Aerial Fears
Posted on October 19th, 2019

by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

The truth is that this technology really began to take off right at the beginning of my presidency” Barack Obama (Obama speaking on drone strikes to Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic interview, 21 Dec 2016)

Following the 4/21 Easter Sunday attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s civil aviation authority discovered a drone belonging to extremists, then banned drones owing to the security situation in the country.

From pizza delivery in New Zealand to assassinations in the Middle East, autonomous machines, especially drones, are transforming our skies. They have already influenced our daily lives. We will see more mind-bending, life-saving and life-threatening applications of the autonomous technology in the years to come. Swarms of drones will work together to paint the exterior of your house in just a few hours, heat resistance drones will fight forest fires with hundreds of times the current efficiency of firefighters and other drones will perform search and rescue operations in the aftermath of natural disasters. In ‘AI Superpowers,’ Dr. Kai Fu Lee explains that China will almost certainly take the lead in autonomous drone technology…Shenzhen is the home to DJI, the world’s premier drone maker.” China will surpass the US in Research and Development budgets for autonomous technology and there is a clear danger in the competition. While drones could help humans, they could also bring destruction to our lives.

On September 14 this year, two drone strikes on Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia destabilised global oil markets. The attack conducted by Houthi rebels from Yemen knocked out more than half of crude output from the world’s top oil exporter in Saudi Arabia. It cut output by 5.7 million barrels per day. While a Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes on Yemen’s northern Saada province, Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the drone attack and sent a clear threat to Saudi Arabia that their targets “will keep expanding” in the future. The world’s third-largest spender for military, with a staggering $67.6 billion defense budget, couldn’t prevent the drone strike by the financially tied rebels.

In a similar drone attack on January 10, Houthi rebels assassinated Mohammad Saleh Tamah, the head of Yemen’s Intelligence service, during a military parade. The drone carried between 70 and 100 kilogrammes of explosives, which detonated while flying over the main stage of the military parade.

On August 4 last year, Venezuelan head of state President Maduro was targeted by two drones which exploded while he was addressing a group of soldiers at a military event in Caracas. He survived unharmed.

Small scale terrorist outfits and extremists now have clear access to technologies that magnify their ability to wreak havoc. In Sri Lanka, the 4/21 Easter Sunday bombers used bitcoin transfers to obtain a drone and used it for pre-attack information gathering. There is no guarantee that the next set of attackers will not have access to drone technology or tools of cyber warfare. According to Collin P. Clarke from RAND corporation: This trend will likely be further exacerbated by subsequent technological developments, with the ability of individuals and small groups to cause wide-scale disruptions to society—through cyberattacks or the use of drones.”

The technology has assisted the replacement of human suicide bombers. It is more accurate, can travel far and is relatively cheap to stage a high-profile strike. According to Wim Zwijnenburg, a senior researcher on drones at PAX, the drones used by Houthis may have cost $15,000 or less to build. The investment of a human suicide bomber will be replaced by autonomous machines.

Nations under high security threat and which have faced ISIS attacks should ramp up coordination among intelligence agencies, civil aviation, customs, air force intelligence, police, and other authorities to counter future attacks. Proposals put forward by air intelligence in Sri Lanka are still not fully implemented, and the government needs to give these proposals top priority to ensure public safety.

The 4/21 threat has faded from security discussion with the upcoming presidential elections taking the centre stage. It was unfortunate to hear from the president at the parliamentary oversight committee on September 11 that not a single regulation has been fully implemented after the 4/21 attack and it’s been five months.” The fake news act, the Madrasa regulation act, the Burqa ban, and SIM card regulations, to name a few.

The State has to be extra cautious when introducing such regulations into society. It must be prepared for indirect consequences, which may further State problems. For example, the SIM card regulation proposed by the Telecom Regulatory Commission to limit SIM cards to two per person will not resolve the problem. Rather, it will affect the telecommunications market. Instead of limiting the purchase of SIM cards, which will be an unfruitful exercise, the authorities should focus on ‘profiling and cross-platform intelligence sharing.’ Even on regulating Madrasas, there is no guarantee that it will be possible to monitor what will be taught, since syllabuses are not unified. Courses offered by Arabic colleges in the Arabic language are taught across 1,675 centres in 24 districts in the country. There is no serious oversight of Madrasas, though they have mushroomed around the country in recent years.

While the government struggles to introduce new regulations to improve national security, it is vital to keep in mind future possible threats. Security lapses will damage economic infrastructure, increase security costs, disrupt markets and spread fear in a manner not so different from the Middle East.

 Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the director general of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense. The views expressed here are his own. This article was initially published by Hudson Institute Washington DC.

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