Unmanned Aerial Vehicles as a Security Threat for the UAE

Introduction

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)–powered aerial vehicle carrying no human operators that use aerodynamic forces to fly automatically with remote control–are rapidly gaining popularity with hostile non-state actors (including terrorist groups) and, at present, are widely used in war operations against state militaries as they can carry a lethal payload (Cruzan et al., 2016). This threat is especially relevant in fierce war zones since commercial drones, which are indeed inexpensive and easily accessible to anyone who wishes to use them to their benefit, provide armed groups with enhanced intelligence and surveillance, bringing their combat capabilities to a new level (Lozano, 2013).

For UAE as one of the permanent actors of the Middle East conflict, it is a first-order problem, which may mean that clashes of arms can be aggravated and prolonged threatening national security and leading to considerable life losses. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the civilian market for drones is currently exploding: Their growing popularity makes them cheaper and easier to obtain, which facilitates their offensive use by terrorists and other adverse actors, who can deliver improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by attaching them to undersides of drones. Therefore, UAVs are getting more and more weaponized. This implies that these seemingly innocent commercial devices can be applied for carrying out various kinds of military actions: the so-called “bird strike” type attacks (flowing UAVs directly into the engine of a plane to damage it), air attacks on the civilian population, drops of life-threatening chemicals or explosives into crowds at public gatherings, etc. Other creative tactical employments are to follow (Cano, Horton, Liljegren, & Bulanon, 2017).

Question-led Assessment

The major issues that have to be addressed in order to identify the significance of the problem to the UAE include:

  1. What capabilities do UAVs have in the hands of an organized actor, and how can they be implemented by various non-state organizations?
  2. Why is the UAE not prepared to defend its population from drone attacks?
  3. What counter-UAV systems can be deployed? What major challenges do they have to overcome?
  4. How can attack surface hinder counter-UAV systems?
  5. What is the impact of the legal environment?
  6. How technical characteristics of defensive and offensive systems determine the outcome of measures taken?

Literature Review

Capabilities and Deployment of UAVs

Initially, UAVs were used exclusively for producing videos (the purpose for which they were actually designed) (Colomina & Molina, 2014). However, in 2016, ISIS first implemented them for killing. The drones were configured as SVBIED and since then have regularly been applied to drop bombs on both military and civilian targets, which implies that currently, this practice undermines the security of all states regardless of the fact whether they are involved in military operations or not (Zeng, Zhang, & Lim, 2016).

UAVs have not yet been applied to deliver chemical weapons; however, this capability is now under consideration and is likely to be realized within a short period of time. It is already proven that the use of drones in hostile actions is effective and lethal. Non-state actors can also use them for delivering drugs, radioactive payloads, and adverse propaganda. Furthermore, they are actively developing methods to enhance the performance of UAVs in order to hinder countermeasures that the government might take. This shows that the program is well-developed and is going to bring about more frequent and dangerous attacks, with which the UAE is not able to cope (Duan & Li, 2014).

Why the UAE is not Prepared for Attacks

Having analyzed potential threats, we can make a conclusion that the UAE is not ready for UAVs hostile use. This can be proven by (Boucher 2015):

  • deficiencies of counter technologies;
  • regulations that forbid the utilization of the technology;
  • the incapability of protective measures to cover all targets, not just the most predictable events.

The problem is that the government is placed at an asymmetric disadvantage, which means that in order to prove effective, they must offer measures with a 100% success rate; otherwise, the strategy cannot be accepted since attackers would win if at least of their attacks hits the target (Villa, Gonzalez, Miljievic, Ristovski, & Morawska, 2016).

Counter-UAV Systems and Challenges they Face

An effective counter-UAV system must be able to (Hocraffer & Nam, 2017):

  • detect a drone: This presupposes the collection of phenomenological information by a special sensor (which does not have to classify it);
  • classify a drone: After the detection phase, the UAV has to be classified by a human to ensure that its real target is defined properly;
  • neutralize a drone: In case the detected platform presents a hazard, it must be neutralized.

The complexity of the task lies in the fact that all steps are required to be performed sequentially to complete the mission. The operation can fail at the very beginning as detection has to be conducted against complex audio, visual, and radiofrequency background, which is extremely difficult. Identification of risks is also complicated as there might be no indicators of malicious intent (Qiu, Wei, Dou, & Zhou, 2015).

