A small, low and slow threat that is growing fast

In a recent meeting in Brussels experts from NATO member states and others for the first time defined the evolving threat posed by all types of mini and micro unmanned air systems (UAS).

It took some time before the experts came to the initial conclusion that airborne threats have changed dramatically. A terrorist organisation can purchase a micro or mini UAS online, it can be delivered very fast, assembled in minutes and can be used to carry a payload of a small explosive device instead of a camera.

This is an imminent threat that most countries have preferred to ignore so far, but they are quickly waking up to the reality now, prompted by intelligence data and the proliferation of micro UAS such as the new quadcopters available on the open market in growing numbers.

In 2012, just before the Olympic games in London began, a senior British army officer warned that unmanned drones carrying deadly poison could be used in a devastating terrorist attack during the Olympic Games.

According to the UK media, Lt Col Brian Fahy delivered the grim warning at a meeting intended to allay fears from residents over the army’s plans to place missiles on the rooftops of flats.

He said it was “feasible” that remote-controlled aircraft filled with poison and small enough to fit into a backpack could be used as a biological weapon in the capital.

Are we going to see air defence systems permanently deployed on rooftops of big cities? We are not there yet, but the problem has surfaced and it is now “over the water” – and, as one Israeli expert described it, “with a red marker attached”.

Terrorist organisations have been trying to use small UAS to penetrate Israeli airspace. Air force F-16s have been scrambled and the UAS were shot down. But there is a common understanding that such a war of attrition between micro UAS and fighter aircraft is not logical in the long run, so experts are scratching their heads in an effort to meet the new challenge.

Some very “interesting” solutions are being evaluated in Israel but these are still classified. One thing is sure, though: the problem is understood and efforts to solve it are being made.

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