Commercial drones, such as the $1,500 Chinese-made DJI Phantom widely used by the Islamic State group, are providing nonstate actors with their own mini-air force, according to an expert in irregular warfare, who spoke on a panel Wednesday at the Modern Day Marine expo in Quantico, Virginia.
While many observers have awed over ISIS’ use of these platforms to drop munitions — a significant change in operations and a threat to U.S. and allied forces unseen in the last 16 years — the totality of the group’s use of drones should be taken into account, said David Knoll, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis.
ISIS uses these devices for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as close-air support, providing the militant group with a tactical-level air force capability that many states did not even possess 10 years ago.
“Rather than us seeing them, and them not seeing us, they can see into our bases, they know where the key headquarters are [as well as] the key [command and control] nodes” that they can potentially attack, he said.
This will potentially force military units to move more rapidly against these insurgent organizations than in previous years. Instead of large, forward-operating bases and massive logistics networks, forces will have to change position on a regular basis to avoid being detected and targeted by the enemy — be it a state or nonstate actor.
Other nonstate groups such as al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate and Hezbollah have also adopted the use of drones in their respective operations.
In the last 16 years, U.S. forces have been able to concentrate its forces where and when it wants, Knoll noted. But in the future, with this close-air support, U.S. forces won’t be able to do that given the enemy’s ability to perform ISR from a distance.
With this reality, the U.S. should be investing even more heavily in countering enemy ISR capabilities, said Dave Ochmanek, of the think tank Rand, who also spoke on the panel. He believes the U.S. should invest. These capabilities include those that can blind, confuse, destroy and disrupt sensors.
The U.S. has become accustomed to facing enemies without ISR capabilities, he added, be it state or nonstate actors. Now the U.S. may face actors that have more sensors looking at U.S. assets than vice versa.