ISIS uses weaponized drones for combat and surveillance
Much has been written about the threat of Islamic State militants' use of unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, commonly known as drones, over the embattled city of Mosul.
IS was quick to weaponize UAVs with small improvised explosive devices.
On Jan. 24, they released a video showing up to 19 different aerial attacks by commercially purchased UAVs — the kind of drone you can buy in any shopping center. Iraqi forces have followed suit by attaching modified 40mm grenades with shuttlecock stabilizers onto their larger UAVs to drop on IS positions.
Drones like this are easy to acquire but can be very lethal targeting tools. (Photo: Don McCullough, CC BY 2.0)
A crude inaccurate way of killing terrorists, its effectiveness is questionable. Weaponized IS UAVs have mainly been used to target Iraqi military commanders and troops congregating in the open near the front line.
It's a low-end, low-altitude attack that can be thwarted by keeping in hard cover.
But both sides use the UAV's more effectively as a means of providing Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance, known as ISR.
Islamic State UAVs in the air, once identified, are the warning that something is about to happen — either mortar fire, which is typically one hastily fired inaccurate round — before coalition air superiority can locate and target the firing point.
Or, more devastatingly, the launching of a Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device, an SVBIED.
Since the Battle for Mosul officially started on Oct. 16, 2016, hundreds of SVBIEDs have been launched.
Recently, Sky News' Special Correspondent Alex Crawford and cameraman Garwen McLuckie faced a number of SVBIEDs during their reporting from West Mosul's front line.
Each time a small UAV was hovering high above. One occasion two were spotted.
Chief Correspondent Stuart Ramsay, cameraman Nathan Hale and Producer Haider Kata were also targeted by a SVBIED. On this occasion the UAV filmed the SVBIED (an armored Fronting Loader) to its intended target, a tank.
Later, the video was posted on Islamic State websites.
A captured ISIS drone on the battlefield. (Photo from Iraq Ministry of Defense)
Due to the built-up urban area and the ever-changing nature of the battle, IS drivers of the SVBIEDs are believed to be hiding in garages with their heavily armoured explosive-laden vehicles. Modified with armor at the front and cameras on the wing mirrors, they provide militants with a 360-degree view of the battlefield and are notoriously difficult to stop.
They wait as the Iraqi forces move slowly forward, seizing ground and minimizing the driving distance to strike.
If they launch too early, the SVBIED will be exposed to air strikes or anti-tank fire, the only two real ways of neutralizing the vehicle.
But hidden IS drivers may not know the exact location of the moving Iraqi forces or be familiar with the streets and or access routes to their targets.
This is where the UAV is the key component to the attack.
The operators of the UAV act as navigators for the suicide driver; guiding him by radio or cell phone through battle-worn streets, they can help deliver the driver to his intended target with greater efficiency and accuracy.
This is a deadly combination.
The coalition has attempted to blanket all of Mosul in a red no-fly zone for commercially purchased UAVs, but this has been thwarted by either smart software adjustments to the unit or by placing aluminum material over the GPS.
Other methods have included the Battelle Drone Defender gun (hand portable beam type weapon) and the Spynel infrared camera, which is used to locate incoming UAVs. Both have been very limited, as UAV use is usually confined within a few hundred meters at the very front of the fight where these systems are not always deployed.
If an IS UAV is sighted, the immediate response by Iraqi forces is to engage it with small and heavy weapons, a difficult shot when aiming at a high flying fast moving object of no more than a meter wide.
After the firing has stopped, all attention shifts to street level as experienced operators know the next thing coming will be more deadly.
Many harmless recreational drones have now become deadly tools of war.
The various developers of these off-the-shelf UAVs probably never envisaged that their products would be used in a lethal cat and mouse hunt through Mosul's war-torn streets.