Terrorist Risks from Unmanned Aircraft

It's easy to imagine movie-plot terrorism risks. Here's one: the risks of unmanned small aircraft.

Posted on March 14, 2005 at 8:29 AM • 16 Comments

Comments

kstopMarch 14, 2005 10:00 AM

There's historical precedent for this kid of attack. In WW2, the Japanese tried using high-altitude balloons with incendiary bombs to set fires in the US. They launched a bunch of them and let them float over in the jetstream. They were almost completely ineffective. The government of the time chose not to publicise them, though nowadays they'd probably have a press conference and recommend panicking and duct taping the roof.

http://web.umr.edu/~rogersda/forensic_geology/...

Davi OttenheimerMarch 14, 2005 10:10 AM

Hmmm, well I wasn't going to say anything, but at first glance I am not sure I would classify explosive drones as a "movie-plot" risk. If I remember correctly this article appeared pre-9/11 and was called the "The Piper Cub Offense".

Back then it seemed more like a "late-night made-for-tv-plot" or a special on the history channel -- something you might expect a guy like Raskin to dream up in the mid-70s while working at "Jef's Friends Model Aircraft Co.". I can just imagine him dreaming up a terror scenario, in-between flying remote controlled model aircraft and getting ready to "invent" the Macintosh, after reading the news about the younger Bush's "dealings" with Saudis in the Arbusto Energy drilling corporation and the Bank of Credit and Commerce. That was a time (coincidentally) that the elder Bush was head of the CIA...oh, wait, now I actually do seem to remember something about "counter-terrorist" experts in 2001 who suggested angry Saudis might plot a remote-controlled aerial strike on President Bush. Why? Apparently there was some feuding over money from Osama's family used to underwrite the younger Bush's first "business venture". Darn, and I thought I was posting something original.

Alas, perhaps there really is a blockbuster "movie-plot terrorism risk" in there somewhere. It certainly does not seem far-fetched that a family money feud should be the source of "terrorism". Even more starkly, what you or I (or the average movie-goer) might label as "terrorism" is apparently very different from the Bush Administration's latest definition:
"Education Secretary Rod Paige called the nation's largest teachers union a 'terrorist organization' during a private White House meeting with governors on Monday. Democratic and Republican governors confirmed Paige's remarks about the National Education Association."
http://www.cnn.com/2004/EDUCATION/02/23/...

Jon SequeiraMarch 14, 2005 10:57 AM

Thinking up movie-plot terrorism risks is indeed easy. I believe this was Mr. Raskin's point. His reason for making it--to point out the infeasibility of a defense against an enemy already in possession of a nuclear weapon--could have been made using a less technologically flashy example.

Someone with a small atomic bomb can also deliver it using a car, or a Cessna, or a motorboat. The means of delivery are too numerous for it to ever become feasible to defend against the use of the weapon.

The only defenses against such a threat lie in locking down access to fissile materials, and, more importantly, in realistically addressing the root causes of the extremism that gives people reason to fear that such movie plots will become real.

Jeff PortenMarch 14, 2005 11:38 AM

FWIW, Raskin apparently did some work with UAVs. So while I'd go with Bruce on the threat assessment aspect of this risk, I'm also not willing to dismiss Raskin's idea entirely.

http://www.wired.com/news/mac/...

Of course, what this really points out is if "all it takes is a nuclear bomb" to make a UAV highly dangerous, then we should be paying more attention to proliferation. But we knew that already. Raskin also talks about nerve toxins, but AFAIK the delivery mechanisms for such agents make them approximately as dangerous as conventional explosives (if a bit more terrifying).

ProbitasMarch 14, 2005 1:35 PM

I think the biggest lesson Raskin has for the world in this would be that America's status as The Most Powerful Nation In the World is perhaps more tenuous than most Americans would like to accept. Whether or not the UAV attack is a viable idea, his paper reinforces the idea that America As Goliath is physically and mentally far more prepared to battle another Goliath than it is a David.

AnonymousMarch 14, 2005 2:55 PM

You might want to mention that Raskin died last week. He was widely recognized as the inspiration for the Macintosh computer.

