The age of low-end drone warfare is officially upon us, and nowhere is this reality being made more apparent than along the Gaza-Israel border. Weeks of violent protests by Palestinians along the fenceline have given birth to 'incendiary kites' as a robust asymmetric warfare tactic that we detailed in a previous piece. Now Israel is putting hobby-like drones to use to knock down those flaming kites, and even to release tear gas on protesters from across the fenceline.
Facing more indiscriminate wildfires as a result of the Palestinian's incendiary kites, the Israeli Defense Forces came up with a novel countermeasure to a very simple yet vexing tactical problem. They enlisted local drone racers to set up along the border and fly their maneuverable and fast drones into the kites or snag them with fishing hooks to bring them down. The program kicked off officially last Friday and it's not clear just yet how successful the racers were over the weekend, but video posted on Youtube did show a drone hauling away a kite caught on a hook:
Also, on Saturday a kite with what appeared to be an improvised explosive device was found in Israel—the first of its kind. Haaretz writes:
"The explosive did not detonate when it landed Saturday near the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, a few hundred meters from Israel's border with Gaza. Police sappers that examined it suspected that it was a dud or even a fake. However, they say it could point to a new phase in Gazans so-called "kite terrorism" against Israel, one they fear could be used Monday as tens of thousands of Gazans will protest on the border as part of Nakba Day."
Today there have also been a number of headlines about Israel using quad-copter-like drones to dispense large volumes of tear gas onto Palestinian protesters below. The action along the Gaza-Israel border has been especially intense and deadly over the last 24 hours as the U.S. officially opened its new embassy in Jerusalem. At least 52 Palestinians died and many more were wounded as tens of thousands swarmed the fencelines in protest of the opening.
The idea of using drones to dispense tear gas isn't brand new. A number of companies have been marketing solutions to do just that to military and law enforcement agencies for a number of years. But Israel seems to have been first to use the tactic back in early March of 2018. Since then it has been used sporadically on multiple occasions, but today market the largest and most high-profile employment of the tear gas-wielding drones ever.
The use of drones to deploy tear gas comes primarily in two flavors. One is using the drone as a dispersal platform, actually spreading the aerosol formula as it flies overhead. This is less invasive, less dangerous, and less effective than the other form, in which a larger drone drops canisters of tear gas down onto protestors below. Doing so does risk harm from the impact of the falling canisters. It seems that the IDF has quickly gone from the first method to the second over the last two months.
For years I have been trying to paint a picture of how low-end drones would change conflict zones of the future. Now, many of these predictions have come to pass. From dropping bomblets on vehicles in urban battles, to attacking traditionally hardened targets with large groups of expendable drones that can overwhelm traditional air defenses that were really never designed to defend against such diminutive targets, the age of drone warfare has arrived. In fact, Israel, in particular, has been farther ahead of the curve in this regard than any other country.
But don't just assume that using these flying machines even for less-than-lethal purposes is something left to conflict areas thousands of miles from U.S. shores. Here at home, local police departments have been cleared to use similar devices on American citizens.
Nearly three years ago, North Dakota outright legalized the use of drones for 'less than lethal' law enforcement purposes, including remotely firing rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas at crowds. Since then, there is an expanding market for law enforcement drones that can launch small payloads—like tear gas canisters—and the decreasing price of drone technology is making them more accessible to local police departments.
But some may see the adaptation of drones as less than lethal weapons platforms as a low-rung subject despite its dystopian connotations. The bigger debate is over allowing domestic drones to actually kill people. And that is not some science fiction proposition. History was made in Dallas, Texas in 2016 when a robot was used to kill an active shooter suspect, an act that largely a sign of things to come. You can read our whole report on it here.
Regardless of how creepy all of this is, it will increasingly become the new normal. Putting all feelings aside, for Israel in particular, the tear gas drones make great tactical sense as they allow the IDF to disperse large crowds that congregate well beyond the fenceline, out of the reach of IDF personnel. And they do so without putting those soldiers at risk. At the same time, the drone represents a form of tyranny in many parts of the world—a faceless judge, jury, and executioner that drastically benefits the technologically superior foe. But it's worth remembering, that as the technology continues to proliferate and becomes more accessible, it will increasingly work both ways.
Just as ISIS leveraged hobby and homemade drones to rain down bomblets on Iraqi forces, Palestinians could one day sick their own hobby drones on IDF forces or Israeli interests across the border. In fact, the developed state's drone monopoly, big and small, is quickly coming to an end, and the technology is actually far more concerning when in the hands of non-state or even individual actors.
Above all else, the operational use of drones as tear gas dispersal platforms is yet another reminder that they can be used to deliver far more deadly aerosols. Considering drones are now being used to dust crops, even off the shelf technology could give nefarious actors with the world's most deadly weapons the ability to rain down death on unsuspecting citizens below in an incredibly efficient and low-risk manner.
This is likely one major reason why Israel has taken such a hard line when it comes to foreign drones—most notably those operated by Iran and their proxies—penetrating its airspace. Considering it is thought that Syria retains chemical weapons capabilities, the possibility that such a deadly payload could end up on an Israeli-bound drone is terrifying to say the least.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com