Another problem is that the success of hostile drone operations is not defined by their ability to bring about life losses. They bring damage even if they manage to obtain secure information or even generate public outcry and unrest (which is the case with the UAE, where the use of UAVs has already provoked disputes on the necessity of introducing stricter regulations of UAV sales) (Volovelsky, 2014).

Thus, counter-UAV systems encounter a variety of challenges. The major of them include the size of the attack surface, the legal context in which systems have to operate, and the technical properties of both defensive and offensive sides (Volovelsky, 2014).

Attack Surface Challenge

If we deal with the battlefield, counter-UAV systems must be able to protect only military installations–this task can be rather easily performed as there is a great number of defensive weapons and reliable equipment allowing the military to detect a threat in due time (Babel, 2014).

However, in the majority of cases, the battlefield will inevitably include the civilian population; therefore, the attack surface would be much bigger even if a terrorist or other non-state actors do not intend to attack the population. Thus, the major challenge for the UAE is that the theater of operations in case of drone attacks would be domestic soil: If they transport poisonous chemicals, they would be able not only to affect people but also to bring irreparable damage to agriculture. In the event that the situation develops according to this scenario, the effectiveness of the military’s response would be greatly curtailed as they lack defensive systems. Their actions on the domestic territory are considerably limited and cannot be taken without a specific decree of the government that may fail to address the problem immediately. Furthermore, even if the deterrent system is developed and approved by the authorities, logistic costs would exceed the financial capability of the UAE (Colomina & Molina, 2014).

Legal Environment Impact

The paradox of the situation lies in the fact that currently, in the UAE, the one who takes counter-UAV measures to protect the population is legally engaged in a more serious criminal activity than non-state actors who operate drones. For the nation, it means that unless the regulation is changed, no one would be able to guarantee safety from UAV attacks (Mayer, 2015).

Even detection of drones can be classified as illegal as there are very few areas within the country in which any object crossing the boundary is automatically classified as malicious. Any actions against aircraft are not authorized. The defender system can be used only by people or organizations legally approved by the government. In all other cases, violation of law takes place (Mayer, 2015).

Technically, such regulations imply that the country is deprived of all means to counter UAV operations while non-state actors have no barriers against their adverse actions. Unless the investment in technology is not matched with changes in in-laws, it would be useless for the protection of the country (Mayer, 2015).

Technical Challenges

Prevention of drone attacks largely depends not only on the type of a protective system but also on the technological characteristics of UAVs. It is wrongly assumed that drones can be neutralized only by expensive technologies that the country cannot afford. In fact, if UAV detection depends on either a radio frequency link or a GPS signal, they can be successfully neutralized without any necessity to resort to complicated or costly methods. Yet, some of the newest drones can operate fully autonomously. They do not use GPS signals–this complicates the task to a considerable degree. Neutralization of such UAVs would require long-range firearms and professional marksmen; however, even this solution would be highly dubious as its effectiveness is not proven (Fowler, 2015).

Critical Information Gaps

Since the information on the topic is connected with national security and defense, a lot of documents cannot be accessed (leaving alone top-secret papers). The UAE national security strategy is briefly outlined in various articles and books, but UAVs are generally covered in a shallow manner, alongside other types of threats coming from the air. Consequently, most of the offensive and defensive options that drones and protective systems have cannot be found in open sources. Neither is there any exhaustible description of all their technical characteristics that can be used for hostile purposes (Sandbrook, 2015).

Since it is difficult to track law changes as well as the appearance of new bills, the situation cannot be assessed properly, and no regulatory changes recommendations can be made for the lack of information on the current state of the issue.

All the military information is also top-secret, and there is no way to estimate how drones can threaten the army on the battlefield and what protection equipment is used there to ensure safety. This would be useful for further analysis as demonstration tests could be conducted to find out whether the same technologies are applicable in other settings (Sandbrook, 2015).

