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On January 17, 2022, Houthi rebels in Yemen sent a group of armed drones on a journey of nearly 1,000 miles. Launched alongside ballistic missiles as part of a coordinated attack, the drones flew into the United Arab Emirates, a member of the Saudi-led coalition the Houthis are fighting. After passing above the Abu Dhabi skyline, some of the drones started a fire at the city’s airport. Others hit a group of oil trucks at a state-owned fuel depot, killing three people and injuring six.
The attack was just the latest reminder of the destructive efficiency of drones, which have become a weapon of choice for militaries, militias, and terrorists. But the strike on Abu Dhabi was also a reminder of something else: that the threat of drones is not confined to remote conflict zones; drones can also jeopardize the safety of those living in developed, seemingly safe cities. For the United States, where the civilian use of drones has grown exponentially, the implications of thousands of drones traversing the nation’s airspace are worrisome. Now that unmanned aerial vehicles are widely available, increasingly affordable, and easily adaptable, the drone threat is about to come home.
That threat is frustratingly multifaceted. Drones have been used in terrorist attacks, assassination attempts, and strikes on critical infrastructure. Like cyberattacks, they are hard to attribute. As the range and accuracy of drones have increased, they have essentially become a weapons delivery system—what one commentator has called a “cheap cruise missile.”
The looming domestic security threat posed by drones has been given far too little consideration by the U.S. government, which has left decisions largely to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and to state governments, resulting in a patchwork of regulations, and neglected to build security into the basic design of the technology. With a threat as complex and dangerous as drones, Washington cannot afford to wait.
Drones have a distinctly military heritage. The United States first used them in the Vietnam War for reconnaissance. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli military deployed modified U.S. drones for surveillance and as decoys. Only around 2000 did the United States weaponize drones, adding Hellfire anti-tank missiles onto the Predator.
Over time, drones became essential weapons in the modern military arsenal. The United States has been a prominent user, relying heavily on them in its war on terrorism, but it is hardly alone. Today, by one count, 102 countries have active military drone programs. Some are powerful U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom, which conducted 398 drone strikes in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2019, whereas others are newer entrants: Azerbaijan, for example, used Turkish-made drones to tip the scales in its favor during its 2020 war with Armenia.
In Syria and Iraq, ISIS launched 60 to 100 drone attacks every month in 2017.
Nonstate actors have also come to rely on drones. Over the first nine months of 2021, Houthi rebels launched 33 missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia, many targeting critical infrastructure such as oil pipelines and tankers. Each drone costs the Houthis just a few hundred dollars. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) had a significant drone program in Syria and Iraq, launching 60 to 100 drone attacks every month in 2017 alone.
In parallel, drones have exploded in popularity among civilians. According to the FAA, as of 2020 there were 1.4 million recreational drones and about 500,000 commercial drones registered in the United States. In a 2020 survey of Americans, eight percent of respondents reported owning a drone, and 15 percent reported having ever flown one. In the United States today, anyone over the age of 13 can buy and register a drone. The uses are diverse: not only can drones capture high-quality photographs and video, but they can also map terrain, monitor crops, forecast weather, and assist with search-and-rescue operations. In Cape Cod, beachgoers are even flying them to spot great white sharks. One market research group has put the value of the global drone market at nearly $30 billion.
Perhaps most revolutionary is the potential effect drones could have on shipping, deliveries, and transportation. In an effort to shorten arrival times, increase geographic coverage, and save money, Amazon, Google, and Uber have all invested heavily in drones that deliver orders. One research firm has predicted that by 2026, one million drones will be conducting commercial deliveries globally.
For all the benefits of drones, their pervasiveness in everyday life poses significant security risks. For one thing, drones are easy to weaponize. Take the case of a Connecticut teenager who in 2015 posted videos of homemade drones he had altered to fire a semi-automatic handgun and shoot a flamethrower. Although off-the-shelf drones can generally carry only small payloads, this will soon change, and even today, some commercial drones can carry a 1,000-pound payload. Besides, even low-powered drones can deliver biological weapons or nuclear materials.
Another factor making drones so threatening is their ability to hover, which allows them to stay on target. It was this ability to have a persistent presence that initially made drones so essential for reconnaissance in warfare and for tracking the enemy, but it also makes them a potential privacy and security threat. Before the advent of readily available drones, reconnaissance required surreptitiously installing cameras, personally staking out a given location, or regularly flying over a target. Not so today. In 2017, a diesel-powered drone, the Vanilla Aircraft VA001, conducted a five-day continuous flight—landing with three days of fuel left to spare.
Other characteristics can also make drones dangerous. Drones are cheap and easy to make: in 2018, Syrian rebels fighting Russian forces strapped explosives to drones constructed from little more than a small engine, packing tape, plywood, and plastic. Drones are vulnerable to hacking and espionage as well, especially as their operating systems grow more sophisticated and remotely operable.
Even low-powered drones can deliver biological weapons or nuclear materials.
Finally, drones have a particularly destructive potential when enabled with artificial intelligence. Most salient is the danger from drone swarms: massive numbers of drones communicating and coordinating with one another using artificial intelligence to destroy a preprogrammed target. Drone swarms should be thought of as an emerging arms control challenge, as they are exceedingly difficult to counter or control. In 2020, a Chinese state-owned company released a video showing a Hummer-like vehicle that can launch a swarm of 48 drones, each carrying a high-explosive warhead. The next year, the Indian army staged a demonstration featuring a swarm of 75 drones, with plans to scale it up to 1,000 drones.
