ISIS is planning to kill thousands of people by sending drones delivering radioactive material over Western cities—or so British Prime Minister David Cameron warned last week at a summit on nuclear terrorism in Washington. Rather than carrying a “dirty bomb” to disperse material with explosives, the drones would work like toxic crop sprayers—”dirty drones” perhaps—and cause thousands of casualties. The British PM urged other world leaders to consider urgently how they would counter this new threat.
Saddam’s Drone That Wasn’t
The threat of unmanned aircraft from Iraq spraying weapons of mass destruction may sound familiar. That’s because it’s exactly what Colin Powell warned us Saddam Hussein was up to in 2003: “This effort has included attempts to modify for unmanned flight the MiG-21, and with greater success an aircraft called the L-29…. Iraq could use these small UAVs which have a wingspan of only a few meters to deliver biological agents to its neighbors, or if transported, to other countries including the United States.” British PM Tony Blair made the same claim in the infamous “sexed-up dossier” on Iraq he delivered to support the case for going to war.
The L-29 is a jet trainer, made in the 1960s in what was then Czechoslovakia. The Iraqis had 70 of them in their fleet of aging Eastern Bloc aircraft and apparently converted several to be flown unmanned. According toan intelligence report of the time, these could “be fitted with chemical and biological warfare (CBW) spray tanks.” After the U.S.-led invasion, the Iraq Survey Group wasnever able to establish whether the L-29s really could have been equipped with spray tanks; instead, they may have beenused for reconnaissance or simply as surface-to-air missile training targets. (The Iraqis knew their air defences needed improving).
In any case, GlobalSecurity.org reports the Iraqis did not have much success with their improvised drone conversion. On its third flight in 1997, the L-29 flew 45 miles before the controllers lost the signal and it crashed. Subsequent attempts to correct the problem using a stabilizer cannibalized from a Chinese cruise missile were “largely unsuccessful.”
A DIRTY BOMB IS NOT A ‘WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION’ BUT A ‘WEAPON OF MASS DISRUPTION’
Fast-forward to the modern day, however, and it is vastly easier for anyone to get their hands on an unmanned crop sprayer. Agriculture has been tagged as the biggest growth area for drones, which offer low costs and high precision compared to typical spraying airplanes. Companies likeHSE LLC already provide a full range of remote-control crop dusters, from the portable electric RHCD02 to the piston-engined Hercules-50 and its payload of more than 100 lbs. Spraying drones may seem exotic now, but with industry giant DJI (builders of all those obnoxious consumer drones) now making its own budget octocopter sprayer, the mantra that there will be more drones than tractors on American farms starts to looks plausible.
In addition, police forces have already adapted various drones to deliver tear gas. So in theory, spray drones with a range of several miles should be easy for terrorists to obtain.
But the spray drone is the easy part. Robert Bunker, a counterterrorism expert at TRENDS Research & Advisory, says that planning such attack is difficult because it involves several steps, all of which have to go right. “It’s a more complex operation than is generally understood,” Bunker tells Popular Mechanics.
To start with, ISIS would need to get its hands on highly radioactive material. In the scenario proposed by David Cameron, terrorists buy it over the Dark Web. In reality, any such WMD offer online is likely to be a sting by the authorities. ISIS has stolen some uranium from an Iraqi university, but it is the heavy kind and would not be effective if dispersed. “Putting it in a dirty bomb is a pretty silly idea,” nuclear expert Bob Kelly told NBC News.
Let’s says ISIS could get the right material. It would then need to contain the stuff safely to prevent prematurely martyring the team working on the dirty drone. Low-grade material would not be an effective weapon, but high-grade material is incredibly hazardous to work with, especially for amateurs.
Read the Remainder at Popular Mechanics