Pioneering Adaptive Countermeasures Against Non-State Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Drone Threats

The global phenomenon of non-State actors using drones is NOT a new security threat.

The utilization of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) by non-state actors has become a global security concern, transcending geographic and conflict boundaries. According to recent research by Chávez and Swed (2023a), over 65 criminal, insurgent, or terrorist organizations now possess the capability to deploy drones. This broad adoption underscores the pivotal role drones play in modern warfare and security breaches. But the incidents involving drone usage by such groups are not confined to active conflict zones. These activities are globally dispersed, indicating that the threat of drone attacks is pervasive and not limited to war-torn regions. This widespread distribution of drone incidents highlights the universal nature of the challenge facing national security.

Figure 1: Examples of UAS attacks involving non-State armed groups including for terrorism-related purposes – Source: Global Report on the Acquisition, Weaponization, and Deployment of Unmanned Aircraft Systems by Non-State Armed Groups for Terrorism-related Purposes

Non-state armed groups are primarily sourcing their drones from commercial markets, as noted in several studies. Initially designed for civilian use, these drones are often modified and enhanced to suit offensive purposes, amplifying their threat potential. This trend of adapting consumer technology for combat illustrates the innovation and resourcefulness of these groups, which integrate drones with their broader military arsenals, using them to reinforce their operational and strategic goals.

The strategic use of drones by non-state actors challenges the traditional notion of air power as a symbol of state sovereignty and authority. As these groups continue to develop their drone capabilities, they require technological skills and tactical acumen, posing significant challenges for state militaries. These forces must develop specialized countermeasures to mitigate the evolving drone threats effectively. The employment of drones by non-state actors is a complex issue that extends across various dimensions—military, strategic, and symbolic. It demands focused attention and international cooperation to understand fully and counteract this evolving challenge. The diverse ways these groups utilize drones underscore the need for a nuanced approach in understanding and combating this global security threat.

Focus on the Immediate Threat:
Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.

When discussing the potential dangers posed by drones, the conversation often leaps to extreme scenarios involving weaponized drones and the fear of drone-delivered weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This tendency to anticipate the most catastrophic outcomes overshadows the more prevalent and immediate risks associated with drone use by non-state actors.

According to the UN Office of Counter Terrorism Global Report on the Acquisition, Weaponization, and Deployment of Unmanned Aircraft Systems by Non-State Armed Groups for Terrorism-related Purposes, the actual threats are often less sensational but no less serious. The report challenges the common perception by showing that the threat of drone-delivered WMDs, often highlighted in the literature, is not as prevalent as feared. Instead, it reveals that established non-State drone programs are more likely to focus on conventional types of attacks.

For the majority of these groups, drones serve as sophisticated tools for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Through ISR activities, drones can collect critical information—ranging from the timing of raw materials deliveries to shifts changes, vehicle counts in parking lots, and security patrol schedules. This type of surveillance is a fundamental security threat because it allows non-State actors to gather detailed intelligence about potential targets, enabling them to plan and execute more effective attacks.

Given the strategic use of drones for gathering intelligence, it becomes imperative for security forces to implement robust countermeasures. Autonomous sensors and surveillance systems that can operate around the clock are crucial. These systems must be capable of detecting and monitoring drones that loiter persistently over sensitive or secure areas. By maintaining comprehensive air security, we can mitigate the risk posed by drones used in reconnaissance roles and prevent them from escalating into more aggressive threats. This approach not only protects against immediate dangers but also helps in preparing for potential future escalations.

  • One of the threats most commonly highlighted in the literature – that of drone-delivered weapons of mass destruction is not that common in reality. “The most common form of reported non-State armed groups deployment of UAS is to gather intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR)” [3] – which directly impacts Military and Law Enforcement agencies as well as critical infrastructure.
  • The second reported deployment type is disruption and interference of critical infrastructure, such as energy utilities and transport sites.[2]
  • Another widespread drone threat happening as we speak has to do with illicit trafficking and smuggling – which is both one of the methods used by non-state actors to acquire UAS, and the type of usage these very same non-state actors are employing UAS for; be it to deliver weapons, drugs, money, and so on across borders, into prisons or elsewhere.