QuadroMarch 14, 2005 6:37 PM

My cousin works at Insitu (the company that built the UAV in the essay), and today they are making UAVs for the US military... Go figure!

Roy OwensMarch 14, 2005 7:44 PM

My understanding is that a commercial single-engine aircraft on autopilot would be sufficient to deliver a nuclear weapon anywhere in the US. As we know from published news reports since 9/11, the actual response to small aircraft entering restricted airspace is to intercept the pilot on the ground and maybe make an arrest. A small plane with the autopilot correctly programmed, the timer set, and the pilot already bailed out, would continue to ground zero uninterrupted.

Forget the SAM systems ringing important targets: if these systems had been running for years, there would have been false positives by now, meaning aircraft would have been shot down unnecessarily. None have been shot down, so the systems have not been operating. They may run the radar at times, but if the missiles never fire, it is all just for show.

MithrasMarch 15, 2005 12:02 AM

This reminds me of the Balsa Wood Planes of Death that the Bush administration played up in Iraq.

Whatever point the (late?) Mr. Raskin had was obscured by astonishingly unsophisticated arguments. Delivery of nerve agents from airplanes? The reason why the Tokyo subway attacks could have succeeded was that it was in a subway; that is, there was a relatively small volume of air to fill with toxin.

If, as someone else has said, the point is that small nukes are easily delivered, well duh. But they already exist, so how do you counter the threat? Nukes are so expensive that acquiring one - not to mention a hundred - will have to involve participation or knowledge of some government. The counter to that threat is to make clear that if any government is found to be involved in a nuclear attack on the United States, that the reaction by the U.S. will be swift and proportionate. Do you want to be the world leader who makes a few million in profit selling nukes to a terrorist, only to lose all your cities to U.S. strikes?

AnonymousMarch 15, 2005 11:59 AM

This is a fairly poorly written article and is basically bush bashing disguised as an essay about security. Yes there are hundreds of attacks that a missle shield can't defend against but there are some very obvious attacks that (a working) defense shield will work against. If the the technology is there and it is economically feasible do it. If not don't and in either case continue to lookout for other threats and deal with them if possible.

AnonymousMarch 15, 2005 4:17 PM

These miro-aircraft (and micro-watercraft and submarines) pose a more practical issue: the movement of goods with a high value/weight ratio becomes much much easier.

Now we could be talking about nukes or nerve gas, but a far more likely scenario is drugs and other contraband.

Steve HarmonMarch 25, 2005 4:03 PM

Flying a model aircraft a long distance isn't ANYTHING like flying a model aircraft a long distance with a significant payload. The thrust produced by the little engine and the lift produced by the wing were probably just enough to get the fuel and the autonomous control equipment carried by Liama into the air.

Steve Fossett chose Salina, Kansas for his around-the-world attempt because it has a 12,300 foot runway. He used 8,000 feet of it to get all of his fuel into the air. You simply cannot put a huge payload in a small aircraft and expect it to fly a long distance.

Small aircraft constantly face a tradeoff between the weight of their payload and the weight of their fuel. A Cessna 152 with full fuel CANNOT safely carry two full-sized adults into the air. Small planes simply are not capable of carrying enough payload to represent a serious threat.

Fissile materials are some of the densest materials on earth. They are _heavy_. Even the vaunted "suitcase bomb" is an overwhelming payload for a model plane. In addition, the equipment required to make a model autonomous is _much_ heavier than the equipment required to make it controllable remotely.

You could put a heavy load in a small aircraft OR fly it a long distance autonomously, but not both.

The threat posed by small aircraft is overstated. Our security resources are better spent elsewhere.

MacboffinAugust 22, 2007 7:57 PM

Steve Harmon hasn't a clue about R/C planes or UAVs Enthusiasm is no substitute for expertise. He didn't see news items about a "model" aircraft flying the Atlantic a while back?As to a heavy load and guidance equipment too much, current autopilots for UAVs weigh ounces, not pounds.He should get his head out of the sand and do a little research before sounding off! (Retired Managing Director of UAV company.)

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..