Houthi terror attack on Abu Dhabi: Why weaponised drones are hard to track

UAVs that can carry one to two kilos of explosives have become a global security challenge


Anjana Sankar

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File. Image used for illustrative purpose.
File. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Published: Wed 19 Jan 2022, 3:50 PM

Small, remote-controlled drones are changing aerial warfare and are posing a huge security challenge, defence experts have said.

UAE authorities said early investigations point to the use of drones in the deadly attacks targeting three ADNOC fuel tankers in Mussafah and an under-construction area of the Abu Dhabi airport on Monday. Three people were killed, and eight others were injured in the attack.

Riyadh Kahwaji, a UAE-based security and defence analyst, said drones have become the 'weapon of choice' for terror groups like the Houthis because of their ability to evade radars and hit soft targets.

"Daesh has used it extensively in Syria, in Iraq. Iranian militias have used it in Iraq. It was used to assassinate the Iraqi PM last year. So, it is something terrorist organisations are using widely to hit targets a few miles away."

He said autonomous weaponised UAV's (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have become a global security challenge. "They come in different sizes and capabilities, the problem is there is no one-size-fits-all counter-measure to deal with them," said Kahwaji.

Though these UAVs can fly only low altitudes and short distances, they can carry one to two kilos of explosives.

"They can easily penetrate a soft target and explode using a detonator. It is difficult to prevent these attacks because of the difficulty in detecting the drones," Kahwaji said.

Though investigations are yet to confirm where the drones used in the Abu Dhabi attack originated, Kahwaji said it is clear that they did not come from Yemen.

"They are too small to fly all that distance. What any security analyst would tell you is that they were launched from a close distance, maybe from a boat as the targets are close to the coast."

Drones are like suicide bombers

Echoing the same sentiment, Retd Major General Dhruv Katoch from India said there is no real antidote for drones. "They are like suicide bombers - a great security challenge but difficult to stop them from hitting civilian targets.

"It is like the internet. You cannot do away with it. Drones are the future of commerce, and it is already widely used for delivering goods and essentials.

"Drones pose a huge threat because they can be controlled to move from point A to B using a remote control and are laden with kilo or two of explosives. It is difficult to track them."


Drone defence is complicated and expensive

Experts say building a firewall to prevent future drone attacks is an expensive and complicated process.

"There are companies that are now working to provide solutions. You can build a complex radar system around strategic locations and interconnect them. But it is an expensive and excruciatingly complex process," said the expert.

Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy, said drones have proven to be a "major game-changer" in multiple armed conflicts over the past two years, including Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ethiopia, and Syria.

"For members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), having a regional integrated air and missile defence system would be an important step to take in their defence from similar types of attacks down the line," he added.

According to Katoch, the countries can build a geo-fencing system around strategic targets to deter UAVs from entering those zones. "But the best defence against drones is to strengthen national intelligence and create awareness among the public to report any suspected movement of drones," said Katoch.

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