Extensive Islamic State Drone Use Raising Risks in Mosul Battle

  • Some vehicles being used to help direct rocket, mortar fire
  • Pentagon has sought $20 million to start counter-drone effort

A drone belonging to Islamic State group which was shot down by Iraqi security forces outside Fallujah, Iraq, on May 26, 2016.

Source: AP Photo

With the battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul under way -- and a similar effort across the Syrian border in Raqqa planned soon -- Islamic State militants are making aggressive use of small drones to survey Iraqi and U.S. forces and drop explosive devices, the top U.S. general in Iraq said.

The Islamic State “makes extensive use of drones” that’s “not episodic or sporadic” but “relatively constant and creative,” Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday via videoconference from Baghdad. They are used “mostly for reconnaissance and surveillance” and directing rocket or mortar fire, he said.

The terrorist group’s efforts include landing a “Trojan Horse” drone that appeared benign when it set down near coalition forces but then exploded and caused casualties, Townsend said. His comments, as well as a $20 million Pentagon funding request in July to counter enemy drones, underscores that commercially available drone technology has proliferated beyond hobbyists to adversaries. At the Pentagon, the police force has posted “no drone” signs around the sprawling complex along with the usual “no photos” reminders.

“They’ve gotten a bit more creative and they have dropped small explosive devices into our partner force positions,” Townsend said. “Those haven’t had -- fortunately -- haven’t had a great effect. We’re trying to find better solutions for this pretty thorny problem.”

The “Trojan Horse” drone landed in Northern Iraq about two weeks ago, killing two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, according to a defense official who asked not to be identified discussing operational details.

“We expect to see more of this,” the general said. “We’ve put out procedures” to U.S. and coalitions forces to be on guard for the tactic, he added.

For a QuickTake on the fight against Islamic State, click here

Townsend’s remarks came two days after Air Force Secretary Deborah James disclosed that the service used an electronic warfare system to down a small Islamic State drone flying recently near Mosul, 15 minutes after it was spotted.

Armed drones are among many threats facing the Iraqi-led coalition which, bolstered by
U.S. forces and intelligence, began battling Islamic State positions in and around Mosul last week in a long-planned effort to roll back the group and recapture the biggest city in its self-declared “caliphate.” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday that a similar effort to retake Raqqa, in Syria, sometimes called the capital of Islamic State, will overlap with the Mosul operation.

Troops closing in on Mosul have faced a barrage of suicide car attacks, and the Pentagon warned earlier this month that it saw signs of improvised explosive devices placed in buildings and roads, charges on bridges and pits of tires and oil ready to be lit quickly.

$20 Million

The $20 million sought by the Pentagon in July would bankroll moves to “identify, acquire, integrate and conduct testing” of technologies that would “counter the effects of unmanned aerial systems and the threats they pose to U.S. forces,” according to a budget document sent to Congress.

Last week the Air Force also formed a working group to address the evolving threat presented by small commercial drones “operated by nefarious or even simply untrained actors,” Captain Rebecca Heyse, a spokeswoman for the service, said in an e-mail.

In a July publication, the Army discussed air defense techniques that says “short-range air defense capabilities are critical to counter the growing arsenal of mixed aerial weapons platforms that are available to financially limited, rogue or failing states or non-state actors.”

The primary threat from drones “is due to their minimal or no radar cross section allowing them to come in extremely close proximity to friendly forces undetected,” said the Army.

“They can fly extremely low underneath traditional radar detection zones. They fly very slow and can even hover in place, preventing any Doppler-based sensor from detecting them” and “they are generally very small, making them hard to hit with direct fire weapons,” the service publication said.

The Army publication also discusses the potential danger of swarming drone attacks to “disrupt our own reconnaissance efforts.”

Townsend said the U.S, and allies are “working really hard to come up with solutions,” from electronic attack to with small-arms fire. “And we’ve downed a number of drones by a number of different means.”

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