrorist attempts to employ UAVs

Eugene Miasnikov, Threat of Terrorism Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Technical Aspects, Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, Dolgoprudny, June 2004, 26 pages. Translated into English - March 2005. PDF file (0.54 Mb)

Experts and media have been discussing the potential use of UAVs for terrorism for some time. Until recently, this threat was considered to lie primarily in the conversion of anti-ship cruise missiles or small manned airplanes to land attack missiles. Previous studies focused on threats from so-called "states of concern" rather than non-state actors. A broader spectrum of possible terrorist uses has been addressed since September 11, 2001.

Experts point to a set of advantages that may make UAVs seem attractive to terrorists:

Threat of Terrorism Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Technical Aspects

No incident of UAV employment in a terrorist attack has yet been reported. However, media reports reveal that terrorists are actively studying this means of delivery.

Certainly, preparing and conducting a terrorist UAV attack is much more difficult than such frequently used methods as mining buildings and cars or using suicide bombers. Nevertheless, the 9/11 events, when terrorists captured airliners with passengers and used them as huge cruise missiles to attack buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C., have demonstrated that it is necessary to be prepared to repel "high-tech" threats as well. For this reason, it seems expedient to examine the technical capabilities of UAVs to deliver terrorist weapons.

Threats from terrorist UAVs first became an issue of concern for the U.S. government after September 11, 2001. The growth of this concern is underlined in statements by official representatives of intelligence community. In particular, former CIA Director George J. Tenet stressed in his testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February, 2004: "Many countries remain interested in developing or acquiring land-attack cruise missiles, which are almost always significantly more accurate than ballistic missiles and complicate missile defense systems. Unmanned aerial vehicles are also of growing concern." The problem of cruise missile and UAV proliferation, and how to face this threat, became the subject of attention in Congress, the departments of defense and homeland security, and other U.S. agencies.

Unfortunately, terrorism became a grave reality in Russia, and UAV use by terrorists may be an even greater threat than in the U.S. To many readers, UAVs may seem too exotic, demanding substantial efforts and costs compared with the methods terrorists frequently use. But science and technology is developing so fast that we often fail to recognize how much the world has changed. Moreover, the appearance of new public services such as Internet, cellular communications, Global Positioning System (GPS) makes society more vulnerable. Therefore, we often miss a chance to react to emerging threats in a timely fashion.

Does the Russian government understand the threat from terrorist UAVs? Has it assessed this threat? Does it have a strategy for prevention? This issue is not discussed in the domestic media, so neither the public nor the author can answer those questions.

This report assesses the technical possibility of UAV use as a delivery means for terrorists. The analysis shows that such a threat does exist and that it will grow. The author also considers areas that require higher attention from government agencies. This report is also targeted at the Russian public. Terrorist activity can be prevented only through the coordinated efforts of the government and civil society. The government cannot efficiently fight terrorists without the active involvement of the population. The first step toward creating such an alliance is to recognize the threat and its potential consequences.

The study has been conducted in the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT with a support of Ploughshares Fund. The author is indebted to Prof. Anatoli Diakov, Dr. Gennady Khromov, Dr. Nikolay Chistyakov, and experts, who preferred not to be mentioned, for consultations during work on the project and criticism of early drafts of the report.

The report came out in Russian (0.77 Mb, PDF) in June 2004. It was published in English (0.54 Mb, PDF) in March 2005, and in French (0.4 Mb, PDF) in March 2013. The author would like to thank Dr. David Wright, Co-Director Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Captain (French Air Force) Emmanuel Goffi, Research Associate and Influence Officer at the Center for Aerospace Strategic Studies for their help in a work on English and French editions. Questions and comments on the subject discussed are greatly appreciated.

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P.S. Surprisingly, the published report did cause some consequences. Russian RC airplane model hobbyists posted in the Internet a copy of an order signed by the Deputy Chief of one of the regional (possibly in Kaluga Region) branches of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation. The order was issued on July 29, 2008 four years after the Center's report first came out.

The order states that

The order requires the department for public security

The author of the report was not aware of the work conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He does not have information on what the scale and duration of the action was. The author also does not know about the results of the action - did the measures actually help in preventing terrorist acts or they became counterproductive.

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