Figure 2: A close-up of a commercial UAV, recovered from a non-State armed group by regional security forces
(documented January 2023)

As noted by Don Rassler’s study already in 2016, certain non-state actors maintain well-organized, cohesive, and well-funded drone programs, distinct from those who only experiment with drone technology briefly before discontinuing its use.

He defines this concept more specifically with two key indicators: (1) the regular and substantial use of drones, and (2) the creation and maintenance of infrastructure intended for medium to long-term use.

Figure 3: Typology of drone uses by violent non-State actors
Source: A Comparative Study of Non-State Violent Drone use in the Middle East

A drone program is effectively managed by an organization that exhibits several key characteristics. First, it has a clear organizational structure specifically for drone-related activities. Second, there is a seamless integration of drone operations with other operational activities within the organization. Non-state entities integrate drone operations with their other weapons systems, strategically employing drones to bolster their operational goals and strategic plans. Third, there is a commitment to allocate either substantial or adequate resources to support these drone activities. These foundational elements lead to several observable outcomes, including the prolonged and widespread use of drones across diverse geographic and temporal dimensions. Additionally, there is a focus on developing robust command, control, and operational infrastructure that facilitates complex drone operations.

Consideration must also be given to the investment level in drone development, particularly in the context of tactical and technical innovations. Drone initiatives are dynamic, continuously evolving. Aggressive non-state entities developing these programs aim to gain a strategic advantage over more established adversaries by introducing innovative technologies, enhancing their capabilities, and employing elements of surprise.”

Non-State drone programs require significant tactical adaptation, as militaries must not only deal with a new type of attack but also account for potential contributions of drone surveillance and intelligence gathering to ground-based attacks.

The danger of non-state actors: drone programs that innovate constantly.

The threat from drone programs operated by non-state actors primarily stems from the strategic emphasis these organizations place on continual innovation and enhancement of both technical and tactical practices related to drone use. This persistent drive to advance their drone capabilities presents a multifaceted challenge to national security efforts aimed at mitigating such threats.

These groups exhibit remarkable flexibility and innovation in their use of drones, adapting their strategies and technologies to overcome countermeasures and exploit vulnerabilities. Their affiliations with state sponsors are fluid, allowing them to develop complex technology exchange patterns over time. Moreover, they frequently enhance state-provided support with resources from other sources, further complicating the security landscape.

The approach these groups take toward innovation can be segmented into three distinct areas: acquisition, weaponization, and usage, each contributing uniquely to the threat landscape.

  • Acquisition: The methods these organizations employ to acquire drones are evolving. They not only seek out new models and systems that can bypass current defenses but also adapt their procurement strategies to incorporate cutting-edge technologies. This includes acquiring drones capable of carrying advanced payloads and incorporating new flight and navigation protocols that make them harder to detect and neutralize.
  • Weaponization: There is a significant variation in how non-state actors weaponize unmanned aerial systems (UAS). While traditional weaponization includes attaching explosives or other harmful agents, the term has broadened to include the integration of surveillance equipment that can enhance the drone’s capability to carry out targeted attacks. The weaponization of drones is continually evolving, suggesting that the increase in offensive drone use is likely to escalate significantly. Today’s ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) capabilities facilitated by drones could soon transform into more aggressive and widespread use in offensive operations.
  • Usage: The potential misuses of drones by terrorist and insurgent groups are extensive and diverse, targeting a broad spectrum of objectives and locations. The strategic purposes for which drones are deployed vary widely among groups, often reflecting the specific nature of the conflicts they are engaged in. Drones offer these groups a low-cost, low-risk method of engaging enemies, gathering intelligence, and disrupting opponent operations, making them an attractive option for a variety of military and non-military purposes.