These attributes raise a number of risks for the U.S. homeland. The first and perhaps the most straightforward is the use of drones by terrorists and criminals, domestic or foreign, who might wish to transport contraband, attack a crowd, or assassinate a political leader. In 2015, a drone containing radioactive material landed on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office. In 2018, a pair of drones exploded near Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro while he was giving a speech outdoors. In November 2021, an explosives-laden drone landed on the residence of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, injuring seven of his bodyguards.
Then there is the threat to critical infrastructure. For proof of concept, look no further than Saudi Arabia, where, in 2019, Iranian drones attacked two massive oil-processing facilities. The incident knocked out five percent of global oil supply overnight, causing the biggest sudden disruption in history. American infrastructure is also vulnerable. In 2020, a consumer drone that had been modified with a copper wire trailing behind it tried to land on an electrical substation in Pennsylvania—an attempt that, had it succeeded, could have caused a short circuit and taken down the electric grid. Between 2014 and 2019, there were at least 57 sightings of drones flying above domestic nuclear sites. The FAA receives more than 100 reports a month of drones flying around airports. In 2018, the United Kingdom’s Gatwick Airport shut down for 36 hours after drones were spotted in the sky nearby.
Last, the pervasive presence of drones can threaten Americans’ quality of life. They make a consistent and piercing buzzing noise that can become a constant annoyance; they also pose a physical risk from collision. Perhaps more acute are privacy concerns. In 2011, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency unveiled the AeroVironment Nano Hummingbird, a surveillance drone that is 6.5 inches long and lighter than a AA battery. Imagine the risks posed to personal privacy if this technology were adapted for civilian use: a nosy neighbor or a vindictive employer could spy on a person for days at a time, watching every aspect of one’s pattern of life.
The current challenge from drones is reminiscent of the terrorist threat before 9/11. Drones are still in their infancy in terms of widespread adoption and technological evolution, and there is still time to address their risks, before losing control. If Washington waits, however, the costs of establishing adequate security measures and regulation will far exceed the costs of acting now. Delay also risks allowing the parties that have the most to gain from the mass proliferation of drones—namely, companies that make or intend to use drones—to dominate the rulemaking process.
To address the drone threat, the Biden administration should begin by issuing an executive order that establishes a senior interagency group—including representatives from the FAA, the Pentagon, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—to catalog drones’ security risks and come up with recommendations for mitigating them. Alternatively, the president could set up a public-private commission composed of government officials and industry leaders. In either case, the effort would be designed to counterbalance the legitimate commercial and economic imperatives of drones by focusing on the security side of the ledger.
Any solution should include strengthened public-private collaboration, whereby regulators work with drone manufacturers to build in security measures at the point of construction and provide greater oversight of drone operators. The good news is that the U.S. government has made progress in this direction over the past few years. In 2015, the FAA mandated the registration of all recreational drones, and drones are now required to include a “remote ID” that broadcasts the drone’s identity, location, velocity, and altitude. Three years later, Congress passed a law giving the DHS and the Department of Justice new powers to identify, track, and even shoot down threatening drones.
The challenge from drones is reminiscent of the terrorist threat before 9/11.
One important improvement has been proposed by Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, and others: requiring that geofencing, technology that establishes virtual perimeters beyond which a drone cannot fly, be built into every drone, and mandating penalties for disabling the capability. The system could be informed by a government database containing the coordinates of sensitive areas, from airports to power plants. Although geofencing technology exists today and is built into many drone models, it is not required, and users can turn it off.
To protect critical infrastructure, the U.S. government should build what the analyst Zak Kallenborn has called a “national counter-drone network.” As he has argued, this could entail a system of bases at various critical sites across the country, each with defenses that would include remotely operated drones that can take down other drones. Such a network wouldn’t be cheap, but the costs would pale in comparison to those of a successful attack.
Policymakers also need to rethink who regulates drones. Today, the FAA serves as the primary regulator; it is worth considering whether more oversight power might be granted to the DHS. After all, drones originated as military tools. They should fundamentally be treated and regulated as potential weapons or instruments of surveillance, rather than as recreational or commercial objects. To that end, the DHS could be tasked with establishing the counter-drone network, for example, or with coordinating the installation of mandatory geofencing targets in every drone.
Last, the federal government needs a uniform approach to addressing privacy concerns related to drones. To date, the FAA has refrained from acting in this area, leaving regulation to a messy patchwork of state and local laws. California, for example, has passed a law aimed at the paparazzi that bars drone operators from flying over private property and capturing pictures and video, whereas Alabama has no laws specifically related to drone privacy. Although some federal legislation has been introduced, the issue remains unresolved. Congress should pass a law creating uniform standards to protect all Americans from being spied on by commercial or government drones.
The U.S. government’s failure to address the security implications of an emerging technology recalls the mistake it made with the Internet during its infancy in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, the architects of that network traded encryption and privacy for nimbleness and growth—an error the country is paying the price for today.
Looking back, Steve Crocker, one of the engineers who worked on the design of the Internet, regretted not taking security into consideration. “We could have done more,” he said, “and most of what we did was in response to issues as opposed to in anticipation of issues.”
Drones have the potential to revolutionize life for the better, offering everything from faster deliveries to more efficient farming to smarter weather forecasts. To preserve those benefits while mitigating the costs, Washington needs to take a fundamentally different approach: anticipating the many dangers from drones, rather than responding to them as they arise. Otherwise, as with the Internet, it risks losing control.
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