A cascading catastrophe: The drone threat to critical infrastructure
By Zachary Kallenborn | November 26, 2021
The FBI recently revealed an attempted drone attack on the American electric grid, via an electrical substation in Pennsylvania. Someone or some group modified a drone to dangle a length of copper that, if it hit high-voltage equipment below, would have caused a short circuit. While the drone crashed into the ground without causing any harm, in theory a successful attack could have caused broader power outages and much bigger problems.
The 2020 attack failed, but a blueprint for trouble remains.
Risks to critical infrastructure are growing as terrorists increasingly adopt drones as an attack vehicle. Commercial drone producers are not only making larger drones available at lower cost, they are making increasingly sophisticated systems that incorporate capabilities like autonomy. But drones have numerous legal and popular uses— from taking glam real-estate photos to checking on pipelines—the United States and global governments face a balancing act in trying to reduce the risks drones could pose.
More drone terrorism. After failing as a political force in Japan, Aum Shinrikyo, the infamous doomsday cult that once boasted tens of thousands of members, believed it would prevail in a World War III-style battle by arming itself with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons; it even sought earthquake-generating machines. Aum also appears to be the first terrorist organization to pursue drone warfare, acquiring, a Russian helicopter and two remote controlled drones in order to deliver biological weapons, according to a Stimson Center report.
The Japanese government largely brought down Aum after the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. But other terrorist groups have since followed Aum’s lead in pursuing drones.
Trends in terrorist drone use had been steady and upward until ISIS, which at one point had captured vast swaths of Iraq and Syria for its caliphate, took things to a whole new level in the early 2010s. The group flew frequent drone operations, hundreds in one month in 2017 alone. ISIS showed it could “strike with a small munition with surprising accuracy with near complete surprise into areas that are believed to be safe,” a military analyst told Vice’s Motherboard at the time.
Growing terrorist use of drones is no surprise.
After the September 11th attacks, most counter-terrorism measures assumed a ground-based attack: suicide bombers, car bombs, and the like. Aerial drones allow terrorists to skip over the ground-based defenses, like fences and bollards, are easy to buy or even make, and can be launched from safe (for the terrorist) distances. Avoiding all that folderol on the ground is clearly an advantage for a terrorist.
The next terrorist attack in the United States won’t necessarily be a drone attack, of course. Cheap drones with small payloads might not be worth it for an attacker. Larger drones that can reach a thousand or more pounds, while available on the commercial market, are expensive. Drones are also new, and terrorists might not want to risk a botched attack. They might just buy a gun and shoot up a mall, or drive a truck through a crowd. But as Middle East experience shows, the threat of terrorist drone use is real.