Table 1 : Proportion of UN respondent States in each region that observed deployment of UAS for particular uses
Source: Global Report on the Acquisition, Weaponization, and Deployment of Unmanned Aircraft Systems by Non-State Armed Groups for Terrorism-related Purposes

Furthermore, the rapid pace at which drone technology evolves means that defensive measures must also be continuously updated and adapted. This dynamic creates a perpetual cycle of action and reaction between drone-using groups and national security forces. The strategic integration of drones into these groups’ broader operational frameworks enhances their overall combat and strategic capabilities, enabling them to execute complex, multi-layered offensive and defensive strategies.

No blueprint for the way non-state actors will use drone technology in the future.

The escalating drone threat from non-state actors is not only a direct result of the advancements in drone technology but also a product of these groups’ strategic, innovative approaches to adapting these technologies for various combat and non-combat purposes. As these technologies become more accessible and their capabilities expand, the global security environment faces increasing challenges that require equally sophisticated responses to future threats that are challenging to predict.

As explained by Yannick Veilleux-Lepage and Emil Archambault  in their “Comparative Study of Non-State Violent Drone use in the Middle East”, there is “no single route of development for the use of drones by non-state entities, nor is there a pattern that these groups want to follow in order to expand their capabilities. Each organization uses drones in a manner that is unique to its own set of logistical, political, and strategic parameters.

Therefore, militaries and states that are confronting drone programs need to maintain a holistic approach. While they may draw on existing practices that have had varying degrees of success in countering drone threats and engage in preventive action to mitigate the scope of drone programs, approaches should consider drone programs not only as a distinct, isolated threat, but also as part of broader military operations, strategies, and conflict processes.Bottom of Form

Approaches to mitigating the threat posed by violent non-state drone programs can be classified into four categories:

  • Tactical
  • Logistical
  • Technological
  • Commercial/preventive

Although combining multiple elements from multiple categories is needed; we will focus on the technological response in this blog.

Protocol Dominance: The need for highly performing C-UAS solutions that quickly adapt to new threats.

Counter-UAS technology, crucial for mitigating the threat posed by violent non-state drone programs, traditionally focuses on either detection, tracking, and identification of drones; or on neutralization methods. They are often limited by specific drawbacks, such as:

  • Providing an inaccurate aerial situational picture
  • Generating a lot of false positives
  • Creating interferences with other communication and GNSS signals
  • Their inability to differentiate friends from rogue drones
  • Complexity to set up and operate
  • Sub-optimal cost efficiency
  • And more…

But the most challenging issue most C-UAS solutions are faced with is the pace at which the threats are changing. New drones are constantly brought to market, along with new protocols or protocol modifications, and overall technological advancements in the drone market are making it very difficult to remain relevant as a counter-drone provider.

Sentrycs’ technology-leading solutions introduce an advanced Cyber over RF (CRF) technology that is transformative not only in the way it overcomes the above limitations but also in its ability to quickly adapt to new threats, such as new drones, new protocols, Etc. as they evolve.

Based on unique and proprietary communication protocol research and development, Sentrycs adaptive C-UAS solutions can passively detect commercial drones, track their flight, and identify their model and unique serial number and ID, enabling distinction between friendly and enemy drones. Once a UAS becomes a threat, the system pairs itself to the drone, landing it safely in a predefined zone.

Sentrycs solutions can be deployed either standalone or as an integral part of broader multi-layered C-UAS solutions, to enable effective protection against different kinds of drones without creating interference or disruptions.

Although a library-based technology, its combat-proven systems showcase quick time-to-market and easy upgrade capabilities, supporting most of the latest commercial drone models, including DJI devices that have gone through the company’s latest firmware upgrade.

This ongoing commitment to innovation delivers on the promise of long-term adaptive C-UAS solutions – no matter what challenges the future brings, Sentrycs is set to overcome them.