In the month of March 2017 an attack took place on an ammunition depot at Balakliya, Eastern Ukraine. The attack took place using a small drone which was loaded with a one pound Russian ZMG-1 thermite hand grenade. Thermite, is a pyrotechnic substance, a mixture of iron oxide Fe2O3 (rust) and aluminum powder. When it is ignited the aluminum powder reacts with the O3 part of the rust in a highly exothermic reaction, the resulting product is molten iron.When ignited, Thermite produces very high temperatures (over 4,000 degrees F), along with generous amounts of molten metal which can easily get through wooden crates to detonate the ammunitions inside.The resulting massive explosion and fire destroyed some seventy thousand tons of ammunitions which costed close to a billion dollars.Balakliya is said to be the largest ammunition dump in the world. One person was killed in the attack and five were injured.

This attack vector has also been effectively used by the Islamic State in northern Iraq. In fact they had announced the setting up of a Mujahideen UAV unit. This unit was supposed to be equipped with a fleet of drones fitted with bombs. There were claims of a number of successful hits. In the month of October 2016, French Special Forces members were injured and two Kurdish fighters were killed when a crashed drone of the Islamic State exploded in their hands. Analysts say it was booby trapped. Things have progressed to such a stage that Iraqi Federal police has in turn used these low cost, commercial off the shelf drones to attack against the Islamic state. In March 2017 there were reports that Iraqi Federal Police had been surveilling Islamic State positions in western Mosul and attacking using weaponized Quadcopters, giving them a taste of their own medicine.

Islamic State has conducted numerous drone attacks during the Mosul campaign and now after their defeat at Mosul, there is no reason why their expertise should not spread out of the war zones. Thus, the day may not be very far away when Islamic terrorists use the same against civilian targets with explosives as payloads or even chemical / biological weapons.

Closer home, it was reported in 2013 that Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan have developed small attack drones. The engineers were in the stage of testing their work when they were discovered by the police.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, this is not the first attack that they have faced from the Russian army and its proxies. There was a previous attack on the same base in December 2015. In that incident the drone dropped 14 grenades, but the fires were all extinguished. In end October 2015, a similar attack had taken place on an ammunition dump at Svatovo, Ukraine. In that incident 3.5 tons of ammunition had been destroyed, in addition to almost completely destroying the town. Similar incidents have happened this year at an ammunition storage facility in Zaporozhye region, in Gordovka village and at an army training facility at Donetsk.

This kind of an attack is a new threat vector for destroying ammunition depots, attacking camps where troops are staying in tents, carrying out training in the open, equally applicable in the Indian context also. In fact this is an elegant attack method because of its stark simplicity and innovativeness. This kind of attack implies that low cost equipment available off the shelf in commercial stores, which can be procured by any person without any restriction, can now be very easily converted into effective weapons for causing very respectable amounts of damage. Thus, supposedly harmless toys have been converted into lethal weapons. The icing on the cake is that this whole activity can be done by an amateur as a Do It Yourself (DIY) activity, no specialization required. 

This is also a new threat vector because the attacker does not have to bring the explosive to cause the explosion. The explosive is already available at the target site. In the words of Thomas Hammes, the attacker just brings in the detonator. In this kind of attack, it is not only the ammunition dumps which are vulnerable, other kinds of sites could also be extremely sensitive, for example sites storing highly inflammable fuels / chemicals / fuel dumps. The storage facility of dangerous chemicals might not explode when targeted, but if the chemical leaks it can have disastrous effects. We all remember the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984 and the number of deaths that it caused. Heavy capacity aircraft which have been refueled and are parked waiting for takeoff, will also be vulnerable to this kind of an attack, since their wings would be laden with highly flammable aviation fuel.

To counter this type of drone warfare, countries are investing in everything from eagles to lasers to special rifles for jamming control and communication signals. Attempts to physically stop drones will be a never ending battle, because of continuous improvements in technology; however in the meantime we need to pay attention to improve the security layout of the targets. Such as, the layout of fuel and hazardous chemical storage facilities, layout of bases where such threats are anticipated, ensuring that all ammunition depots do not have open ammunition storages. While the damage done by bigger drones may not be stoppable, in this case we are only looking for the attack vector using smaller, commercial off the shelf drones with a single grenade / small explosive.

The US army has been alive to this threat. The Pentagon has given all US bases across the country permission to shoot down private and commercial drones that could pose a threat. The other day on 20 Aug 2017, at the IGI airport flight operations were halted for about two hours when a drone like object was spotted in the area. This was not a first time spotting in the history of the IGI airport. Thus, it appears that this can become a real threat very soon in our context.

There is no clarity yet as to what is the best means to circumvent this new threat vector. Till then a lot of our establishments and physical layouts may require a second look and thereafter restructuring, so that they can effectively face this threat.



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Debashish Bose
Senior Fellow
Contact at: [email protected]

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