Although it is evident that measures must be taken to address the problem of hostile use of drones, we are unaware of the plans terrorists, and other dangerous non-state actors have about their application. It is possible to make guesses about potential future attacks judging by previous experiences. However, terrorists are devising new ways of improving technologies, which means that they can be used more extensively. We do not yet know whether they are going to target the civilian population or use UAVs as military weapons (Fowler, 2015).

Finally, the investigation has shown that a number of humanitarian agencies (including those operating in the UAE) are now applying drones for facilitating their first-aid missions. Moreover, this method is spreading and demonstrates good results in improving the efficiency of humanitarian missions. The problem is that they use the same platforms as those who can threaten national security, applying drones as methods of espionage or as a weapon carrier. There are no clear suggestions that can be found in the literature on how to identify the nature of UVAs and react according to the situation. All the proposed techniques lack reliability and clarity. No substantial research on the topic has been made (Chaves, Cugnasca, & Jose, 2014).

Discussion

The analysis performed allows concluding in all certainty that the UAE is currently unprepared to deal with all the threats presented by UAVs. The capability of non-state actors (including terrorists) to use drones in order to organize attacks on the military and civilians cannot be counteracted by any of the existing technical and regulatory policies and solutions. In addition, at present, we know nothing about people or organizations we refer to saying “non-state actors”–the notion is too broad indeed and includes not only terrorist but actually any people who have enough money to purchase a drone and use it with any unknown intentions whatsoever (Kriheli, Levner, & Spivak, 2016).

At the same time, it can also be stated rather confidently that non-state actors have already proven their ability to use UAVs for a number of hostile purposes (espionage, target acquisition, delivery of drugs, radioactive loads, weapons, etc.). This makes it clear for those who believe that the hazard is imaginary or exaggerated that adversaries have the most serious intentions to develop the technology up to the level where it can undermine the national security of entire states. The position of the UAE, in this case, is vulnerable indeed as it would have to face attacks on the domestic soil. It can bring about not only extensive life losses but also poisoning of farm fields and bring about civilian unrest exacerbating the situation. Although certain protective measures can be taken, we can rely on guesses and previous experiences to judge what the next attack might be like (Fowler, 2015).

The degree of certainty is much lower when it concerns counteractive measures. Technically, most drones can be detected and neutralized in a rather short while using simple and cheap radio equipment. Yet, this equipment is used neither by companies nor by individuals for the purpose of defense mainly because this would violate certain laws and regulations forbidding to take any actions against aircraft without obtaining permission from the government. This brings us to the conclusion that legal barriers are the hardest to overcome. Even if this happens and regulations are modulated accordingly, there is no way to identify whether this or that drone is malicious or not. Many government agencies use UAVs for rendering humanitarian aid. Neutralizing such a drone could mean not only breaching the law but also disrupting the relationship with neighbors (Chaves et al., 2014).

Data Collection Plan

Information Gap #1

Since the information on the topic is connected with the national security and defense of UAE, a lot of top-secret papers, along with other government documents, cannot be accessed.

Indicators

No information about the topic is found in the open sources either on the Internet or in libraries and databases.

Collection Method/s

Special research agencies should be enabled to file an application to the government to access necessary papers for national security research purposes.

Information Gap #2

Although the UAE national security strategy is briefly outlined in various articles and books, UAVs are generally covered in a shallow manner, alongside other types of threats coming from the air, which does not allow to form a holistic picture of their characteristics, capabilities, types, and potential threats they have.

Indicators

Most of the offensive and defensive options that drones and protective systems have cannot be found in open sources. Neither is there any exhaustible description of all their technical characteristics that can be used for hostile purposes.

Collection Method/s

A technical team of researchers must be recruited by the government of UAE to perform a deep comparative analysis of all types of modern UAVs to be able to estimate how dangerous each of them is, for what purposes they can apply, and what measures can be taken to neutralize them.

Information Gap #3

In the legal aspect, the situation cannot be assessed properly, and no regulatory changes recommendations can be made for the lack of information on the current state of the issue.

Indicators

It is difficult to track law changes as well as the appearance of new bills.

Collection Method/s

A governmental security agency must commission a group of people to address the challenges presented by regulation and present the problem clearly and concisely to the government.

Information Gap #4

There is no way to estimate how drones can threaten the army on the battlefield and what protection equipment is used there to ensure safety.

Indicators

The military information is top secret in the UAE.

Collection Method/s

The military bodies should conduct demonstration tests to find out whether the same technologies are applicable in other settings.

Information Gap #5

We can only make guesses about possible future attacks judging by previous experiences. However, terrorists are devising new ways of improving technologies, which means that they can be used more extensively. We do not yet know whether they are going to target the civilian population or use UAVs as military weapons.

Indicators

No consistency is found in the actions of terrorists connected with UAV attacks.

Collection Method/s

National security agencies should be tasked to collect all the given information about previous attacks and try to find repetitive patterns to be able to predict further actions.

Information Gap #6

A number of humanitarian agencies (including those operating in the UAE) are now applying drones for facilitating their first-aid missions.

The problem is that they use the same platforms as those who can threaten national security, applying drones as methods of espionage or as a weapon carrier.

Indicators

There are no clear suggestions that can be found in the literature on how to identify the nature of UVAs and react according to the situation.

Collection Method/s

Substantial research on the topic is required. Moreover, it would be advisable to negotiate with other states which types of drones should be produced for humanitarian purposes only. These types must not be available for purchase to the general public.

References

Babel, L. (2014). Flight path planning for unmanned aerial vehicles with landmark-based visual navigation. Robotics and Autonomous Systems, 62(2), 142-150.

Boucher, P. (2015). Domesticating the drone: The demilitarisation of unmanned aircraft for civil markets. Science and Engineering Ethics, 21(6), 1393-1412.

Cano, E., Horton, R., Liljegren, C., & Bulanon, D. M. (2017). Comparison of small unmanned aerial vehicles performance using image processing. Journal of Imaging, 3(1), 4.

Chaves, A. N., Cugnasca, P. S., & Jose, J. (2014). Adaptive search control applied to search and rescue operations using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). IEEE Latin America Transactions, 12(7), 1278-1283.

Colomina, I., & Molina, P. (2014). Unmanned aerial systems for photogrammetry and remote sensing: A review. ISPRS Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, 92(2), 79-97.

Cruzan, M. B., Weinstein, B. G., Grasty, M. R., Kohrn, B. F., Hendrickson, E. C., Arredondo, T. M., & Thompson, P. G. (2016). Small unmanned aerial vehicles (micro-UAVs, drones) in plant ecology. Applications in Plant Sciences, 4(9), 1600041-1600057.

Duan, H., & Li, P. (2014). Bio-inspired computation in unmanned aerial vehicles. Berlin, Germany: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Fowler, M. (2015). The future of unmanned aerial vehicles. Global Security and Intelligence Studies, 1(1), 3-21.

Hocraffer, A., & Nam, C. S. (2017). A meta-analysis of human-system interfaces in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) swarm management. Applied Ergonomics, 58(3), 66-80.

Kriheli, B., Levner, E., & Spivak, A. (2016). Optimal search for hidden targets by unmanned aerial vehicles under imperfect inspections. American Journal of Operations Research, 6(02), 153-161.

Lozano, R. (Ed.). (2013). Unmanned aerial vehicles: Embedded control. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Mayer, M. (2015). The new killer drones: Understanding the strategic implications of next‐generation unmanned combat aerial vehicles. International Affairs, 91(4), 765-780.

Qiu, H., Wei, C., Dou, R., & Zhou, Z. (2015). Fully autonomous flying: From collective motion in bird flocks to unmanned aerial vehicle autonomous swarms. Science China Information Sciences, 58(12), 1-3.

Sandbrook, C. (2015). The social implications of using drones for biodiversity conservation. Ambio, 44(4), 636-647.

Villa, T. F., Gonzalez, F., Miljievic, B., Ristovski, Z. D., & Morawska, L. (2016). An overview of small unmanned aerial vehicles for air quality measurements: Present applications and future prospectives. Sensors, 16(7), 1072-1093.

Volovelsky, U. (2014). Civilian uses of unmanned aerial vehicles and the threat to the right to privacy–an Israeli case study. Computer Law & Security Review, 30(3), 306-320.

Zeng, Y., Zhang, R., & Lim, T. J. (2016). Wireless communications with unmanned aerial vehicles: Opportunities and challenges. IEEE Communications Magazine, 54(5), 36-42.